gender and gender role differences in smiling and communication consistency

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  • Sex Roles, VoL 19, Nos. 9/10, 1988

    Gender and Gender Role Differences in Smiling and Communication Consistency 1

    Amy G. Halberstadt 2 Vassar College

    Cynthia W. Hayes Adelphi University

    Kathleen M. Pike Yale University

    This paper investigates gender and gender role differences in smiling and in communication consistency across verbal and facial channels. College stu- dents" conversations about their emotional experiences were analyzed for smil- ing frequency and duration, and verbal transcripts were rated for degree of positivity. Students also filled out a gender role questionnaire. Women smiled more than men, especially where discussing happy/positive topics compared to sad/negative topics. Masculinity interacted with gender to influence smil- ing behavior, but gender roles could not account for the gender differences in smiling. Gender differences in communication consistency also appeared; women were more consistent across channels than men were. Gender roles could not account for the gender differences in channel usage. A situational role interpretation is generated for future research.

    This paper investigates gender differences in smiling behavior. It attempts to replicate the widely supported finding that women generally smile more

    ~Some portions of this research were presented at the meeting of the Eastern Psychological As- sociation, Philadelphia, April 1983.

    The authors thank the Vassar College Research Committee for financial support, Karen Littell for data collection and preparation, Martha T. Mednick for sharing her unpublished work, and Judith A. Hall, Daphne Bugental, Anthony Weston, and Steve Ellyson for many helpful comments on the manuscript.

    2To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of Psychology, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York 12601.


    0360-0025/88/11004)589506.00/0 1988 Plenum Publishing Corporation

  • 590 Halberstadt, Hayes, and Pike

    than men, and explores the degree to which gender roles can account for this difference between men and women. Second, it explores gender differ- ences in the relationship between verbal and facial channels of communica- tion: Do men and women differ in their degree of consistency across the verbal and facial channels, and if so, to what degree can gender role orientations account for the differences?

    The gender difference in smiling is a clear and persistent effect; in a meta-analysis of 18 studies that reported the direction of the gender effect, females smiled more frequently in 17 studies, and significantly so in 12 of them (combined p _< 10-a; Hall, 1984). Many writers have hypothesized about the smiling gender difference, although the possibile functions and corre- lates of this difference have just begun to be explored (e.g., Hall & Halber- stadt, 1986).

    One popular explanation for gender differences is that smiling behavior is influenced by psychological gender roles, and that women smile more than men because smiling is an integral part of the nurturant, expressive role that is socially appropriate for women to adopt (e.g., Frances, 1979; Henley & LaFrance, 1984; Weitz, 1976). Specifically, smiling ought to be associated with an interpersonal orientation, social warmth, and expressiveness, i.e., the characteristics traditionally associated with femininity.

    Some related evidence suggests that this hypothesis is reasonable to test. Studies on perceptions of smiling have found smiling to be associated with perceived femininity and friendliness (Halberstadt & Saitta, 1987) and with warmth and politeness (Deutsch, LeBaron, & Fryer, 1987). Also, actual ob- servations of smiling in a laboratory study indicated that androgynous men smiled more than masculine men and feminine women smiled more than an- drogynous women (LaFrance & Cramen, 1980). These results suggest that femininity and smiling are positively associated for males, whereas mascu- linity and smiling are negatively associated for females. 3 Thus, in the present study, we examined the independent contributions of femininity and mascu- linity to smiling, and we considered these contributions in both men and wom- en. As reported below, however, the relationship were not as obvious as expected.

    In terms of consistency between the verbal and facial channels, the first and most well-known study examined mothers' and fathers' communications to their children (Bugental, Love, & Gianetto, 1971). The positivity of fathers' facial expressions was consistent with the positivity of their verbal statements.

    aln recent years, it has been noted that the use of gender role inventories has been severely over- extended (e.g., Deaux, 1984; Spence, 1984). Although gender roles cannot he expected to ex- plain all gender differences, they should be able to explain some differences, and the smiling difference, for the reasons described above, is a good candidate.

