TRY to read the following scenarios without assigning gender to
- Two people get hopelessly lost while driving. Frustration
builds as one person wants to forge ahead doggedly trying to find
the way while the other presses to stop and ask directions of
- Two people are shopping. One tries on a sweater and asks the
honest opinion of the other. The answer is a straightforward thumbs
down. The honest answer hurts the feelings of the first.
Most people hear distinct male and female voices in these
situations: the woman wanting to ask directions, the man being
Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, on the other hand, hears whole
separate languages or what she calls "genderlects." And she's in big
demand these days as a translator of male-female conversation.
Her premise is that the persistent American icons of the nagging
gossip and the strong silent type are symbolic of real differences
in male-female communication.
Depending on your politics, this could be either incendiary
stereotyping or a statement of the obvious. But, perhaps because
just about everyone has been confounded by the opposite sex, it
turns out to be hugely popular.
A Georgetown University professor, she claims genuine surprise at
having to leave academia this semester to attend to the demands of
the intense public interest generated by the book, "You Just Don't
Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (William Morrow) now in
its fourth month on the New York Times bestseller list.
At her modest cottage in northwest Washington, between
cross-country jaunts to the Home Show in Los Angeles and the Shirley
Show in Toronto, a TV talk show, Ms. Tannen says that the "power" of
her book is that it addresses the gender differences Americans feel
but overlook as society plows toward the goal of sexual equality.
Men and women communicate differently because they are different,
A colleague's videotape studies of pairs of boys and girls at
various ages first gave Tannen the notion that men's and women's
conversation differs in much the way language differs from culture
"It totally blew me away that watching them as I did one after
the other, all I could think is that these kids are growing up in
different worlds," she explains.
She notes in her book that in these videotapes, second-grade
girls act more like 25-year-old women than like boys of their own
The pairs of boys and girls were instructed to tell stories to
each other. Both boys and girls turned to "troubles talk" about
their own experiences. Over all the age groups, the girls were calm,
looked directly at each other, and carried on conversation in big
blocks of talk, using language to reinforce intimacy and seek
consensus. Boys, on the other hand, were physically active, sat at
angles to each other, spoke in short bursts, and used language to
negotiate status and establish independence.
Tannen finds that these differences in conversational style can
cause men and women to leave a conversation with completely
different ideas of what has been said or meant. Often the result of
the confusion is that men appear to dominate women.
But, says Tannen, "what I feel is news is that sometimes the
effect of domination is the effect of (conversational) style
differences and content, not intention."
MORE than just another "self help" flare over the ever-changing
currents of the human potential movement, Tannen's ideas address
issues that, on the surface, would seem to be feminist taboos.
The confusion caused by differences in style has broad social
implications from basic household affairs to politics and even
foreign relations. …