“Man is always looking for someone to boast to; woman is always looking for a shoulder to put her head on.” —Henry Louis Mencken
The battle of the sexes is the only kind of warfare where fraternization with the enemy is openly encouraged, runs a popular joke. No doubt, many of the skirmishes men and women have with one another take place in the field of language. All too often, it can seem like a conflict where mutual understanding is a perpetual casualty.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that gender differences in language exist. Boys and girls are brought up differently. And there are subtle but important anatomical differences in the brains of men and women as well. Both of these facts undoubtedly contribute to dissimilar ways of processing information. Consequently, many couples complain that their partners do not understand them.
Deborah Tannen, who teaches linguistics at Georgetown University, contends that men and woman are governed by distinct cultural expectations and imperatives, which leads to divergent communication styles.
For example, Tannen believes that men are more concerned with hierarchies and status, whereas women are more interested in connections and intimacy. As a result, she contends that conversations among men frequently include examples of one-upmanship and attempts to demonstrate or reinforce dominance. On the other hand, Tannen suggests that women are more preoccupied with consensus building and information sharing.
This is not to say there isn’t some degree of overlap. After all, men are concerned about relationships and women think about pecking orders too. However, according to Tannen, the primary concerns of each gender help to explain the differing ways men and women approach communication.
In the workplace, for example, a man might view a public speaking event as an opportunity to garner respect and establish their leadership credentials. On the other hand, a woman might view the same occasion as an opportunity to foster team building and organizational cohesion.
So, men and women often have a different agenda when it comes to the purpose of communication. These asymmetries can create confusion. The following are five ways these differences can cause communications breakdowns:
1. The Strong Silent Type — Men frequently withhold communication because they believe they are protecting the feelings or interests of the women in their life. For example, males are typically reluctant to share health concerns or physical complaints because they view themselves as protectors and they don’t want their wives or girlfriends to worry about them. Women, in contrast, often resent it when their partner withholds vital information. Recognizing this asymmetry can help couples cope with it.
2. Report Talk vs. Rapport Talk — Men often use language to assert authority, while women use it to build rapport. As a result, many men may mistakenly interpret the way women talk as conveying insecurity or servility.
For example, males sometimes engage in one-upmanship to establish or reinforce dominance, whereas women often utilize “one-down” language. For a woman, a self-deprecating remark may simply be intended to be a gesture of inclusive humility. However, some men interpret unassuming politeness as weakness or docility.
Both men and women need to be more aware of how their particular gender styles come across so that can correct misapprehensions when they arise.
Video: Explaining Professor Deborah Tannen’s Report “Talk vs. Rapport Talk”
3. Mr. Fix It — Men like to see themselves as problem-solvers. However, women often want to vent their feelings even if there is no readily available solution to the difficulty they are airing. Consequently, communications involving open-ended dilemmas can leave many men feeling anxious or even impotent.
On the other hand, many women are not looking for an answer to their troubles per se, but rather a sympathetic shoulder to lean on. Men need to appreciate that a little empathy and understanding can be more appropriate than a Mr. Fix It attitude; while women need to consider that most men have less stamina when it comes to emotional communications.
4. Blunt vs. Circumspect — Indirectness can often be a source of confusion when men and women communicate. Generally speaking, women tend to be more circumspect when communicating because they are more apt to consider the feelings of those they are talking with.
Men, on the other hand, value a more straight-forward approach because they view conversation as starting point of negotiations, which they expect will include some rough and tumble give and take. Consequently, men sometimes interpret a woman’s “covert” style to be manipulative, whereas of women can view a man’s bluntness as insensitive.
5. Small Talk vs. Guy Speak — Many women seem to enjoy “small talk” while men usually want to skip the details. For women, sharing the little things is a way of bonding and creating intimacy.
Many men, however, have trouble understanding why women don’t come more to the point. As Tannen notes, for women conversation is an occasion for creating rapport, whereas men tend to communicate their experience as if it was a carefully summarized report.
Given these gender asymmetries, what tips can you employ to communicate better with your spouse or partner?
- Don’t assume your style is the only correct one. Try to appreciate where your partner is coming from. Empathy will foster understanding more than entrenchment.
- Be a good listener. Listening skills are arguably the most important ingredient when it comes to good communications.
- Respond instead of reacting. If you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed by something your partner said, then take a deep breath before answering them. Pausing to reflect on things can give you some perspective and help you avoid conversations that escalate unconstructively out of control.
- Don’t play the blame game. Find ways to show you care so that you can engage in “no-fault negotiations.”
- Validate your partner when they provide information that helps you understand them better. Positive reinforcement is far more effective that criticizing your partner.
Men and women can often talk past one another. Differing ways each gender parses information, dissimilar objectives and divergent frames of reference can complicate the conversations the sexes have with one another. However, a greater appreciation of innate differences in conversation styles can help improve the lines of communication.
— Scott O’Reilly