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Deborah Tannen: You Just Don’t Understand:
men and women in conversation
(William Morrow: 1990)


Intimacy is key in a world of connection, where individuals negotiate complex networks of friendship, minimize differences, try to reach consensus, and avoid the appearance of superiority, which would highlight differences.  In a world of status, independence is key, because a primary means of establishing status is to tell others what to do, and taking orders is a marker of low status. Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first, and men on the second.... Women expect decisions to be discussed first, and made by consensus. They appreciate the discussion itself as evidence of involvement and communication. But many men feel oppressed by lengthy discussions about what they see as minor decisions, and they feel hemmed in if they can’t just act without talking first. [And] when women try to initiate a freewheeling discussion by asking, ‘What do you think?’ men often think they are being asked to decide. Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence.... [And] it is easy to see that intimacy and independence dovetail with connection and status. The essential element of connection is symmetry: People are the same, feeling equally close to each other. The essential element of status is asymmetry: People are not the same; they are differently placed in a hierarchy.... [However,] ways of talking are rarely, if ever, composed entirely of one approach or the other, but rather are composed of both, and interpretable as either.... [Moreover,] much - even most - meaning in conversation does not reside in the words spoken at all, but is filled in by the person listening...[and] the likelihood that individuals will interpret someone else’s words as one or the other depends more on the hearer’s own focus, concerns, and habits than on the spirit in which the words were intended.”
(Tannen, pp.26-37)

As the Chomskyan mainstream of theoretical linguistics has - rather like neo-classical economics - increasingly distanced itself from the testing grounds of the real world, the importance of the hybrid disciplines at its borders has only grown. Of these, sociolinguistics is perhaps the most promising, especially now that it has grown more flexible, and open towards a wide variety of approaches to its subject matter. And now that, in the shape of Deborah Tannen, it has a distinguished practitioner well able to address a wider readership both fluently and intelligently. Tannen’s best book, You Just Don’t Understand (1990) also serves as a perfect starting point to explore the gender divide - as it is in argument that this is most typically enacted. As such, Tannen’s work allows us to explore cultural language difference fully, without even having to leave home. And these differences can be profound...


“Who talks more, men or women? The seemingly contradictory evidence is reconciled by the difference between what I call public and private speaking...[or] another way of capturing these differences is by using the terms report-talk and rapport-talk. For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is placed on displaying similarities and matching experiences. From childhood, girls criticize peers who try to stand out, or appear better than others. People feel their closest connections at home, or in settings where they feel at home - with one or a few people they feel close to and comfortable with - in other words, during private speaking. But even the most public situations can be approached like private speaking. For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence, and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking, or imparting information.... [And] even the most private situations can be approached like public speaking, more like giving a report than establishing rapport.”
(Tannen, pp.76-7)

Which is why men talk more in public, and women in private. And the pattern - although relatively straightforward in origin - ramifies through the whole gamut of communicative behaviours...


“The impression that women talk too freely, and too much in private situations is summed up in one word: gossip. Although gossip can be destructive, it isn’t always; it can serve a crucial function in establishing intimacy - especially if it is not ‘talking against’ but simply ‘talking about’.... [And] when men talk to their friends...they do gossip (although they may not call it that) in the sense of talking about themselves and other people. But they tend to talk about political rather than personal relationships: institutional power, advancement and decline.... [However,] in many ways, our society is becoming more private than public in orientation, more gossiplike in public domains...[and] men’s interest in the details of politics, news, and sports is parallel to women’s interest in the details of personal lives. If women are afraid of being left out by not knowing what is going on with this person or that, men are afraid of being left out by not knowing what is going on in the world. And exchanging details about public news rather than private news has the advantage that it does not make men personally vulnerable: the information they are bartering has nothing to do with them.”
(Tannen, pp.96-111)

“To the extent that giving information, directions, or help is of use to another, it reinforces bonds between people. But to the extent that it is asymmetrical, it creates hierarchy: Insofar as giving information frames one as an expert, superior in knowledge, and the other as uninformed, inferior in knowledge, it is a move in the negotiation of status.... Attuned to the metamessage of connection, many women are comfortable both receiving help and giving it, though surely there are many women who are comfortable only in the role of giver of help and support. Many men, sensitive to the dynamic of status, the need to help women, and the need to be self-reliant, are comfortable in the role of giving information and help, but not in receiving it.”
(Tannen, pp.63-71)

