Gender Difference in Nonverbal Communication

This paper examines the issue of gender differences in the use of hand gestures as a form of nonverbal communication. While there is perhaps a tendency, at least in the U.S., to assume that women surpass men in this particular category, the research does not support that assumption or hypothesis.

Indeed, a number of scholars and experts seem to have conducted studies that show quite the opposite. Men and women are probably equally likely to use hand gestures, depending on the situation and their audience. It is likely that the type of gesture is the most distinguishing aspect between males and females, with women using more limited or smaller gestures, while men tend to make grander gestures that are larger in a spatial sense. This seems to concur with the idea that men are likely to be much more expansive in relation to the space that is available to them in any given situation.

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If we are to believe the old adage, ‘actions speak louder than words,’ there is potentially a wealth of information that can be derived from a person’s nonverbal methods of communication. Mannerisms can often tip us off to whether or not a person might be nervous or somehow uncomfortable. Lack of eye contact or shifting position can be an indicator that we might not have another person’s full attention or indeed, that perhaps what we are saying is boring and is therefore incapable of sustaining another person’s interest.

There is a lot written about the reasons of nonverbal communication, as well as how different actions can be interpreted. This study, however, examines the specific frequency in which hand gestures are utilized in the course of conversation or interaction, as well as determining if there are any distinct gender differences between how often men and women are likely to use gestures as a means of communication. Review of the Literature

A number of different actions and behaviors can be viewed as nonverbal behavior. However, the scope of this paper will be limited to the use of hand gestures as nonverbal communication. Specifically, gestures in this capacity can consist of signals or deliberate movements that act as a significant manner in which to communicate without having to use words. Included within this category are such things as pointing, waving, and the use of fingers to signify number values. Although the observational approach to identifying frequency in the use of hand gestures is far from being an exact science, Wietz notes, “Gestures themselves are nothing more than movements of expression which have been given special qualities by the urge to communicate and to understand” (1979).

Prior to the advent of language, gestures were arguably the simplest way for people to communicate with one another. With the development of language, however, the necessity for using hand gestures was essentially eliminated. Human beings started out with an innate drive to use their hands to communicate, thus, a large majority of the population continues to utilize hand gestures, often as a means of adding an additional dimension or emphasis to their spoken words.

Author Louann Brizendine published a book in 2007 entitled The Female Brain. In one particular aspect of the book she focuses on the sex differences that exist in ‘communication events’ per day, suggesting that women have an average of 20,000 communication events per day, while men are likely to have approximately 7,000 communication events per day.

Communication events include spoken words, of which women are estimated to produce between 6,000 to 8,000 per day, as well as an additional 2,000 to 3,000 vocal sounds and anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 gestures, facial expressions, and other body language signals. By contrast, it is suggested that men use between 2,000 to 4,000 words per day, along with 1,000 to 2,000 vocal sounds, and as few as 2,000 to 3,000 gestures and body language signals.Citing some earlier studies that report findings that clearly dispute Brizendine’s numbers, Penn professor Mark Liberman outlines the outcome from the study conducted by Dovidio, Brown, Heltman, Ellyson and Keating (1988).

Liberman notes: How people communicate does depend on the interaction between who they are and what they’re communicating about! But averaging over topics so as to focus on the sex differences, we find (if I’ve done the arithmetic correctly): the guys did more of the talking, as is often the case — 43% more, this time, which is a bigger difference than one usually sees. What about non-verbal signals? Well, the guys did 80% more gesturing, and produced 623% more chin thrusts.

The gals did 28% more smiling, 7% more self-touching, and 46% more laughing. Dovidio et al. didn’t count eyebrow motions, it’s true. But there’s certainly no support here for the view that women produce about three times more “communication events” on average than men do (Liberman, 2006).

