A week ago, I finished reading You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen. The central idea is that men and women have very different conversation styles resulting from different ways of viewing their relationship with others. Men tend to rank people in a hierarchy and view their relationship with others as an adversarial relationship, whereas women tend to see people as a community and view themselves as part of a network of connections. As a result, men tend to speak to establish status and demonstrate power and women tend to speak to establish connection and preserve intimacy. Also, men tend focus on the literal message being conveyed while women often focus on the meta-message behind the literal message. Another juxtaposition of the two styles is “report-talks” vs. “rapport-talks”. The book also covers many other topics, but those points are what I remember a week after finishing the book.
Reading the book was enlightening and opened my eyes to a whole new world that exists parallel to mine. In particular, it helped me understand why I can never have prolonged conversations with my dad, why he gets angry when I talk about my problems, why my younger brothers disrespect me and always resist my authority as the big sister, why a lot of men tend to speak only about themselves and doesn’t ask me questions, etc. I felt like I was learning about the culture of a foreign country.
Although the author tries to provide a balanced view and repeatedly points out that one conversation style is not better than the other but simply different, I feel strongly that women’s conversation style is superior to that of men’s, and I get the impression that deep down, the author feels the same way. I feel that women’s conversation style is better for the world because it is rooted in a desire for harmony and peace. Competition is good, but only in a context of a peaceful community.
Of course, there is downside to women’s conversation style. Talking about other people and sharing problems is how some women connect to each other and preserve intimacy. However, when you start talking badly about others (i.e. gossiping) and talk about your problems excessively and pressure others to share similar problems, then that’s too much and becomes a negative thing. We need to beware of this.
Also, in a world dominated by men, women are at a disadvantage because the way women speak reinforce men’s belief that women are indecisive, insecure, and weak. Women may be weaker than men physically, but we are not weaker than men emotionally and intellectually. Sadly, the way we speak make some men think that women are weaker in everything. In order to be successful in a men’s world, it is sometimes necessary for women to speak more like men.
The way men speak is not all bad, of course. But throughout history, it has always been women who adapt to men’s conversation style. I think it is time for men to start learning from women’s conversation style.
The most important point is that gender distinctions are built into language. The words available to us to describe women and men are not the same words. And, most damaging of all, through language, our images and attitudes are buttressed and shaped. Simply by understanding and using the words of our language, we all absorb and pass on different, asymmetrical assumptions about men and women.(p.243)
…when trying to negotiate mutual preferences and decisions, women are often more indirect than men. But when it comes to talking about their personal relationships and feelings, many men are more indirect. (p.276)
Goffman points out that men are to women as adults are to children: loving protectors who will hold open doors, offer the first portion of sweets, reach high shelves, and lift heavy loads. But along with the privileges of childhood come liabilities: Children’s activities are interruptible, their time and territory expendable. Along with the privilege of being protected comes the loss of rights, and not being respected and treated like a full-fledged person. (p.287)
“Born rebels” who defy authority are not oblivious of it, but oversensitive to it. Defying authority is a way of asserting themselves and refusing to accept the subordinate position. When they are old enough, or established enough, to take the dominant position, reinforcing authority becomes the way to assert themselves, since the hierarchy is now operating to their advantage. (p.291)