By Youssef Sourgo
By Youssef Sourgo
Morocco World News
Casablanca, December 26, 2012
Have you ever happened to misunderstand a woman or a man in a conversation without really realizing what induced to that? Do you often misinterpret or misjudge the other sex’s attitude in a conversation and therefore generate irrelevant or destructive responses? Do you find it difficult to understand men or women’s communicational styles? Well if your answer to these questions is positive, I think Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research on gender-exclusive conversational styles might help you understand the opposite sex better.
Dr. Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She is specialized in conversational and gender discourse analysis. In her research, Tannen establishes ‘bounds’ between cultural and linguistic differences between men and women. She maintains that miscommunication occurs between men and women mainly because they do not realize that they are engaging in intercultural communication. This implies that men and women belong to different cultures and speak different languages, or rather speak what she calls ‘genderlects’.
Genderlect, according to Tannen is a communicational style that is typical of each gender. This term is a combination of the term “gender”, and the sociolinguistic term “idiolect,” which is, as defined by Wikipedia, “a variety of language that is unique to a person.” The basic premise of Tannen’s genderlect theory is that “male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication.” Hence, miscommunication between men and women in conversations mainly occurs because both genders do not realize that they are communicating in a cross-cultural setting. Only an understanding of the communicational motives and styles typical to each gender would avert such misunderstandings.
To understand Dr. Tannen’s theory, one first has to draw a clear-cut distinction between sex and gender. The former tends to be approached as a dynamic social identity, which is performed by means of language use, whereas the latter is a static categorization of males and females in terms of physiological differences. Unlike the biological term ‘sex,’ gender is a composite social role, the performance of which is inexorably inseparable from its social context. The differences in the use of language between men and women are therefore conditioned mainly by socio-cultural factors that construct their social identity, and define their communicational styles, objectives and predilections.
In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990), Tannen uses two terms to describe both genders’ conversational styles: Report talk and rapport talk. According to Tannen, report talk is used to describe men’s typical conversational style, which seeks to establish or maintain a status, whereas rapport talk, which is women’s typical conversational style, seeks to “establish connection with others.”
To illustrate theory, Tannen moves on to provide a set of examples that exemplify each gender’s communicational motives, demonstrated via the two genres of talk explained above.
Private Talk vs. Private Talk
According to Tannen, women tend to talk more in private conversations than men do. This has to do with their focus on establishing connection through communication. To illustrate this, Tannen provides an anecdotal example in which a woman complains whiningly to her husband about him never telling her what he thinks; the husband sarcastically replies, “I didn’t want to interrupt you.” This example does not imply that women tend to talk a lot, but rather embodies Tannen’s conclusion that women talk more in private—the example of a couple here—than men do.
The above premise should not however be interpreted as solidifying the “women-are-great-gossipers” stereotype. The only reason why women seem to talk or gossip more than men do is the particularities of their own societies. In some countries of the Arab world, for instance, women are given less chance to talk in public, so the standard “quantity of talk” becomes that of men. Hence, when women speak in these societies, regardless of the “quantity of talk,” they seem as diverging from the norms set by men, and are therefore described as talking a lot by nature.
Unlike women, according to Tannen, men speak more in public situations. This has to do with their basic communicational motive introduced above, which is status. Men typically vie for ascendency when speaking in public. Contrary to women’s style of communication, men’s talk is straight-forward, detailed and informative, charged with arguments and defensive implicit and explicit statements. Women’s talk in conversation, contrariwise, is charged with connectional devices that serve to establish a symmetrical connection between them and their interlocutors. They are known for typically using what we call “question tags” and “hedging devices” in conversation. These all serve to maintain the conversation going on, and to notify the interlocutor that they, women, identify with the content of his talk and are interested in knowing more about it.
Joke telling is one more standard out of which many stereotypes have been carpentered on women. Men are seen as being more humorous than women for telling jokes that make them laugh, whereas it does not always work on women’s side. Women are therefore deemed lacking a productive sense of humor; rather, their role in this process of joke telling is confined to that of responding to men’s jokes. This however does not necessarily imply that women are not capable of telling funny jokes. Here again, an understanding of their communicational motives makes things crystal clear.
While men, as already explained according to Dr. Tannen, seek to establish or maintain status while communicating, this extends to the process of telling jokes as well. Men’s basic thought when telling jokes is “Hey, now can you tell something funnier than this?”, which is noticeable in their eagerness to find a joke that is not only funny, but even funnier than that of the other party who told the first joke. This longing to compete can only be translated to what Tannen calls “asymmetrical status,” in which men refuse to conform to the status set by their interlocutors, especially when it is a man-to-man conversation. The race for status goes in a noticeably gradual fashion.
