In the Name of Domestic Glasnost, Deborah Tannen Tries to Bridge the Linguistic Gap Between the Sexes

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ever since Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, men and women have been faced with the problem of trying to understand the opposite sex. Why is it that women want to discuss the most intimate details of their relationships, while men stick to subjects like box scores? Deborah Tannen—who has spent much of her career studying the verbal war between the sexes—thinks she has at least part of the answer. An expert in linguistics, Tannen, 45, has spent 17 years recording and analyzing other people's conversations. As she explains in her fifth book, You Just Don't Understand—Women and Men in Conversation, many of the problems that plague romantic relationships seem to stem from the basic differences in how each sex uses language.

A native of Brooklyn, Tannen earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley before moving to Washington, D.C., where she has been teaching at Georgetown University since 1979. Her husband, literature professor Michael Macovski, 38, teaches at Fordham University in New York City, so the two see each other only four days a week during the school year. Despite the enforced absences, Tannen says that she and her husband communicate "very well." She talked to correspondent Katy Kelly about the perils of trying to comprehend the opposite sex.

How do men and women's conversational styles differ?

Men use language to preserve their independence and maintain their position in a group. To them, the person who follows orders is "one down" and the person who gives them is "one up." Women use language to create connections and intimacy: Their main goals are being involved with other people.

How do these style differences create conflict?

Women and men have different ideas about what communication is. What men mean by communication is, "When we have an important topic to discuss—like what car we should buy—we talk about it." For women, communicating means establishing intimacy by sharing their concerns, their daily experiences and their fleeting thoughts. Many men perceive this as a lot of talk about nothing.

How do men express intimacy, if not through verbal communication?

Men see intimacy as doing things together and being together. They don't feel a need for talk in a close relationship. My parents have been married 57 years, and they go through a lot of classic stuff. He's extremely solicitous, but he just doesn't think of showing his concern verbally. So if she's in pain, he says, "Do you want mc to take you to the doctor?" He doesn't think of saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry. What does it feel like? How long has it felt that way?" He doesn't think of offering verbal sympathy.

How does this play out within a relationship?

For men the comfort of home means, "I've been out in the world all day using language to prove myself. Now I'm home with someone who accepts me, so there is no need to talk." Women come home feeling. "I've had to be careful all day. If I talk too much, they'll think I'm aggressive. If I say something wrong, I'll hurt somebody's feelings or start a controversy. Now I'm free to talk." One woman told me she would come home each evening and her husband would never ask her how her day went. She felt that asking would be a way of showing that he cared. When she complained, her husband said. "If you have something to say, just say it. Why do you have to be invited?"

Are there differences in the way men and women fight?

The main difference is in the way they view conflict. For men, taking oppositional stances is a basic way of doing things; in many cases it's even a way to become friends. For example, boys that are friends playfully put each other down. Men see a refusal to argue as the worst sign of not caring. But women don't see a positive side to it.

A woman I know was angry because, after asking her to wake him, her boyfriend complained when she woke him up. Suddenly he began to playfight with her. That made her even angrier. He felt by insisting on talking about it, she was prolonging the fight. He got more and more rambunctious until he finally took a basket of clean clothes and dumped it on her head. She was livid and dumbfounded. After we talked about how men use fighting, she realized that for him, playfighting was a way of making up.

Why is it so difficult for men to accept a woman's need to talk?

When women share their daily troubles, men feel that they have to solve the problem. They misunderstand the depth of concern because they wouldn't raise a problem for discussion unless it were very serious. This makes men feel burdened, and it upsets women because when their mates offer solutions, it cuts short the discussion and creates a feeling of inequality.

Can you give an example of that?

A woman I know had a lump removed from her breast, and she was upset because the incision changed its contour. She spoke to the people closest to her—her sister, her best friend and her husband. Her sister said, "Oh, yeah. I know. I felt the same way when I had my surgery." Her best friend said, "Yeah, you feel like your body has been violated." Those answers made her feel better because there was a connection. But when she spoke to her husband, he said, "Well, you can have plastic surgery," That made her feel worse because she interpreted his suggestion as his expression of distress at the change in her body. She reacted by saying, "If you don't like the way it looks, I'm sorry." He said, "No, it doesn't bother me, I only said that because you were upset about it." He was responding to her problem with a solution, but she wanted validation for her feelings.

Are there other differences in the way men and women communicate?

The classic profile is that a woman is more likely to be indirect, to suggest rather than demand. Women sometimes feel that if they make an out-and-out request and it gets denied, there is a conflict on record. If they merely make a suggestion, and it isn't taken up, they've avoided the conflict. The problem with this approach is that men take women's words at face value, women don't get what they want, and men feel tricked if they find out something else was expected. For example, a woman says, "I'm tired, but I'll go." A man might say, "Okay," but a female friend would be more likely to respond. "Oh, no, if you're tired, you don't have to go."

Where do these differences in conversational style come from?

From the different ways that boys and girls learn to use language in their peer groups. Boys play in hierarchical groups in which they use language to establish status by giving orders, showing what they know, telling jokes and making themselves the center of attention. Girls tend to have one best friend to whom they tell everything. It's the talking that makes them friends and becomes the measure of intimacy. Somebody told me that his 3-year-old daughter said to her best friend, "I have a brother named Michael and a brother named Nicholas," which was true, and her friend said. "I have a brother named Michael and a brother named Nicholas." which wasn't. And the first one said, "Oh, then we can be friends." Little girls learn that it's good to show that you are the same. It probably stems from both biological and cultural factors.

What are some other ways that communication differences create strife?

Men complain about being nagged. This happens because women assume that "all I have to do is let the person who loves me know what I want, and he'll want to do it for me." But the man waits for enough time to pass so he can feel he's doing it of his own will. She is puzzled by the wait, so she asks him again. Then he has to wait longer. I think this goes on until she's converted into a nag.

Is one style healthier than the other?

The bedrock of my approach is that neither way is better; it's the clash of styles that's bad. If you don't understand the differences, all you have is an accusation, and nobody wants to change when they are being accused. But once people understand the differences, they are very good at negotiating compromises.

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