Gender and Conversation

So while reading through blogs on MySpace (of all places), I read a summary about this old article written by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown, titled “Sex, Lies and Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?“. And as much as I love generalizations about gender, I found the article pretty enlightening and funny to read.

It basically briefly discusses the way women talk with one another versus men, as well as the “talkative” factor of each person in different sitatuations. When women talk with other women it’s eye to eye, it’s supportive, it’s reassuring, and it’s the intimacy from the talking that acts like the friendship’s “cement”. Whereas relationships between men are more often characterized by the things they do together, their positions during conversation at angles from one another, and were found to dismiss each other’s problems. As such, combining these two tendencies can lead to a train wreck. I’ve never been a fan of paraphrasing when the original words do quite well on their own, so here’s an excerpt.

“You’re not listening”

But often when women tell men, “You aren’t listening,” and the men protest, “I am,” the men are right. The impression of not listening results from misalignments in the mechanics of conversation. The misalignment begins as soon as a man and a woman take physical positions. This became clear when I studied videotapes made by psychologist Bruce Dorval of children and adults talking to their same-sex best friends. I found that at every age, the girls and women faced each other directly, their eyes anchored on each other’s faces. At every age, the boys and men sat at angles to each other and looked elsewhere in the room, periodically glancing at each other. They were obviously attuned to each other, often mirroring each other’s movements. But the tendency of men to face away can give women the impression they aren’t listening even when they are. A young woman in college was frustrated: Whenever she told her boyfriend she wanted to talk to him, he would lie down on the floor, close his eyes, and put his arm over his face. This signaled to her, “He’s taking a nap.” But he insisted he was listening extra hard. Normally, he looks around the room, so he is easily distracted. Lying down and covering his eyes helped him concentrate on what she was saying.

“You’re not being supportive”

A parallel difference caused a man to complain about his wife, “She just wants to talk about her own point of view. If I show her another view, she gets mad at me.” When most women talk to each other, they assume a conversationalist’s job is to express agreement and support. But many men see their conversational duty as pointing out the other side of an argument. This is heard as disloyalty by women, and refusal to offer the requisite support. It is not that women don’t want to see other points of view, but that they prefer them phrased as suggestions and inquiries rather than as direct challenges.

Women perceive such responses as belittling and unsupportive. But the boys seemed satisfied with them. Whereas women reassure each other by implying, “You shouldn’t feel bad because I’ve had similar experiences,” men do so by implying, “You shouldn’t feel bad because your problems aren’t so bad.”

There’s other fun stuff too, like the tendencies to switch topics, why one person may be more or less talkative with their partner in private or why the other is more talkative in public, etc. Anyway, thought the article was an interesting read and might be useful to consider when in a communication bind. If anything I saw myself in a lot of the situations it described (with less dramatic flare, I hope) and in doing so, it made me laugh. Not to say that my boyfriend’s entirely off the hook though (no ideas now).

  1. I’m sooo off the hook and you know it!

    • Jamie
    • May 30th, 2006 11:36pm

    Ryan translation: “This sooo means I can play video games anytime she starts talking.”

    Haha, well before I start a small epidemic of “off the hook”–sentiment:
    If you read the entire article it implies it’s a two-way road. An example given in the link: girl can stop accusing boy of not “caring” and boy can look at girl in the face while she’s talking every once in a while. ;)

  2. Interesting read. Thanks! :)