A Decade after Two Mega-Selling Books Outlined Differences in How Men and Women Communicate ... What Have We Learned? the Authors, Their Audience Don't Necessarily Agree That Relationships Have Changed

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Pulley, Times-Union staff writer

In the early '90s, millions of people bought into the strange notion that . . . get this: Women and men are different.

Really. They are.

A book titled You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen, made The New York Times best-seller list in August 1990 and stayed on the list for nearly four years. It has sold more than 4 million copies.

Don't recognize the title? Well, if you've heard jokes about men not wanting to stop to ask for directions, those sprang from an anecdote in Tannen's book.

If you don't recognize the title Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, you must have just arrived from another solar system. Since it was published in 1992, Mars-Venus has sold more than 7 million copies and helped make family therapist John Gray the best-selling relationship author of all time.

Tannen and Gray's concepts have shown up in the sitcom scripts of television shows such as Home Improvement, scenes in the Broadway hit Defending the Caveman, shelves full of hardback spin-offs from other authors and a multitude of talk show segments and magazine articles.

So, after having access to this widely -- though not universally -- acclaimed information for more than a decade, are men and women communicating any better?

He says yes. She says no.

He being Gray, she being Tannen.

"I think clearly a shift has taken place in the conversations be tween men and women," said Gray. "It's become a part of our common language that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that we're different. The principle behind that is apples and oranges: It's not that one's better than the other, that one's wrong, but that the differences exist and they are looked at in a non-judgmental way."

Gray attributes a significant drop in the divorce rate at least in part to better communication between the sexes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the divorce rate has dropped from 4.7 per 1,000 people in 1990 to 4.1 today.

Tannen said she hasn't seen a change in the ways men and women communicate. People who have read her book have a way to understand the differences, she said, but can still be frustrated even when doing their best to communicate with the opposite sex.

"If we understand what these differences are, approach them as conversational style differences -- instead of blaming ourselves, or more likely our partner or the relationship -- then from that starting point finding ways to work out those differences and understand them without blaming," she said.

AN EARLY PUSH

Tannen and Gray say one reason women generally talk is for a feeling of connection or intimacy -- something most men just don't get.

"Men don't listen half the time," said Judi Maguire, 49, a manager with a local branch of the federal government. "I can usually tell when my boyfriend's not listening because he goes 'uh-huh, uh-huh.' "

Barbara Perrin, 39, a local computer specialist, said while she talks to her husband about family issues, some things are meant for only girlfriends' ears.

"[Men] try, they mean well, but there are some things I have to talk to my girlfriends about," she said.

Perrin, laughing, added that she goes to her girlfriends "because they tell me what I want to hear -- good, sound advice."

Tannen traces the listening/talking problem back to childhood. Boys, she said, tend to play in groups, where an activity (such as a sport) brings them together. Boys are constantly negotiating their status in the group because those with low status get pushed around.

Girls' groups are smaller, Tannen said, and talk is what creates intimacy.

"Your best friend is the one you tell everything to," Tannen said. "Women become sensitive to being pushed away because that's the way girls punish other girls we don't like. …