When women tell jokes, it is for a distinct reason from that of men. It is not to sound funnier, and therefore be labeled the ‘funniest,’ which is what men typically eye when telling jokes. Contrariwise, women tell jokes to establish connection here again. Jokes for them are ways to break the ‘formal iceberg’ that is already there before the start of a conversation. It is one way to tell their interlocutor ‘You can step closer.’ Consequently, when women respond to men’s jokes with laughter and hailing comments, they do recognize their jokes as hilarious, but this does not mean that they accredit men’s supremacy in this situation, which is what most men misinterpret. This is very noticeable in how men keep firing jokes at their female interlocutors, without expecting them to tell jokes back. This can be interpreted as a presupposed belief, held by men, that no matter how funny their female interlocutor’s jokes will be, they will never transgress the bar set by them.
Women and men in this situation should be aware of the communicational typicalities of each other in order not to construct what Tannen calls “destructive responses” within a conversation.
Listening, Interrupting and Asking Questions
Women and men seek dissimilar goals when listening, interrupting or asking questions. According to Tannen, women are more cooperative in their listening. You see women holding eye contact, nodding from time to time and mumbling some “uh-huh, mmmm, yes, right,” when listening. Well, that is their way to show that they are following what you are saying, and that they agree and identify with the content of your utterances, and that explains why women tend to slightly interrupt you from time to time. They do that to insert a comment that shows that they are following or that they have experienced, for example, something similar to what you are relating. They also ask questions while their interlocutors are speaking. The function of these questions is to prompt the interlocutor to talk more, and guarantee him or her that they will be listening to every single detail they provide.
Men, on the contrary, interpret and use these conversational practices dissimilarly. When men listen, they do not cooperate in the same way as women. When a man is listening to a woman for example, he sometimes tends to interrupt her for a longer period than a woman would do. Women interpret this as lack of interest in what they are saying, whereas it is not the case. When men interrupt a woman who is complaining to them, for instance, they try to share their experience on the subject matter of their complaint. That is their way to say “I know what you are feeling and I am with you,” which is something that women find difficult to decode sometimes.
When men are interrupted, however, they interpret that as an endeavor to “steal the light” from them, which rings an alarm in their head that says, “Your status is threatened!” This explains why men raise their voices when being interrupted. They do this to keep the ball on their side, as they have not made their argument yet.
One should therefore avoid hasty overreactions to men or women’s conversational tendencies within a conversation. Their conversational cooperation is different from each other, and should not be always interpreted as an attempt to subdue the other gender.
Finally yet importantly, conflict is another instance used by Tannen to illustrate male-female communicational styles. According to Tannen, men feel more comfortable when they converse about conflict-based topics. Some of these topics are, to name but a few, sports and politics. Men see such topics as conterminous with their main communicational motive, which is, as previously described, that of establishing and maintaining status.
When you see men conversing about sports, chances are they will be gradually engaging in a dispute-like conversation, in which each one of them tries to impose his argument on the other as the most well grounded argument. Feeling their status being threatened by their male counterparts, men make use of relatively offensive styles of communication, such as raising their voice and using casual and sometimes vehement non-verbal gestures. This can be illustrated through situations in which men strive to have the “last word” in a conversation.
Women, on the other hand, feel their longing for connection threatened when engaging in conflict-based topics. This explains why women in general refrain from conversing about such topics; but this does not necessarily mean that women have no interest for sports or politics. What is assumed, however, is that to engage in debates on such topics, women have to deploy men’s communicational style, which is, though true in certain cases, detrimental to women’s status in society. Men, too, are believed to use women’s style of communication when trying to establish connection with the other.
As most men and women are not aware of the differences in the communicational styles of each gender, miscommunication is more likely to occur in their conversations. It is by the understanding of the opposite gender’s conversational particularities, the motives behind them and how society inseparably shapes them that gender communication can occur in a stereotype-free setting, in which both genders perform their social roles through language without being misinterpreted by the other party.
I finally conclude with a statement made by Deborah Tannen in her groundbreaking self-help book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990), in which she describes the issue that an intercultural approach to gender communication raises: “We try to talk to each other honestly, but it seems at times that we are speaking different languages-or at least different genderlects.”
Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York, NY: Morrow, 1990. Print.
Holmes, Janet, and Meredith Marra. Femininity, Feminism and Gendered Discourse: A Selected and Edited Collection of Papers from the Fifth International Language and Gender Association Conference, Igala5. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.
Griffin, Emory A. A First Look at Communication Theory. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. Print.