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 "...is 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...