  • Smiling and Gender 591

    In contrast, no relationship at all appeared for mothers, who seemed to smile without regard for the positivity of their own verbal messages. Interpreting this as evidence that women's smiling is less sincere and less trustworthy, Bugental et al. entitled their paper "Perfidious Feminine Faces," implying that the "popular notions with respect to the greater deviousness or duplici- ty of women" (Bugental, Kaswan, & Love, 1970) have justification. The im- age of women's smiling as nontrustworthy has become rather popular, and is reported in many articles and books on psychology and gender.

    A decade later, in a study of alcoholic and nonalcoholic families, Jacob, Ritchey, Cvitkovic, and Blane (1981) found only a trend for wives to be more inconsistent than their husbands during discussions about their personal opin- ions on five topics. Noller (1982) found a nonsignificant gender difference in couples' discussions of their marriage when she controlled for their fre- quency of positive visual behavior and negative verbal behavior. However, no gender differences were found in two studies on families with delinquent and nondelinquent youths (Lessin & Jacob, 1979, 1984), or in a study of college students' role playing of a medical admissions interview (Mednick, Hillabrant, & Carr, 1987).

    Given that the notion of women's perfidy remains popular despite these somewhat mixed results, we attempted to gather more data on gender differ- ences in communication consistency, and to employ gender roles as possible explanations, should a difference occur. A gender role explanation is a natural extension from Bugental et al. (1971), who suggest that women's greater smiling with critical or negative statements may allow women "to meet middle-class expectations of the good mother role" (p. 318) and/or to meet expectations of them as submissive or as compliant.

    In summary, our goals were to assess the gender differences in smiling and in communication consistency, and to attempt to account for gender differences with gender role explanations.



    Sixty-four students were videotaped while conversing for 15 minutes with one of eight confederates who were other students unknown to the sub- jects. After getting acquainted, each subject discussed topics s/he defined as positive or happy and as negative or sad, and listened to the confederate do the same. Students had consented to be audiotaped but were videotaped without their knowledge. After the session, students engaged in other tasks, were fully debriefed, and gave their consent for the videotapes to be used for research purposes. Twelve weeks later subjects were sent a gender role

  • 592 Halberstadt, Hayes, and Pike

    inventory to fill out; 43 subjects returned the questionnaire. Two of the authors recorded all smiles, their duration, and their corresponding verbal statements. Four verbal statements not accompanied by a smile were also recorded for each subject. Each verbal statement was rated by 10 of 40 judges on a 7-point scale for degree of positivity. Data were then intercorrelated and subjected to analyses of variance (ANOVAs).

    Subjects and Confederates

    Thirty-two male and 32 female undergraduates met for the first time with one of eight (four male, four female) undergraduate confederates chosen from another university so that partners would not previously be acquaint- ed. Half of the pairs were same gender and half were cross gender (see Hal- berstadt, 1986, for methodological details and for findings regarding family expressiveness).


    The conversations were conducted in a pleasant laboratory room. The subject and confederate sat on opposite sides of a table, approximately four feet apart. The chairs were arranged so that when the subject looked at the confederate, a full-face recording was obtained by the camera behind the one-way mirror. Subjects were told that they were participating in a "pilot" study and that the "real" subjects would be family members who would ex- perience the same procedure, i.e., conversing about emotional experiences.

    Subjects and confederates participated in three types of discussion for about 5 minutes each. In the first, which the confederate always began, the participants were asked to introduce themselves and get acquainted. In the second and third discussions, both of which the subject began and the con- federate finished, the participants were asked to discuss the most sad/nega- tive and most happy/positive experience that they could, while still feeling comfortable in the situation. The order of the second and third discussion choices was random, but blocked within both subject and confederate gender. The confederates' major task was to sit in the nonvideotaped position, and to participate in as natural a way as possible. 4