Gender and Conversation: Why are Women More “In Synch” Than Men?
When we have a face-to-face conversation with another person, or when we see others conversing, we might sometimes notice that the people’s conversational behaviors, such as gesturing and nodding, are somewhat synchronized. An extreme example of physical synchrony during social interaction is a dance in which the two partners are perfectly in step with one another. But routine conversations are also highly synchronized. Very shortly after one speaker sways or moves in a particular way, for example, the other person in the conversation will often perform a very similar movement.
Routine interactions such as making a toast or shaking hands would not be possible without a high degree of synchrony. But synchrony happens even when it is not physically required for communication. For instance, the timing of gestures, head nodding, and postural sway can be exquisitely coordinated—especially if the speakers are physically and psychologically close to each other.
Researchers have called this broad category of activity interpersonal coordination, which is a fundamental phenomenon in human interactions. Frank Bernieri and Robert Rosenthal, who have conducted important research on this topic, defined interpersonal coordination as “the degree to which the behaviors in an interaction are nonrandom, patterned, or synchronized in both timing and form.” As some of my examples suggest, an important form of interpersonal coordination is synchrony—the convergence of rhythm and timing. Studies have shown that synchrony contributes to smooth interactions and promotes social bonds. But how does synchrony emerge? What facilitates it?
Studies have shown that certain personality traits enhance synchrony. In fact, prosocial characteristics such as helpfulness and agreeableness can facilitate synchrony even when the prosocial orientation is created by an experimenter. Affiliation motives also increase synchrony. People who have a stronger desire to be with other people are more likely to synchronize with other’s actions. Furthermore, speakers show less synchrony than usual if they believe the person with whom they are interacting is untrustworthy, but they exhibit more synchrony than usual if they believe the other person is honest.
Our interest was in whether gender influences synchrony. Why gender? Research has demonstrated that females are more prosocial than males—that is, they help other people more and are generally friendlier and more pleasant. Because prosociality enhances synchrony in face-to-face conversations, we expected women to show a greater degree of conversational synchrony than men. To test this idea, we conducted three experiments on unstructured conversations between two strangers of the same gender.
In all of our studies, we assessed synchrony by measuring the degree to which a physical action on the part of one person in a conversation led to a corresponding physical action on the part of the other person. Rather than relying on subjective human ratings of synchrony, we used a software program that objectively calculated synchrony from videotape footage. In one experiment, participants engaged in a five-minute unstructured conversation, while in another experiment, they engaged in one of two types of conversations—in one, one of the participants talked and the other one listened, and in the other type, both participants talked.
In both experiments, conversations between two women showed a higher degree of synchrony than conversations between two men. Furthermore, synchrony was much higher if both participants talked compared to if only one talked while the other listened. Apparently, restricting one person’s participation in the conversation lowered synchrony, suggesting that synchrony is a highly interactive phenomenon.
In a third study, participants engaged in two six-minute unstructured conversations. Again, we found that conversations that involved two women showed greater synchrony. In addition, synchrony between women was more stable than synchrony between men across the two conversations. The female–female conversations exhibited more synchrony when they had already achieved synchrony in their previous conversation. This suggests that female participants took into account the positive history of their first conversation together as they went into the second interaction. In contrast, the males’ level of synchrony in their second conversation was not influenced by their first interaction. These findings support studies suggesting that women possess higher interpersonal sensitivity than men.
Our findings are the first evidence demonstrating a gender difference in synchrony in face-to-face conversations. Women seem to achieve higher synchrony in conversations because of their strong prosocial traits. Women also seem to maintain more stable and consistent levels of synchrony relative to men.
A future direction for our work would be to examine mixed-gender interactions. A mixed-gender interaction may achieve lower synchrony if the male became an encumbrance to its synchrony. However, it’s also possible that male participants who do not display positive engagement while conversing with a man will do so when talking with a woman.
It would also be interesting to examine the consequences of synchrony for close relationships. Are married couples who are typically “in synch” during their routine conservations happier? Are workers whose conversations are more synchronous more productive? Are relationships marked by more synchronous conversations more stable and enduring? We hope that future research will answer such important questions.
For Further Reading
Fujiwara, K., Kimura, M., & Daibo, I. (2019). Gender differences in synchrony: Females in sync during unstructured dyadic conversation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 1042-1054. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2587
Hall, J. A., Gunnery, S. D., & Horgan, T. G. (2016). Gender differences in interpersonal accuracy. In J. A. Hall, M. Schmid Mast, & T. West (Eds.), The social psychology of perceiving others accurately (pp. 309–327). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ken Fujiwara is a lecturer at the Osaka University of Economics, where he studies nonverbal synchrony.