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.
Tannen’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.