As mentioned previously, the study of the use of hand gestures is certainly not an exact science. Given that fact, the research on such studies, particularly with respect to gender differences is somewhat lacking. The research that can be found often needs to be extracted from within other more generalized studies on nonverbal communication. Research published in 4Imprint Blue Papers in 2009 suggests, “In terms of gender, men and women often speak different dialects of body language, too. Studies have shown that:

  • Women tend to gesture less than men.
  • Women break eye contact sooner than men do.
  • Women stand slightly closer to one another, face each other more, and touch more than men do with other men.
  • Men tend to cross their arms or protect their torso less than women do.
  • Men prefer side-by-side interaction, while women prefer face-to-face.
  • Men send and interpret fewer facial expressions than women.
  • Men naturally tend to have more relaxed of aloof postures (4Imprint, 2009).

In their extensive studies on group dynamics, O’Connell and Cuthbertson suggest that there is a clear distinction not only in the frequency with which men and women tend to use hand gestures, but that there are differences in the manner in which men and women behave respectively when gestures are involved.

The authors note, “In general, women use fewer gestures, use fewer one-handed gestures, tape their hands, and keep their hands down on the arms of the chair. Men use more gestures, including one-handed gestures, move their legs and feet, and tap their feet… It is important to understand these subtle differences in how women and men use nonverbal communication. A gesture or facial expression may not mean the same thing from one person to the next, particularly when gender is concerned” (O’Connell, Cuthbertson 2008, p. 102). Finally, students at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a particularly interesting and relevant study, which focused solely on the use of hand gestures.

The subjects involved were between the ages of 17 and 22 years old, male and female. While the observations were conducted in an informal manner and setting, some interesting results emerged from the study. A total of 12 cases were observed which changed the configuration of the participants (male-male, male-female, and female-female) and the study was conducted twice.

Using a system that categorized five different types of gestures (i.e., greeting, identification, hands still, meaningless, and angry), the researcher set out to determine if his hypothesis would be confirmed: basically, that American women were much more likely to use their hands during conversation than American males were. The results were mixed, at best. Certain configurations revealed greater use of hand gestures by the males, while others revealed that women also used hand gestures somewhat frequently. Men seemed to be more likely to use larger and more spatially expansive gestures than women (Mensah, 2000)


In order to examine and compare the frequency with which men and women use hand gestures, On June 17, 2010, a team of three was positioned at a mall food court at 6:30 p.m. in the evening. At the first checkpoint position, a total of 25 people were observed, 10 males and 15 females. At 7:30 p.m. the checkpoint position was moved to the west side of the mall, where a total of 12 males and 10 females.

Finally, at 8:30 p.m. the final checkpoint position was moved to the east side of the mall, where another 10 males and 15 females were observed. During every point of observation, the number of times hand gestures were used by males and females respectively was recorded in order to determine if there was any tendency for one gender to use hand gestures more than the other (See Table 2, Appendix).


According to our research, nonverbal communication between males and females do not show a significant difference between the way male and females communicate nonverbally. The research shows that males and females are just about even with their gestures, or lack thereof, when communicating nonverbally.  For example, the rate females use gestures differ dramatically between the 6:00 P.M. hour and the 7:00 P.M. hour.

The same can be stated for the males, between these hours. The observation during the 8:00 P.M. hour, for males and females, mirror the 6:00 P.M. hour. The exploration into the use and frequency of hand gestures between males and females is one that is likely to need much more structured study, if there is to be any true degree of significance with regard to the outcome. The hands, in particular, are used in various ways, both in different geographic areas of the world and by people of different cultures.

The manner in which a simple introductory handshake is carried out can set the tone for a relationship. Gallois notes, “Culture plays a significant role when one analyzes the frequency of hand gestures during conversation. An early study of hand gestures was performed amongst Anglo-Americans, Jews from Eastern Europe, and Italians from New York. The results showed that Americans gestured using mainly the hand and wrist, Jews gestured using the lower half of the arm only, and Italians tended to gesture using the whole arm from the shoulder down” (Gallois, 1997).

While there is no one conclusion that has emerged from such studies, one result did seem to occur somewhat consistently. It is perhaps widely believed and accepted that women are likely to always be the ones who are actively engaged in hand gestures. While this might have been true at one time in history, studies suggest that men are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, to frequently use hand gestures during conversation.

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Gender Difference in Nonverbal Communication. (2016, Jun 24). Retrieved from