Many men engage the world “as an individual in a hierarchical social order, in which [they] are either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.

[Women], on the other hand, approach the world as an individual in a network of connections. In this world, conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others’ attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and isolation. Though there are hierarchies in this world, too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than o f power and accomplishment.

Women are also concerned with achieving status and avoiding failure, but these are not the goals they are focused on all the time, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of connection., And men are also concerned with achieving involvement and avoiding isolation, but they are not focused on these goals, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of opposition.

Intimacy and Independence

Therefore a convenient and accurate heuristic is to view women’s conversational goals in the guise of intimacy and men in the guise of independence

“If intimacy says, “We’re close and the same,” and independence says, “We’re separate and different,” it is easy to see that intimacy and independence dovetail with connection and status. The essential element of connection is symmetry: People are the same, feeling equally close to each other. The essential element of status is asymmetry: People are not the same; they are differently placed in a hierarchy.

Differences in how my husband and I approached the same situation, which previously would have been mystifying, suddenly made sense. For example, in a jazz club the waitress recommended the crab cakes to me, and they turned out to be terrible. I was uncertain about whether or not to send them back. When the waitress came by and asked how the food was, ,I said that I didn’t really like the crab cakes. She asked, “What’s wrong with them?” While staring at the table, my husband answered, “They don’t taste fresh.” The waitress snapped, “They’re frozen! What do you expect?” I looked directly up at her and said, “We just don’t like them.” She said, “Well, if you don’t like them, I could take them back and bring you something else.”

After she left with the crab cakes, my husband and I laughed because we realized we had just automatically played out the scripts I had been writing about. He had heard her question “What’s wrong with them?” as a challenge that he had to match. He doesn’t like to fight, so he looked away, to soften what he felt was an obligatory counterchallenge: He felt instinctively that he had to come up with something wrong with the crab cakes to justify my complaint. (He was fighting for me.) I had taken the question “What’s wrong with them?” as a request for information. I instinctively sought a way to be right without making her wrong. Perhaps it was because she was a woman that she responded more favorably to my approach.

Excerpted from You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, pages 26-31.

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