‘You Just Don’t Understand’ Linguist Deborah Tannen explores the differences between women and men in Conversation

Posted by: on Oct 25, 2013 | No Comments


Deborah Tannen is Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships.  She is best known as the author of the international bestseller ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.’ Published in 1992, it has been translated into 30 languages and is credited as the book that brought gender differences in communication style to the forefront of public awareness.

As a specialist in linguistics, Tannen is interested in how the conversational styles of men and women differ. Because using language is a learned social behaviour, communication isn’t as simple as saying what you mean.  She believes that the seemingly senseless misunderstandings that haunt our relationships can in part be explained by the different conversational rules by which men and women play. She also believes that understanding what goes wrong in conversations between women and men will enable us to find a common language and strengthen our relationships.

Tannen’s observations resonate: in fact I am sure I have had this exact conversation on the M4 with my husband….

Example 1. A married couple was in a car when the wife turned to her husband and asked, “Would you like to stop for a coffee?”

“No, thanks,” he answered truthfully. So they didn’t stop.

The result? The wife, who had indeed wanted to stop, became annoyed because she felt her preference had not been considered. The husband, seeing his wife was angry, became frustrated. Why didn’t she just say what she wanted?

Unfortunately, he failed to see that his wife was asking the question not to get an instant decision, but to begin a negotiation. And the woman didn’t realize that when her husband said no, he was just expressing his preference, not making a ruling.

Tannen explains gender miscommunication in terms of the different worlds of words that men and women grow up with. Social norms encourage boys to be openly competitive and girls to be openly cooperative. These different situations and activities result in different ways of behaving. For men conversation is often a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, talking is a way to exchange confirmation and support.

Example 2. When Josh’s old high-school friend called him at work to say he’d be in town, Josh invited him to stay for the weekend. That evening he told Linda they were having a house guest.

Linda was upset. How could Josh make these plans without discussing them with her beforehand? She would never do that to him. “Why don’t you tell your friend you have to check with your wife?” she asked.

Josh replied, “I can’t tell my friend, ‘I have to ask my wife for permission’!” To Josh, checking with his wife would mean he was not free to act on his own. It would make him feel like a child or an underling. But Linda actually enjoys telling someone, “I have to check with Josh.” It makes her feel good to show that her life is intertwined with her husband’s.

This story also strikes a chord with me. A few weeks ago my husband lent our car to a friend for a couple of days without telling me. It was about the worst weekend he could possibly have chosen to do something like that and I could not figure out why he didn’t ask me first. I bithched and moaned like crazy but when I read this story, I realised that he would have felt totally pussywhipped if he had not had the authority, or the autonomy, to make that decision on his own.

Example 3.  Rebecca chat happily to her husband Stuart about everything that is on her mind but when she asks him what he is thinking about he says “nothing”.   Stuart keeps his innermost thoughts to himself. To him, like most men, talk is information and he doesn’t feel that talk is required at home. This irritates Rebecca because he will quite happily hold center stage in a social setting, telling jokes and stories. He uses conversation to claim attention and to entertain and Rebecca feels hurt that her husband can tell relative strangers things he has not told her.

Tannen suggests that men are equally confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. 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” and this leaves the woman feeling as if he is trying to diminish her problem or cut her off. To many men, a complaint is a challenge to come up with a solution. Similarly many women confuse their partners by asking for advice when what they really want is comfort and understanding.

Tannen has been criticised for having a tendency to focus on examples where incorrect male interpretations of female words result in a loss of intimacy but nevertheless, her work provides valuable observations of the way well intentioned exchanges can suddenly go wrong.

Example 4. Eve had a benign lump removed from her breast. When she confided to her husband, Mark, that she was distressed because the stitches changed the contour of her breast, he answered, “You can always have plastic surgery.”

This comment bothered her. “I’m sorry you don’t like the way it looks,” she protested. “But I’m not having any more surgery!” Mark was hurt and puzzled. “I don’t care about a scar,” he replied. “It doesn’t bother me at all.” “Then why are you telling me to have plastic surgery?” she asked. “Because you were upset about the way it looks.”

Mark thought he was reassuring Eve by telling her there was something she could do about her scar but she was looking for emotional support, not solutions.

The way in which conversations with our partners play out can massively affect our mood so finding a way of reducing conflicts and encouraging altruistic communication is important. Couples who are capable to unpicking difficult conversations and honestly identifying the feelings associated with statements that may have been interpreted as hurtful or hostile can get to the root of the ‘difference’ and then resolve their issues in a more constructive way.

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