“That women have been labelled ‘nags’ may result from the interplay of men’s and women’s styles, whereby many women are inclined to do what is asked of them, and many men are inclined to resist even the slightest hint that anyone, especially a woman, is telling them what to do. A woman will be inclined to repeat a request that doesn’t get a response, because she is convinced that her husband would do what she asks, if only he understood that she really wants him to do it. But a man who wants to avoid feeling that he is following orders may instinctively wait before doing what she asked, in order to imagine that he is doing it of his own free will. Nagging is the result, because each time she repeats the request, he again puts off fulfilling it.”
(Tannen, p.31)

“Although both women and men complain of being interrupted by each other, the behaviors they complain about are different.... Whereas women’s cooperative overlaps frequently annoy men, by seeming to co-opt their topic, men frequently annoy women by usurping or switching the topic.... Interruption, then, has little to do with beginning to make verbal sounds while someone else is speaking, though it does have to do with issues of dominance, control, and showing interest and caring. Women and men feel interrupted by each other because of differences in what they are trying to accomplish with talk. Men who approach conversation as a contest are likely to expend effort not to support each other’s talk, but to lead the conversation in another direction...but, in doing so, they expect their conversational partners to mount resistance. Women who yield to these efforts do not do so because they are weak or insecure, but because they have little experience in deflecting attempts to grab the the conversational wheel, [and] they see steering the conversation in a different direction not as a move in a game, but as a violation of the rules of the game.”
(Tannen, pp.210-15)

This last, in particular, is well worth expanding upon. Tannen’s discussion compares what she calls “high considerateness” and “high involvement” conversational styles, which are tend to be characteristic of men and women, respectively. As she notes, what the former consider appropriate length pauses between speaking turns, the latter hear as awkward silences - with the results seen as interruption. Interestingly, when we look at cross-cultural comparisons, the characteristically Western male “high considerateness” style is much rarer overall, with crosstalk common in most societies. This is paralleled by the fact that the indirect styles of addressing problems - seen in the West as typically female - is also the most common internationally, whilst Tannen notes at least one traditional culture in which the direct style is considered archetypically female/low status.

Although she does not spend much time addressing causation - wisely, in my opinion, since the evidence is so conflicted - Tannen does highlight the importance of children’s play in self-selected gendered peer groups...in my opinion, the chief reason why it is so difficult/impossible to separate out nature and nurture effects in this case. To be sure, these conversational style differences make sense in evolutionary terms - the usual stories about male hunting organization & competition for mates, versus the female need for aid in childcare can easily be trotted out - but, frankly, a more flexible (and simpler) means of attaining the same end would be selection for same-sex play groups modelling their play on the relevant adults. And the undoubted fact that there is cross-cultural variation tends to suggest that this is a major part of the truth...


“If women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy, while men speak and hear a language of status and independence, then communication between men and women can be like cross-cultural communication, prey to a clash of conversational styles.... The claim that men and women grow up in different worlds may at first seem patently absurd.... [But] others talk to them differently, and expect and accept different ways of talking from them. Most important, children learn how to talk, how to have conversations, not only from their parents but from their peers.... Although they often play together, boys and girls spend most of their time playing in same-sex groups. And, although some of the activities they play at are similar, their favorite games are different, and their ways of using language in their games are separated by a world of difference.”
(Tannen, pp.42-3)

“At every age, the girls and women sit closer to each other [in conversation,] and look at each other directly. [And] at every age, the boys and men sit at angles to each other...and never look directly into each other’s faces.... The boys’ and men’s avoidance of looking directly at each other is especially important because researchers, and conventional wisdom, have emphasized that girls and women tend to be more indirect than boys and men in their speech. Actually, women and men tend to be indirect about different things. In physical alignment, and in verbally expressing personal problems, the men tend to be more indirect.... Judged by the standards of women, who look at each other when they talk together, men’s looking away is a barrier to intimacy, a means of avoiding connection. But if boys and men avoid looking directly at each other to avoid combativeness, then for them it is a way of achieving friendly connection, rather than compromising it.”
(Tannen, pp.246-69)

