It’s a fairly well-known fact that women are the primary health care decision makers in most families. The National Partnership for Women and Families estimates that 80 percent of health care decisions are made by the woman in a family. It’s also no secret that men and women have different communication styles. As health communicators we study the obvious and subtle differences in communication techniques between the genders, and we’ve all seen them in practice in every day life. The question, then, is how do we target our messages to reach men so that they take ownership of their own health and well-being? The Department of Health and Human Services has taken note of the silence regarding health issues that impact men’s health, and has incorporated them into the goals for Healthy People 2020. For example, many of the goals center on increasing the proportion of men taking preventive action in their sexual health. Even in Healthy People 2010 it was apparent that there was a gap in health indicators between men and women. Some of these indicators focus on the quality and years of life as they differ between men and women. So how do we close this gap? How do we get men to be more proactive in health care decision making?
Helen Osborrne, M.Ed., OTR/L, and President of Health Literacy Consulting, provided some great ideas for making communication fit the needs of a gender-specific audience.
- Start by asking for your reader’s experience. Then shape the communication to what they need.
- Men tend to appreciate clear, straightforward explanations, so focus communication on the statistics of the event. For example, in the event of a miscarriage, the mother may want words of comfort, while the father may want to know the probability of miscarriage happening again.
- Although communication is gendered, don’t get wrapped up in providing too many gender-biased descriptions or war metaphors. With that said, sometimes those analogies make sense to men, and cause them to think further about their actions. The following incident was reported in The Wall Street Journal, and retold in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, “In the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali was a brash and fearless boxing sensation still known as Cassius Clay, he boarded a plane to fly to a big fight. While preparing for takeoff, a flight attendant noticed that the boxer had not fastened his seat belt. She asked him to buckle up, but he ignored her. When she asked again, he replied, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” Her retort: “Superman don’t need no airplane. Buckle up.” And he did.
The same article from Harvard also refers to this behavior as, the macho or ostrich mentality or John Wayne Syndrome. Regardless of the name you give it, men are putting themselves in danger when they decide to ignore signs or symptoms that their bodies are giving them.
It may be hard to get men to see the necessity of regular check-ups for themselves (something that may be more apparent with respect to their automotive care), but in creating communication that resonates with a man’s desire for straightforward, number-centric information, the health care gap between the genders could narrow.