Key points

  • Women can undermine their power and credibility by exhibiting placating nonverbal behaviors and showing deference.
  • Research reveals that women are read people with greater accuracy than men, and are more responsive to nonverbal cues.
  • Men may admire covert power and control and feel less need to be able to read the nonverbal environment.

From head to toe, men and women in Western culture have entirely different repertoires of nonverbal cues. Many nonverbals are taboo from one gender to the other. Women have their private tacit code.

Although outwardly we all know how to behave, internally, certain mindsets still prevail at work and home. Attitudes drive behavior, and attitudes are not all that plastic or flexible. Despite everything, they’re tough to change. Holdovers can be found in a host of nonverbal subtleties: allowing interruptions and not managing turn-taking, smiling when she feels angry, condensing and coiling up when she feels threatened, or rolling her eyes as off-record, passive-aggressive behavior. These are what I refer to as micro-behaviors, and she gives off millisecond signals daily and communicates in code from the moment she walks in the door to work.

Pioneer linguist Edward Sapir captures the power of nonverbal cues and how we communicate in code in his book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech: “We respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.”

Women’s Skill in Reading Nonverbal Cues

Women also tend to be superior in reading nonverbal cues. Research reveals that women read people with greater accuracy and more responsive to nonverbal cues than men. A woman can decode behaviors and use this to her advantage. Women have a history of scrutinizing nonverbal behaviors and paying more attention. There are a couple of explanations for this nonverbal acuity. Some social scientists believe it results from women being second-class citizens: When you are in the power-down position, it requires you to read the environment to accommodate those in power. Others hypothesize it stems from being the primary caregiver of children.

Harvard University psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted the most critical study to analyze sex differences in decoding nonverbal behaviors. He developed the PONS test (Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity) to ascertain people’s ability to read nonverbal cues. The PONS consists of a series of video clips of young women expressing a range of emotions, including maternal love, gratitude, seeking forgiveness, seductiveness, jealous rage, and hatred. In each clip, the words are muffled. In addition, at least one of the nonverbal avenues is obscured. In some, only the facial expression is evident; in others, only the body movements and gestures. In testing boys and girls from third grade through college with the PONS, Rosenthal and his team found that, in 77 percent of the studies, women were superior to men in accurately judging messages communicated by facial expressions, body movement, and voice quality. Other research studies have confirmed that women are superior in interpreting facial expressions cross-culturally: It’s a universal attribute.

Although women are the champions in this interpersonal arena, they are not when it comes to power. Women can undermine their power and credibility by exhibiting placating nonverbal behaviors and showing deference. Women may be attempting to express themselves assertively but then cancel out that effort and make themselves fit better within their feminine role. They try to soften the blow by saying one thing and doing something else nonverbally; they send mixed messages and confusion results. Compensatory strategies like unwarranted, nervous giggling, or punctuating a serious sentence with a smile can also seem manipulative. What is she saying?

The age-old dilemma results in this incongruent match-up of verbal and nonverbal behavior. Does she want to appear like a leader with power and credibility or be interpersonally competent, likable, and approved by her team? Power and interpersonal competence do not have to be mutually exclusive. Women can learn to present themselves more robustly and convincingly as leaders should while maintaining their superior nonverbal abilities.

It is often said that you can read a woman like an open book. She is expressive and open with her nonverbal behaviors. You can determine if she is sad, mad, or glad. Unfortunately, this may not always be a positive attribute in some contexts in the business world. The core of power and credibility is the ability to control and monitor your behaviors. Some may interpret this as overly demonstrative and a sure sign of her instability. Women are often thought of as emotionally volatile. Paradoxically, rather than helping her, these extraordinary nonverbal expressive skills can perpetuate such stereotypes; they can become a social stigma. The combination of women’s lack of control coupled with highly expressive behavior can erode her authority.

Men’s Nonverbal Behaviors

While women struggle to accommodate interpersonal needs, men don’t place the same value on the skills required to do so. Men tend to admire covert power and control; they feel no need to be able to read the nonverbal environment or lubricate relationships. Feminine skills in the interpersonal arena don’t get the same respect among men.

Moreover, men’s nonverbal behaviors command attention and exude power. Men know how to direct and control their nonverbals. If they are unrestrained (that is, too expressive), not only do they give away their power, but they may also be denigrated. One man framed the problem during a corporate training session: “When I got my bonus and raise, I wanted to run home and jump up and down and squeal, ‘Guess what just happened to me!’ just like my girlfriend did when she got promoted. But I couldn’t. Men just can’t be animated or show excitement or joy the way women can.”

Men express their authority through nonverbal cues. Whereas a woman is expected to be and act small, a “man’s man” should be large—the taller, the better—and loud. He takes up lots of space, interrupts during conversations, makes expansive gestures, initiates touch, commands a bigger office, and pilots a more powerful car.

At the same time, he exerts control over his facial expressions (called “masking”) and tone of voice, using little or no inflection (this is analogous to a masked facial expression) and a lower pitch associated with authority. Everything nonverbal about a man must communicate control and power.

It’s important to emphasize that women do not need to become more like the stereotypes of men to demonstrate authority and power; they don’t need to emulate men’s nonverbal repertoire. That can backfire. Both men and women are put off by a woman acting like a man, and doing so risks her ability to influence and lead. How does she resolve this credibility gap? She creates a synergistic blend of masculine and feminine nonverbal communication through intensive self-monitoring and self-managing how she behaves. This is a challenge because nonverbal communication operates on a low level of awareness; we are not as conscious of our nonverbal behaviors as our speech patterns.

All the subtle nonverbal messages a woman enacts daily maintain the current social fabric and dictate the pecking order of who is perceived as powerful and who is perceived as powerless; her micro-behaviors support the macro-structure. The larger political structure needs these numerous minutiae of human interactions to sustain and reinforce it. Nonverbal cues fall somewhere on a continuum of social control that ranges from socialization or cultivation of minds at one extreme to the use of force at the other.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here