“Just as boys in high school are not inclined to repeat information about popular girls, because it doesn’t get them what they want, women in conversation are not inclined to display their knowledge, because it doesn’t get them what they are after.... The game women play is ‘Do you like me?’ whereas the men play ‘Do you respect me?’ If men, in seeking respect, are less liked by women, this in an unsought side effect, as is the effect that women, in seeking to be liked, may lose respect.”
(Tannen, p.129)

As should be evident by now, the range of communicative problems which can be at least partially explained by Tannen’s division between drives toward intimacy and independence is quite astonishing, whilst the clarity of her writing makes this book perhaps the easiest to read of any that I have recommended. Sadly, though, to most linguists today, such work is not to be considered real linguistics at all - as the century-old division between langue and parole has placed all examination of the latter, with its contextual richness and psychological/sociological dimensions, strictly beyond the pale. In consequence, Noam Chomsky has nothing to contribute to work such as Tannen’s, and he is therefore most conspicuous by his absence.

Meanwhile, the real work of language goes on, unheeding...


“For everyone, home is a place to be offstage. But the comfort of home can have opposite and incompatible meanings for women and men. For many men, the comfort of home means freedom from having to prove themselves and impress, through verbal display. At last, they are in a situation where talk is not required. But for women, home is a place where they are free to talk, and where they feel the greatest need for talk, with those they are closest to. For them, the comfort of home means the freedom to talk without worrying about how their talk will be judged.”
(Tannen, p.86)

“To most women, conflict is a threat to connection, to be avoided at all costs. Disputes are preferably settled without direct confrontation. But to many men, conflict is the necessary means by which status is negotiated, so it is to be accepted and may even be sought, embraced, and enjoyed.... Because their imaginations are not captured by ritualized combat, women are inclined to misinterpret and be puzzled by the adversativeness of many men’s ways of speaking, and miss the ritual nature of friendly aggression. At the same time, the enactment of community can be ritualized just as easily as the enactment of combat. The appearance of community among women may mask power struggles, and the appearance of sameness may mask profound differences in points of view...[and] if boys and men often use opposition to establish connections, girls and women can use apparent cooperation and affiliation to be competitive and critical.... All forms of support can be used to undercut.”
(Tannen, pp.150-73)

“If women are often frustrated because men do not respond to their troubles by offering matching troubles, men are often frustrated because women do...he feels she is trying to take something away from him by denying the uniqueness of his experience.... [And,] if women resent men’s tendency to offer solutions to problems, men complain about women’s refusal to take action to solve the problems they complain about. Since many men see themselves as problem solvers, a complaint or a trouble is a challenge.... Trying to solve a problem or fix a trouble focuses on the message level. But for most women who habitually report problems at work or in friendships, the message is not the main point...[as] trouble talk is intended to reinforce rapport by sending the metamessage ‘We’re the same; you’re not alone.’ Women are frustrated when they not only don’t get this reinforcement but, quite the opposite, feel distanced by the advice, which seems to send the metamessage ‘We’re not the same. You have the problems; I have the solutions.’”
(Tannen, pp.51-3)

“Women may get the impression men aren’t listening to them, even when men really are. This happens because men have different habitual ways of showing they’re listening. As anthropologists Maltz and Borker explain, women are more inclined to ask questions. They also give more listening responses - little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah - sprinkled through someone else’s talk, providing a running feedback loop. And they respond more positively and enthusiastically, for example by agreeing and laughing.... [But] 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...a man who listens silently will seem not to be listening at all.... [Furthermore,] when men begin to lecture other men, the listeners are experienced at trying to sidetrack the lecture, or match it, or derail it. In this system, making authoritative pronouncements may be a way to begin an exchange of information. But women are not used to responding in that way, [so] they see little choice but to listen attentively, and wait for their turn to be allotted to them, rather than seizing it for themselves. If this is the case, the man may be as bored and frustrated as the woman, when his attempt to begin an exchange of information ends in him giving a lecture, [as] from his point of view, she is passively soaking up information, so she must not have any to speak of.... [Therefore,] this is not something that men do to women. Neither is it something that women ‘allow’ or ‘ask for’. The imbalance is created by the difference between women’s and men’s habitual styles.”
(Tannen, pp.142-6)

