Gender differences in nonverbal cues

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests men and women use and interpret nonverbal communication differently.

Eye contact

Women usually maintain a gaze longer than do men. However, women are less likely to stare at someone; the research shows that they break eye contact more frequently than men. This is not a contradiction; men are simply less likely to make the eye contact, but when they do, they may get "locked in" without realizing that eye contact is being returned.


Edward Hall's [The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966)] spatial zones generally are drawn closer for women than for men. Women approach more closely, and seem to prefer side-by-side conversations. The latter may explain differences in use of space; men prefer more face-to-face conversations, and people are generally more aware of space to the front than to the side.

Facial expressions

Research suggests that women are more skilled at both sending and interpreting facial expression than are men. It may be more practice; other research suggests that women use more facial expression in general and smile more in particular.

Gesture and posture

Although women use more facial expression, they appear to use fewer and more restrained gestures than men.


Men are more likely to initiate touch with others than are women. Women are touched more than men. Also, women are more likely to associate touch with personal warmth and expressiveness.
For more information about gender differences in nonverbal communication, consult the following material which served as source material for this overview:

Ivy, D., and Backlund, P. (1994). Exploring gender speak: Personal effectiveness in gender communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pearson, J., Turner, L., and Todd-Mancillas, W. (1991). Gender & communication. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don't understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Copyright © 1997 by Donnell King.

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