Men: they cringe at the prospect of discussing anything personal, grumble they’re being nagged when asked to take out the rubbish and, if they lose their way while driving, rage at the suggestion they ask for directions.
Women: they read things into the most innocuous comment, get upset when their man says ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ and demand impossibly detailed reports of every conversation they miss – who said what and how they looked when, they said it.
And, says Deborah Tannen, it will all go on like this, each sex bristling at the other’s peculiar ways, until we wake up to the simple truth – men and women don’t speak the same language.
It’s not so much that the vocabulary and grammar we use are different, she explains. The differences lie in the way men and women talk.
Since our lives are lived as a series of conversations, it’s her belief that the sooner we start to appreciate and understand these differences – and the reasons behind them – the better.
Tall, gentle, immediately likeable and mercifully spouting little of the jargon you’d expect of one of the world’s leading lights in her field, Deborah Tannen is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Georgetown, Washington DC.
For more than 20 years she has studied how people talk – what they mean by what they say and how it can be interpreted and often misunderstood. Eavesdropping in restaurants, collecting friends’ anecdotes, watching hundreds of hours of taped conversations… all in the name of research.
The thrust of this study is that women use language to enhance intimacy, men to assert independence. Women, concerned primarily with making connections with people, regard conversation as a way to share feelings, create bonds and explore possible solutions to common problems.
Men are concerned primarily with status, and prefer discussion of facts
to dissection of feelings. Since feelings suggest vulnerability and thus inferiority, men see conversation as another way of scoring points.
The lost-in-the-car scenario is an illustration of this. You know the scene – it’s universal. Invited to a party, a couple have been driving round in circles for half an hour searching for the address which he is sure is nearby. She is fuming because he insists on trying to find the address himself instead of stopping to ask directions.
So who’s right? Neither, says Deborah Tannen. This sort of disagreement typifies the different approaches men and women have to asking for information. Since women are so used to asking for help, refusing to ask directions makes no sense to the wife. To her, asking for and receiving directions reinforces the bond between people.
But in her husband’s hierarchical world, driving round until he finds the way himself is a reasonable thing to do. Men are comfortable with giving help and information, but not with receiving it. So asking for directions would make the husband feel he was dropping in status by revealing his lack of knowledge.
This may sound a long-winded explanation but in world of socio-linguistics, it is only scratching the surface of the male-female conversational/anomalies in this particular situation. Mention any aspect of everyday chat and Deborah can give examples on the ways men and women’s attitudes to it differ.
Take politeness. Men consider it subservient, women sensitive. Boasting. Men boast as a matter of course, battling to gain or maintain that all-important status.