You Just Don't Understand
by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.

William Morrow and Company, 1990

Reviewed by Laura Morrison

That men and women are on different wavelengths when it comes to communicating is probably not news to you. However, "Can We Talk?" the cover story of the December issue of New Age Journal, provides some excellent new perspectives on this age-old problem. The author, Peggy Taylor, interviewed sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, who has written a book called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Tannen's research shows that the differences between the communication styles of men and women go far beyond mere socialization, and appear to be inherent in the basic make up of each sex.

Tannen first noticed these differences when studying videotapes another researcher had made of best friends asked to have a conversation together. In contrast to the girls, boys were extremely uncomfortable with this request. Girls in all age groups would face each other and immediately began to talk, eventually ending up discussing the problems of one girl. Boys, on the other hand, sat parallel to each other and would jump from topic to topic--centered around a time when they would do something together.

Tannen observed that,

"For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They're friends with the boys they do things with."

It's not hard, from even these simple observations, to see the potential problems when men and women communicate. Women create feelings of closeness by conversing with their friends and lovers. Men don't use communication in this way, so they can't figure out why their women are continually talk, talk, talking. Eventually, many men just tune their women out. The ubiquitous image of the housewife at the breakfast table talking to her husband who has his head buried in the newspaper comes to mind.

Tannen notes that men are confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. One of these ways she calls "troubles talk." She says, "For women, talking about troubles is the essence of connection. I tell you my troubles, you tell me your troubles, and we're close. Men, however, hear troubles talk as a request for advice, so they respond with a solution." When a man offers this kind of information the woman often feels as if he is trying to diminish her problem or cut her off.

In his eyes, he's being supportive, because men don't talk to each other about their troubles unless they really do want a solution; talking about their problems is wallowing in them. The man doesn't realize that his woman was simply trying to establish a certain kind of intimacy with him--inviting him to reciprocate and share himself with her. Because of these essential differences in approach, Tannen says that the most common complaint she hears from men about women " that women complain all the time and don't want to do anything about it...Men misunderstand the ritual nature of women's complaining."

An interesting dance emerges from these different approaches: The woman, craving closeness and intimacy with her man, talks to him about her problems with friends, family, her job, etc. She seeks to have her man respond as her girlfriends have always done, and talk with her about his concerns. The man, however, hears these conversations as requests for advice, not intimacy. He considers the problem and offers a solution, or dismisses the issue, as the boys he knew always did. When his woman continues to go on about these same concerns, showing no movement to consider his advice, he becomes confused and eventually angry; he begins to believe that his woman is an expert at talking about nothing. The woman begins to feel that her man doesn't care about her because he won't talk to her in a way that feels intimate.

It is important for women to understand that men's communicating is all about status. Think about all those nature shows you've ever seen on PBS. The prime goal of male beasties is to be able to mate; to do this they must be powerful enough to challenge the lead males in the herd. As they grow up, they bide their time by establishing a pecking order. When a beastie is big and strong enough to have most of the other males "under" him, he is ready to take on the "old man." If he wins the fight, he gets to mate with the females of his choice (and they will mate only with him).

Tannen has found that human males behave in exactly the same way. She discussed the research of Marjorie Goodwin, who studied boys in Philadelphia for a year and a half. "She found that boys give orders as a way of gaining social status. The high-status boys gave orders just to maintain their dominance, not because they particularly needed the thing done. And the boys who were being told what to do were low status, by virtue of doing what they were told."

This dynamic is important to remember when looking at another major area of miscommunication between men and women. Women cannot understand the resistance men seem to have when asked for assistance or consideration of some kind or another. Women must remember the above scenario and understand that, for men, doing what they're asked to do means they have lost status in that relationship. Men often feel that women are trying to manipulate them. What a woman might see as a simple request--no big deal-- is seen by her man an attempt to manipulate him into a "one-down" position.

Tannen discusses this issue further:

"Women want men to do what we want. We want them to want to do what we want, because that's what we do. If a woman perceives that something she's doing is really hurting a man, she wants to stop doing it. If she perceives that he really wants her to do something, she wants to do it. She thinks that that's love and he should feel the same way about her. But men have a gut-level resistance to doing what they're told, to doing what someone expects them to do. It's the opposite response of what women have." She reminds readers that, of course, there are men who are very helpful toward their women. "But if a man is going to be touchy, it's more likely to go in that direction. Whereas if a woman is insecure, she's more likely to go in the other direction, [and] be super- accommodating."

In sharp contrast to the communication style of men, which seeks to establish and maintain status and dominance, women's communicating is more egalitarian, or rule-by-consensus. When women get together they seek the input of the other women present and make decisions based on the wishes of all. Tannen notes that this type of communication style is becoming more important, and is in alignment with the Japanese style of management. Men doing business with Japanese companies often have to radically change their style of communicating to accommodate the more personal and intimate approach of the Japanese businessman.

One may get the impression from this discussion that women's style of communicating is superior to men's. Indeed, since the dawning of the women's movement there have been many declaring that men just don't know how to communicate (because they don't communicate like women). Sensitivity courses galore have been offered in hopes of teaching men to communicate more like women. However, Tannen states that there is nothing pathological about men's style of communication, and that women's communicating also has it's down-sides.

One fact I found particularly fascinating follows from women's communication style of consensus-building. With women, consensus means thinking alike, being in agreement, being the SAME! When one woman in a group decides to go her own way in some matter, there is often trouble: "If a girl does something the other girls don't like, she'll be criticized, or even ostracized...What do girls put other girls down for? For standing out, for seeming better than the others...I mean, really--no wonder people talk about women's fear of success!" In shock, Peggy Taylor, asked, "So you're saying the female mode prevents excellence?" And Tannen replied, "It prevents displaying it."

Pretty interesting, eh? I imagine that there are a fair number of women out there who have experienced that kind of isolation from their friends(?) at some time in their lives. It is unfortunate that exceptional women not only find themselves up against men who are threatened by their success, but are often faced with their sisters throwing stones in their path too. This need for consensus--for being alike--is something women need to explore further if we sincerely wish to support each other in advancing our individual goals and dreams.

In closing, Tannen makes the point that both sexes need to understand the inherent differences in their communication styles so that they don't expect the impossible. There is middle ground where men and women can meet and find understanding. Women must learn that the kind of intimate talk they have with their girlfriends should remain just that. Trying to turn your man into a girlfriend will usually fail because men, in general, don't create feelings of closeness in that way. Men, too can understand that when their woman is talking, she is attempting to connect to him--she's not just talking to talk, nor is she trying to readjust the status of their relationship. By sharing more of himself he shows her, in a way she can understand, that he's not pushing her away; that he does indeed love her and want to be close to her.

After reading this article, it's easy to see that a major source of fuel for the battle between the sexes is this vastly different way of communicating. Perhaps if men stopped expecting women to communicate like men, and women stopped trying to get men to communicate like women, we would have enough energy left to appreciate how each sex compliments the other in a wonderful way. Life would be pretty boring if men and women were the same (and I'm not referring to naughty bits here!) Viva la difference-- what a challenging way to learn about life and each other!