Who talks more, men or women? The seemingly contradictory evidence is reconciled by the difference between what I call public and private speaking. Most men feel comfortable doing “public speaking,” while more women feel comfortable doing “private” speaking. Another way of capturing these differences is by using the terms report-talk and rapport-talk.

For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is placed on displaying similarities and matching experiences. From childhood, girls criticize peers who try to stand out or appear better than others. People feel their closest connections at home, or in settings where they feel at home–with one or a few people they feel close to and comfortable with–in other words, during private speaking. But even the most public situations can be approached like private speaking.

For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, and holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking, or imparting information. From childhood, men learn to use talking as a way to get and keep attention. So they are more comfortable speaking in larger groups made up of people they know less well–in the broadest sense, “public speaking.” But even the most private situations can be approached like public speaking, more like giving  a report than establishing rapport.

Avoiding Mutual Blame

The difference between public and private speaking can be understood in terms of status and connection. It is not surprising that women are most comfortable talking when they feel safe and close, among friends and equals, whereas men feel comfortable talking when there is a need to establish and maintain their status in a group. But the situation is complex, because status and connection are bought with the same currency. What seems like a bid for status could be intended as a display of closeness, and what seems like distancing may have been intended to avoid the appearance of pulling rank. Hurtful and unjustified misinterpretations can be avoided by understanding the conversational styles of the other gender.

When men do all the talking at meetings, many women–including researchers–see them as “dominating” the meeting, intentionally preventing women from participating, publicly flexing their higher-status muscles. But the result that men do most of the talking does not necessarily mean that men intend to prevent women from speaking. Those who readily speak up assume that others are as free as they are to take the floor. In this sense, men’s speaking out freely can be seen as evidence that they assume women are at the same level of status: “We are all equals,” the metamessage of their behavior could be, “competing for the floor.” If this is indeed the intention (and I believe it is often, though not always, is) a woman can recognize women’s lack of participation at meetings and take measures to redress the imbalance, without blaming men for intentionally locking them out.

The culprit, then, is not an individual man or even men’s styles alone, but the difference between women’s and men’s styles. If that is the case, then both  can make adjustments. A woman can push herself to speak up without being invited, or being to speak without waiting for what seems like a polite pau0se. But the adjustment should not be one-sided. A man can learn that a woman who is not accustomed to speaking up in groups is not as free as he is to do so. Someone who is waiting for a nice long pause before asking her question does not find the stage set for her appearance, as do those who are not awaiting a pause, the moment after (or before) another speaker stops talking. Someone who expects to be invited to speak (“You haven’t said much, Millie. What do you think?”) is not accustomed to leaping in and claiming the floor for herself. As in so many areas, being admitted as an equal is not in itself assurance of equal opportunity, if one is not accustomed to playing the game in the way it is being played.

Excerpted from You Just Don’t Understand, Chapter 3, pages 76-77 & 94-95.