Unusually, it is only in the final section of her book that Tannen really starts to draw out the power aspect of said imbalances. However, as she -  quite rightly - points out, neither (alone) is a thoroughly adequate response to the complexity of our world, and in blaming the opposite sex for not being more like our own, we typically fail to see this. Thankfully, when “women’s studies” have been supplanted by “gender studies” proper, we will have the work of scrupulously fair-minded scholars such as Tannen to build upon - and, meanwhile, to recommend to anyone genuinely interested in advancing our understanding of the human world:


“Much of this book has shown that women’s and men’s [conversational] style differences are symmetrically misleading. Men and women learn to use language in the different worlds of boys and girls, and each group interprets the other’s ways of talking in terms of its own. But, in many ways, differences between women’s and men’s styles are not symmetrical. When men and women get together in groups, they are likely to talk in ways more familiar and comfortable to the men. And both women’s and men’s ways of talking are typically judged by the standards of men’s styles, which are regarded as the norm. Most distressing, in a society where equality is the agreed-upon norm, and where more and more women are entering high-status positions, women in authority find themselves in a double bind. If they speak in ways expected of women, they are seen as inadequate leaders. If they speak in ways expected of leaders, they are seen as inadequate women. The road to authority is tough for women, and once they get there it’s a bed of thorns.”
(Tannen, p.244)

“What may be the subtlest, yet deepest source of frustration and puzzlement arising from the different ways that women and men see the world [is that] we feel we know how the world is, and we look to others to reinforce that conviction. When we see others acting as if the world were an entirely different place from the one we inhabit, we are shaken.... [And,] even with the best intentions, trying to settle the problem with talk can only make things worse, if it is ways of talking that are causing trouble in the first place.”
(Tannen, pp.72-9)

“No matter how dissatisfied people are with the results they are getting, they rarely question their way of trying to get results. When what we are doing is not working, we do not try doing something totally different. Instead, we try harder by doing more of what seems self-evidently the right way to proceed. But when styles differ, more of the same is usually met with more of the same from the other party, as well. As a result, far from solving the problem, our efforts only make things worse.... Instead, men and women could do with a little flexibility. Women who avoid conflict at all costs would be better off if they learned a little conflict wouldn’t kill them. And men who habitually take oppositional stances would be better off if they broke their addiction to conflict.”
(Tannen, pp.186-7)

Deborah Tannen undoubtedly sparked a revolution in the public understanding of sociolinguistics with her popular works, and You Just Don’t Understand (1990) is almost certainly her finest book. But, it is also the very best place to start an education in gender difference...partly because it makes no unnecessary assumptions about the ultimate source(s) of said differences, but mainly because it begins in media res, as it were - at the conversational battlefront which is the most fertile source of misunderstandings between men and women. From this point, a reader can then refine their understandings of the effects of nature and nurture - via Melvin Konner and Eleanor MacCoby, if you’ll allow my suggestions - without mistaking key ingredients for the whole recipe...

As well, Tannen’s work dovetails very nicely w/new humanities favourites such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on speech genres, Mary Douglas on the cultural theory of risk, and Edward T. Hall’s anthropology of interaction, not to mention cognitive psychologist Robert Levine on Persuasion (2003), so consilience is (yet again!) assured. Entertainingly and accessibly written, You Just Don’t Understand amply deserved it’s bestseller status - and, more importantly, deserves still to be on everyone’s reading list, as befits the best book on the human world’s largest communicative divide...the one we all live upon.


“Everyone knows women and men who, in some ways, are more ‘like’ the other gender than their own. This is natural, since individuals develop patterns of behavior based on innumerable influences, such as where they grew up, ethnic background, religious or cultural affiliation, class, and the vast reservoir of personal experience and genetic inheritance that makes each person’s life and personality unique.... [And,] if accommodating automatically is a strain, so is automatically resisting others’ will. Sometimes it is more effective to take the footing of an ally. The ‘best’ style is a flexible one, [as] the freest person is the one who can choose which strategies to use, not the one who must replay the same script over and over - as we all tend to do.... Sensitivity training  judges men by women’s standards, trying to get them to talk more like women, [and] assertiveness training judges women by men’s standards, and tries to get them to talk more like men.... [But] the biggest mistake is believing that there is only one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation - or a relationship. [And] nothing hurts more than being told your intentions are bad when you know they are good, or being told you are doing something wrong when you know you’re just doing it your way.”
(Tannen, pp.294-8)



John Henry Calvinist