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****You Just Don't Understand

Women and Men in Conversation

by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.

Reviewed July 13, 2005.
Ballantine Books, New York, 1990.  330 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (302 TAN).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#8, Relationships)

This book caught my eye when someone turned it back into the library.  It’s a fascinating and entertaining look at the different ways that men and women communicate.  Deborah Tannen doesn’t present one conversational style as better than the other, but she does show that men and women use talk in different ways.  If we can realize this, it will help us understand one another better.

One interesting study she looks at involved videotaping groups of girls and women in conversation and groups of boys and men.  They found that the girls and women of all ages and the boys and men of all ages had much more in common in their conversational styles than groups of opposite gender that were the same age.  Even as children, our conversational styles are different.  The author says that we speak in different “genderlects.”

“Although each style is valid on its own terms, misunderstandings arise because the styles are different.  Taking a cross-cultural approach to male-female conversations makes it possible to explain why dissatisfactions are justified without accusing anyone of being wrong or crazy.”

There’s plenty to delve into in this book.  I’ll give some examples, but please don’t think that the author’s approach is simplistic because of my summary.

In one chapter, she talks about women’s tendency to use conversation to build rapport, while men tend to talk to report, or give information.  “Another cartoon shows a husband opening a newspaper and asking his wife, ‘Is there anything you would like to say to me before I begin reading the newspaper?’  The reader knows that there isn’t—but that as soon as he begins reading the paper, she will think of something.  The cartoon highlights the difference in what women and men think talk is for:  To him, talk is for information.  So when his wife interrupts his reading, it must be to inform him of something that he needs to know.  This being the case, she might as well tell him what she thinks he needs to know before he starts reading.  But to her, talk is for interaction.  Telling things is a way to show involvement, and listening is a way to show interest and caring.  It is not an odd coincidence that she always thinks of things to tell him when he is reading.  She feels the need for verbal interaction most keenly when he is (unaccountably, from her point of view) buried in the newspaper instead of talking to her.”

In that section, she mentions how women share their troubles with one another in a sort of ritual lament.  “Earlier we saw that women’s inclination to engage in troubles talk is confusing to men, who mistake the ritual lament for a request for advice.  Now we can see that troubles talk is just one aspect of the ongoing intimate conversation that can be called gossip.  Not only is providing solutions to minor problems beside the point, but it cuts short the conversation, which is the point.  If one problem is solved, then another one must be found, to keep the intimate conversation going.”

There are some useful insights:  “How much easier men might find the task of conversation if they realized that all they have to do is listen.  As a woman who wrote a letter to the editor of Psychology Today put it, ‘When I find a guy who asks, “How was your day?” and really wants to know, I’m in heaven.’”

I liked the chapter about interrupting, which seems to be more a cultural phenomenon than one related to gender.  In my own family, interrupting is seen as cooperating and getting involved in the conversation—which doesn’t match my husband’s background.  She talks about high-involvement speakers, who interrupt to get involved in the conversation, versus high-considerateness speakers, who feel it is more important to let the other person have their say.  When those two types try to talk together, sometimes there are problems.  High-involvement speakers can talk away, happily interrupting one another, but feel the high-considerateness speaker in their midst isn’t very interested in what is going on.  High-considerateness speakers can happily talk together, but feel the high-involvement speaker in their midst is horribly rude and trying to dominate the conversation.

“The accusation of interruption is particularly painful in close relationships, where interrupting carries a load of metamessages—that a partner doesn’t care enough, doesn’t listen, isn’t interested.  These complaints strike at the core of such a relationship, since that is where most of us seek, above all, to be valued and to be heard.  But your feeling interrupted doesn’t always mean that someone set out to interrupt you.  And being accused of interrupting when you know you didn’t intend to is as frustrating as being cut off before you’ve made your point.”

Different purposes in conversation lead to the famous “dance” between men and women of withdrawal and pursuit.  “A man who fears losing freedom pulls away the first sign he interprets as an attempt to ‘control’ him, but pulling away is just the signal that sets off alarms for the woman who fears losing intimacy.  Her attempts to get closer will aggravate his fear, and his reaction—pulling further away—will aggravate hers, and so on, in an ever-widening spiral.  Understanding each other’s styles, and the motives behind them, is a first move in breaking this destructive circuit.”

The author’s concluding section nicely summarizes the benefits of reading this book:

“An obvious question is, Can genderlect be taught?  Can people change their conversational styles?  If they want to, yes, they can—to an extent.  But those who ask this question rarely want to change their own styles.  Usually, what they have in mind is sending their partners for repair:  They’d like to get him or her to change.  Changing one’s own style is far less appealing, because it is not just how you act but who you feel yourself to be.  Therefore a more realistic approach is to learn how to interpret each other’s messages and explain your own in a way your partner can understand and accept.

“Understanding genderlects makes it possible to change—to try speaking differently—when you want to.  But even if no one changes, understanding genderlect improves relationships.  Once people realize that their partners have different conversational styles, they are inclined to accept differences without blaming themselves, their partners, or their relationships.  The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation—or a relationship.  Nothing hurts more than being told your intentions are bad when you know they are good, or being told you are doing something wrong when you know you’re just doing it your way.”

“If you understand gender differences in what I call conversational style, you may not be able to prevent disagreements from arising, but you stand a better chance of preventing them from spiraling out of control.  When sincere attempts to communicate end in stalemate, and a beloved partner seems irrational and obstinate, the different languages men and women speak can shake the foundation of our lives.  Understanding the other’s ways of talking is a giant leap across the communication gap between women and men, and a giant step toward opening lines of communication.”

Review of another book by Deborah Tannen:
You're Wearing THAT?  Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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