Saturday, October 10, 2009

Speaking science: In the land of nods

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: men and women communicate differently.

Are you nodding your head yes at this little nugget of truth? Are you nodding it vigorously and frequently? Several studies show that women engaged in conversation tend to nod more often and with more emphasis than men. What’s more, men and women both seem to pick up on this rhythm, and nod more frequently when talking to a woman than they do when chatting with a man.
What’s really going on here? Does a man feel like he has to act more like a woman when he speaks with one? Do women think it’s all right to be a “yes” woman among their own, but hold their heads in check when speaking with a man?

The answer has less to do with social manners and more to do with simple motion, say researchers at the University of Virginia’s Human Dynamics Lab: people adjust their nodding to match the head movements of their conversational partners, no matter who they are.

At the UVA lab, psychologist Steven Boker and his colleagues recorded the head movements of male and female students in the lab as they had short conversations with another student via video link. As the pair chatted about sports and spring break, the researchers used an elegant piece of technology to change the appearance of the video student’s face and voice in real time. Sometimes the students sitting in the lab saw a female face on the video screen when they were actually speaking to a man, and vice versa. (Watch the video above to see how this worked.)

But the researchers didn’t do anything to change the head movements of the video speakers, and they discovered that movements—not appearance--seemed to make all the difference .If a video speaker was a head-nodding woman, but her computerized image looked like a man, the lab students nodded right along with her.

"We found that people simply adapt to each other's head movements and facial expressions, regardless of the apparent sex of the person they are talking to," said Boker. “This is important because it indicates that how you appear is less important than how you move, when it comes to what other people feel when they speak with you.”
The head nod and other facial expressions such as lifted eyebrows are part of what language researchers call back channel cues. As a public speaker, it’s a route that can help you establish rapport with your audience. If you can get them nodding along with you, Boker said, you may be able to activate pathways in their brains that help them empathize with your feelings.

So yes, men and women do differ when it comes to communication styles. But maybe it’s reassuring to know that this is one case that has less to do with the battle of the sexes, and more to do with a meeting of the minds.

(Editor's note: This article in our "Speaking Science" series on the research behind public speaking was written by contributor Becky Ham.)

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Speaking science: Why bullets don't work

Speaking science: Gesture to speak better