You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen is a sociolinguist at Georgetown University who studies “genderlects” — the speech and conversational patterns that exist both between women and men, and also within same-sex communications.  She wrote You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation in 1990, and it explores an interesting way to interpret several types of common (often, explicitly stereotypical) misunderstandings that take place between men and women.  Her idea is that generally in conversation women are trying (perhaps unconsciously) to facilitate intimacy, building relationships through social connectedness, whereas men are attempting (also perhaps unconsciously) to negotiate a social hierarchy.

Exactly the same statements and conversation fragments can be interpreted very differently using these two lenses, as Tannen illustrates by looking at a series of stereotypically failed interactions between men and women, either from real recorded conversations, or out of dialogue samples from books and films.  Her style of study is very descriptive and very narrative.  Ultimately, she’s telling a story about conversations, and choosing examples that bolster her case.  I don’t think I’d call it science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.  Certainly many, and possibly most, of her interpretations of the male conversational point of view (which I have to imagine is more alien to her personally) seemed to ring true with me.  I’d like to see what Michelle thinks about her interpretations of the female side of things.

Even if Tannen is wrong in some sense, even if this isn’t really what’s going on behind the different male and female ways of speaking, her framework can still be useful, because it gives men and women a relatively altruistic way to interpret what might otherwise seem hurtful.  It can serve as a kind of scaffold for optimism, especially if both people feel like it makes sense.  At the same time there’s some danger in enabling altruistic explanations: not everyone is altruistic all the time.  So even if you think you know what kind of interaction you’re having, if the motive of the other person isn’t to build intimacy, or if you fear that’s not the motive, then the whole system breaks down.  Tannen laments the stereotypes of women as manipulative and indirect gossips, and of men as hierarchical monkeys trying to get a leg up on the pile, but certainly in the enormous space of human interactions, there are people who know intuitively how these conversational styles can be abused selfishly, and the rest of the people must know they exist.  Somehow we have to bootstrap ourselves up to knowing each other well enough to believe we’re going to be altruistic in our interactions, and then be careful to stay in that domain.

There was a period last year during which I was on a very erratic sleep schedule, and often Michelle would go to bed before me, but I’d be at home working or reading or just trying to get sleepy enough to go to bed.  I don’t like to read in bed with someone else there because sometimes it ends up being hours before I want to stop reading and turn the light off, and I know it’s annoying to be trying to sleep with the light on next to you.  And I know Michelle thinks it’s annoying too, from the grumpy sleepy faces she makes when it happens… even if she doesn’t remember it in the morning.  So to me, going to bed means going to sleep.  But for Michelle, it’s not really the end of the day just quite yet, and so she wanted me to come in and say good night and tuck her in when she was finally ready to go to sleep.  For a while, she’d call me in, and I’d kiss and tuck, but eventually I started resenting the routine.  It started feeling more like a command, or a token imposition to demonstrate control.  Her power to distract me, and pull me away from whatever I was doing at a moment’s notice.  It started feeling like a chore, instead of an opportunity to be intimate.  But if I try looking at this interaction through Tannen’s female goggles, it makes the request seem not only harmless, but sweet, and my eventual resistance to it very mean.  It doesn’t matter if Tannen is right (though in this case she does seem right to me) if just having the framework allows both of us to interpret the same interaction in a more friendly loving way.  I’m curious what the view through the male goggles looks like to Michelle.

The book seemed more to focus on examples like the above, with incorrect male interpretations of female words, and the resulting loss of intimacy.  It’s not really billed as a “self help” or relationship book, so there wasn’t much in the way of explicit instructions for either or both parties, but I did get the sense that she was more trying to change men’s perceptions of interactions, and style of speech.  Maybe that’s just because the author is female, and I’m male.  But there were some interesting examples from the other side too, of patterns of generally inter-male intimacy building conversation patterns, which I definitely found familiar.  A kind of mutual challenge and response, in which the parties are trying to match, but without escalating the conflict too far.  Conspicuous backing off, or one person making themselves vulnerable, and the other refusing to take the bait.  Here’s my throat.  No, I won’t bite it.

Not pushing, and not getting pushed back, or maybe rather, reaching out and having the other person also reach out, is one way to be a peer, to be bonded without hierarchy.  But pushing, and having somebody else push back just as hard but no harder is another way.  It’s a refusal to be dominated, and also a refusal to dominate.  They’re different processes, and I think I like them both in different contexts, to different degrees with different people.

I think one of the things that made me so attracted to Michelle originally was the fact that she could have and enjoy the kind of pushing and pushing back more than most women.  More than anyone I’d been with before.  But it’s at least a little dangerous too, especially when you have both types of interactions with the same person.  Somehow, you have to be able to judge or negotiate which kind of conversation it is that you’re having; mismatches feel bad.  Even if you know you’re having a pushing conversation, you need to know how far is too far, and you need to know whether the other person feels like doing that right now.  If not, it’s good to have other people you can get it out of your system with.  Or if one person starts to expect a pushing interaction from the other, and stops being able to recognize when they’re putting out their hand instead, it feels bad.  And I think for me both kinds of interactions are necessary to feel really close to someone.

By Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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