Gender differences in listening signals

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

The cybernetic analogy is apt, since Tannen adopts the terms messages and metamessages from the great Gregory Bateson, describing metamessages as ‘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’. Thus:

Not only do women give more listening signals, according to Maltz and Borker, but the signals they give have different meanings for men and women, consistent with the speaker/audience alignment. Women use ‘yeah’ to mean ‘I’m with you, I follow,’ whereas men tend to say ‘yeah’ only when they agree. The opportunity for misunderstanding is clear. When a man is confronted with a woman who has been saying ‘yeah,’ ‘yeah,’ ‘yeah,’ and then turns out not to agree, he may conclude that she has been insincere, or that she was agreeing without really listening. When a woman is confronted with a man who does not say ‘yeah’ – or much of anything else – she may conclude that he hasn’t been listening. The men’s style is more literally focused on the message level of the talk, while the women’s is focused on the relationship or metamessage level.

deborah tannenTannen’s useful and admirably clear book shows that women’s and men’s communicative styles aren’t just different but are often actively at cross purposes. And because most people assume a great deal and tend to extrapolate others’ inner states and attitudes based on their own behavioural patterns, including linguistic ones, misjudgements are extremely common.

Conversely, if we are more aware of different styles of communication, not least the significant differences between the major ‘genderlects’, we can foster better conversations and mutual understanding, and suffer less unnecessary confusion, hurt, and dissatisfaction. Tannen continues:

To a man who expects a listener to be quietly attentive, a woman giving a stream of feedback and support will seem to be talking too much for a listener. To a woman who expects a listener to be active and enthusiastic in showing interest, attention, and support, a man who listens silently will not seem to be listening at all, but rather to have checked out of the conversation . . .

You Just Don’t Understand gave me the insider-outsider feeling I sometimes get when reading works of primatology. Men typically are concerned with status, specifically their position in the hierarchy of a given set of humans. I’ve known men who were endlessly preoccupied with being perceived as the alpha male in a group, or resentful that they weren’t, while it seems I’m anomalous in not giving two hoots about status or hierarchy.

Tannen concedes that her book’s generalisations risk reductionism and obscuration of differences (as does my simplification of gender as binary here), but she succeeds in reaching conclusions that are by and large fair, insightful, thought-provoking, and helpful. She also uses anecdotal evidence to telling effect:


* First published by Virago Press, whose name I discussed briefly in a recent post about slur reappropriation.


24 Responses to Gender differences in listening signals

  1. Tim Martin says:

    I remember reading You Just Don’t Understand in college and thinking that it was incredibly enlightening. In part, I think it highlighted a few of the reasons why my mother and I were often at odds with each other, and I was greatful for that insight.

    However, in the intervening years I’ve wondered if the book wasn’t too simple. I’ve noticed that differences in the ways individual people use minimal responses seem much larger than the average differences between genders. I’ve also found that whether a person wants to “find solutions” when talking about their problems or wants to simply “express their feelings” (another male/female difference, according to Tannen) also varies greatly from person to person, or even from time to time within the same person. If I tried to guess, based on gender, what kind of conversation a person was looking for I would be wrong much of the time.

    I don’t recall – but does Tannen talk about the effect sizes of the differences she describes?

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘differences in the ways individual people use minimal responses seem much larger than the average differences between genders’

      This is my experience too, but I have learned not to completely trust anecdotal evidence, even my own. And like you I would be loath to guess a person’s conversational aims based on their gender, but then statistical data (and arguments based thereon) apply not to this or that person but to people generally, when enough of them inform the data to make it credible.

      I don’t recall anything specific about effect sizes in the book, and it largely steered clear of percentages and such figures, but there may be more concrete data in the works she cited.

  2. adamf2011 says:

    I’m wondering if these observations hold across different cultures.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Probably some but not all. It would be interesting to find out which, and to what extent.

      • alexguenther says:

        Japanese for example is a … I forget the technical term… “acknowledgement language” or something, where it’s really important to exaggeratedly, constantly nod and make agreement noises while the other person is talking. Obviously this has nothing to do with agreeing with what they say in any sense. Makes conversation pleasant, though.

      • Stan Carey says:

        No doubt, Alex. I think linguists call these signals backchannel cues, but I don’t know what term applies to a language that especially values them.

  3. Interesting. I’m conscious that I’m close to her generalisation about women but am anomalous in that I would not say “yes/yeah” to something I don’t agree with. I do absolutely care strongly about giving verbal or non-verbal clues to show I’m listening – using stuff like “mmm” etc – and when someone listens to me silently I find that disconcerting, so in that sense I do fit the description, but I care far too much about truth to say “yes” without agreeing.

    I do wonder, though, how much of this is cultural – I’m an Israeli living in the UK and I’m conscious that a lot of the local culture has rubbed off onto me over the years. When speaking to fellow Israelis it seems to me that there’s a lot less of this going on, that in our culture it’s not normal to do all the mmming and nodding and that people are sort of surprised at my behaviour. I wonder if the research was done in one particular culture, with the assumption that this is universal.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think “Yeah, no” can be useful in this regard (though I don’t think I use it myself), since it allows a listener to sympathise or indicate closeness or regard for the speaker but also to contradict something they’ve said.

      Silent listening depends a lot on the people involved. I have a friend who is unusually silent when listening, but is nonetheless unmistakeably engaged: making good eye contact, smiling, nodding robustly, etc.

      Most of Tannen’s sources are American, it seems, and that cultural slant is certainly reflected in her thesis. But I don’t believe she assumed her arguments apply universally.

      • Oh yes, nodding and eye contact can help a lot – I realise I was thinking of phone conversations when I commented, which is when the mmm-type noises make such a huge difference. (I can’t imagine using “yeah, no” unless I was feeling particularly argumentative…)

        Sorry for assuming that Tannen assumed that this stuff is universal.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Ah yes, ‘listening noises’ play a more essential role in politeness during phone conversations. Both of my sisters use ‘Yeah, no’ quite regularly, and for various purposes.

    • alexguenther says:

      In my experience Israelis are the loudest and least self-conscious or conversationally dainty people on Earth, in a good way

      • ha, yes, we do tend to be rather loud and non-dainty :) nice that you see it as a positive thing – when I first came to England I kept unintentionally offending people, just by speaking in the way that’s normal for us.

  4. mazblast says:

    Getting the so-called listener to take their eyes and minds off their electronic Mommy’s nipple (also known as their cell phones) is the first and hardest step in getting them to listen, regardless of gender.

  5. Roger says:

    Re “yeah” not really meaning “yes”.
    Cp. German, where “ja” often has to be supported by “wohl”,
    and does not really mean “ja”, especially if associated with “na”.
    This came up at the Nuremburg Trials, where translators
    were cautioned not to translate an unsupported “ja” as “yes”.
    “Na, ja” may approximate as “Well, now”, as a preliminary
    to something more specific. (Not that I was there, just from reading.)

  6. johnwhye415 says:

    As a man I will now be more aware of these gender based differences, thank you for pointing them out!

  7. Claire de Lune says:

    Fascinating, really want to check out that book now!

  8. […] men and women give “listening feedback” differently? Women make supportive sounds like: uh-huh, yeah, or mmm. According to author Deborah Tannen […]

  9. […] book featured in a post here in June on gender differences in listening signals, while long-time readers will have seen another Guy Deutscher work […]

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