Different Communication Styles May Be At Root Of Many Problems Between African American Males And Females

October 08, 1998

ATHENS, Ga. -- African American males and females may speak the same language, but they often aren't communicating, and the issue may be males' discomfort with vulnerability, according to a just-published study by a professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia.

In what may be the first-ever study of interpersonal romantic speech patterns between African Americans, Dr. Veronica Duncan said that problems that persist to this day likely began when Africans came or were brought in slavery to America's shores several hundred years ago.

"When they were in Africa, there was a much greater balance and harmony between males and females, and in many ways they complemented each other and each received accolades in certain areas," said Duncan, an assistant professor and herself an African American. "The problem arose when we developed a culture in which there were dominating, controlling men and independent and assertive woman. Early on, African American males and females were set in opposition to each other."

Duncan's book, Towards Achieving Maât: Communication Patterns in African American, European American and Interracial Relationships, was just published by the Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. (Maât is an Egyptian term that means divine order, truth, justice, balance and harmony.)

While the speech differences and problems between African American males and females is at the heart of Duncan's book, it goes far beyond that single issue. Using surveys collected by her students over several years, Duncan examined numerous issues of communication between races and genders, and she co-authored many of the chapters in the book with a European American graduate student in speech communications from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

"There was a point in my career, when I thought that no white person could really understand the issues inherent in African American speech patterns," Duncan said, "but I no longer believe that's true. While the entire book is woven around Afrocentrism, we believe we are simply creating a space for different voices."

Duncan admits that the issue of communication problems between African American males and females is sure to be controversial. The real issue, she said, is that African American males have a culturally induced vulnerability that causes most to be extremely wary of opening themselves to hurt or danger, especially in romantic relationships. What the surveys did find is that an increase in communication skills means more intimacy.

While there are differences in communication patterns between African American males and females, there is also a broad scope of similarities among all the combinations of gender and race that Duncan and her colleagues examined. For instance, the use of verbal aggression seems to be similar for African American and European American males in dating relationships. Also, women of both races, as might be expected, are less verbally aggressive than men.

Still, there are enough differences to hint that much more study is needed, according to Duncan. In the issue of "self-disclosure" in romantic relationships, for example, European Americans routinely revealed more of themselves than their African American counterparts.

"We found that African American men were not comfortable with self-disclosure and that they didn't view it very positively," said Duncan. "The issue may be a concern that doing so could create a desire by their female companion for a deeper relationship."

The reasons for the reluctance of African American males to talk about themselves or to use communication to increase the intimacy of relationships can be traced, said Duncan, "to the effects of racism." The fact that African American males seem to be more verbally aggressive than African American females is troubling, Duncan noted, because that conflict could underlie many problems, from date rape to domestic violence.

Another area of marked differences is in conflict resolution. Duncan said that there are generally three models of problem-solving: non-confrontation, compromise and control strategies. Her research found striking differences in how the races solve problems, with European Americans more than twice as likely to use compromise than African Americans. She traces this, once again, to the issue of vulnerability among African American males, who, wary of self-disclosure, may be less likely to risk compromise.

"I want to make clear that I'm not saying that African Americans were perfect when they were Africans and hadn't left that continent," said Duncan. "But since those days, African American males and females seems to be operating from a European American world view that leads them away from working together and toward working against each other, and that has helped lead to the whole issue of vulnerability."

Duncan notes that she is sure some African American males and females will not be happy with the results of her research, but that she hopes it will be used a springboard for improving communications between them.

"Communication between us is a central and largely ignored issue," she said. "People have considered the symptom as the problem. It's time for us to move on and get beyond that."

(Editors/Writers: For information about Duncan's book Towards Achieving Mâat, contact David Tart at the Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. at 404-459-0009.)

University of Georgia

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