Society's Expectations for Men and Women
Gender roles and society’s expectations are subjects that inevitably receive a great deal of attention. Put in terms of body language though, the factors influencing society’s expectations for men and women vary tremendously across cultures, industries, geographical areas, and even within families. What was very cut and dried a century ago is now wide open for changing interpretation.
The Traditional Role of Body LanguageMen and women have been using body language to communicate with each other for thousands and thousands of years, if not even longer. For most of that time, however, society’s expectations for proper male and female roles were narrow enough that only a narrow range of body language was typically required.
The traditional Western view of gender roles was that men were the family ‘breadwinners’ and women were the family ‘caregivers’. Within these roles, the majority of body language occurred to support and fulfil expectations of these roles. For instance, men used their body language to compete for wives, jobs, dominance, and the like. Women, on the other hand, used their body language to compete for husbands, nurture children, show submission, and the like.
These are extremely broad stereotypes, of course, but the rigors of life dictated that the majority of time and energy be focused on simply surviving rather than engaging in more sophisticated forms of communication.
Changing Gender Roles Challenge Society’s ExpectationsAs the world modernised, traditional gender roles began to change. Women expanded into traditionally male roles and men had to adapt to these changes in the workplace and at home. What used to be very predictable – get married, man supports the family, woman tends to home and children – became much less so. The kinds of body language and non-verbal cues that society expected from men and women had to change as well.
Think about something as simple as a woman going to work in an office environment. The issues related to body language are huge, such as:
- Men and women interacting professionally rather than romantically
- Men and women balancing dominance vs. submission
- Men and women with different interpretations of body language, such as touching, smiling, and the like
More Body Language Than EverOver time, as society modernised and people were better able to devote time and energy to things beyond simply surviving, the use and meaning of body language expanded dramatically. Men and women were able to spend more time interacting in business, recreation, entertainment, and general social situations. Since body language differs so tremendously in these different situations, it only makes sense that the body language ‘vocabulary’ of men and women began to expand.
For instance, think about men and women sitting in a bar having a drink. A century ago, it would have been unthinkable for a reputable woman to do this, but now it’s common and accepted. Now think about how this change in society’s expectations has also changed body language. In modern times, a woman entering a bar will carry herself with confidence, comfort, and freely make eye contact with other patrons regardless of their gender. A man in the bar might not even notice her coming in, or if he does notice her, is likely to be comfortable making eye contact and expressing other positive body language.
But what about the woman from one hundred years ago? Chances are if she even entered the bar at all, her body language was tentative, uncomfortable, and included very little eye contact. A man in the bar would instantly notice her because her presence would be a rarity, and his body language would likely be more focused on protecting her from other men and getting her out of the bar.
Although society’s expectations for men and women have changed a great deal, they still tend to lag behind actual activity. In other words, the men and women who pioneer new roles for their gender often deal with ‘old’ social expectations as they blaze a new trail. Their persistence, though, eventually nudge society’s expectations along the way.