Archives for posts with tag: you just don’t understand

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.

The Mixed Metamessages of Help

As with offers of sympathy, there is always a paradox entailed in offering or giving help. Insofar as it serves the needs of the one helped, it is a generous move that shows caring and builds rapport. But insofar as it is asymmetrical, giving help puts one person in a superior position with respect to the other. Borrowing the terminology of Gregory Bateson, we may regard the help as the message–the obvious meaning of the act. But at the same time, the act of helping sends metamessages–that is, information about the relations among the people involved, and their attitudes toward what they are saying or doing and the people they are saying or doing it to. In other words, the message of helping says, “This is good for you.” But the fact of giving help may seem to send the metamessage “I am more competent than you,” and in that sense it is good for the helper.


Another way to think about metamessages is that they frame a conversation, much as a picture frame provides a context for the images in the picture. Metamessages let you know how to interpret what someone is saying by identifying the activity that is going on: Is this an argument or a chat? Is it helping, advising, or scolding? At the same time, they let you know what position the speaker is assuming in the activity, and what position you are being assigned.

Sociologist Erving Goffman uses the term alignment to express this aspect of framing. If you put me down, you are takinga superior alignment with respect to me. Furthermore, by showing the alignment that you take with regard to others, what you say frames you, just as you are framing what you say. For example, if you talk to others as if you were a teacher and they were your students, they may perceive that your way of talking frames you as condescending or pedantic. If you talk to others as if you were a student seeking help and explanations, they may perceive you as insecure, incompetent or naive. Our reactions to what others say or do are often sparked by how we feel we are being framed.

Excerpted from You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, pages 31-34.

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.

One of the most lucid, illuminating works in the field of communication and rhetoric, this work by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., uncovers overarching patterns in the way men and women speak.

Men and women prioritize different outcomes in communication that reflect on their evolutionary imperatives. Unfortunately, in  a male-driven culture these habits are routinely judged as “normal” for men and “different” for women. And as Tannen notes, “it is only a short step–maybe an inevitable one–from “different” to “worse.”

Yet Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, does not write with an axe to grind. Her uncompromising, matter-of-fact prose, enhanced by a litany of examples, is refreshingly lacking presumption in a field (science) rife with alienating language. This is a down-to-Earth subject that everyone can relate to.

The primary points of interest are:

  • Men and women have different but equally valid conversational styles
  • Talk between men and women is cross-cultural communication
  • Men dominating status in society does not sufficiently explain the differences in genderlect
  • Women are easily prejudiced against via their communication style: women who talk like men are judged harshly, while women who talk like women are often assumed to be submissive and manipulative