12/22/06

Required Reading for Life

This summer, I read a book called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. Chances are, if I talked to you around the beginning of July, I told you about it whether you wanted to hear or not. It's one of those books that presents something you have always intuitively known in such a way that you can consciously understand it. We all know about "girl talk" and "guy talk," and most of the time we keep our conversations in the appropriate realms. But we've probably experienced an encounter where we just didn't get the response we expected. Tannen explains this friction as a conflict of what she terms "genderlects."

Her main premise is that men and women have fundamentally different conversational styles and goals, and that ignoring them is more dangerous than acknowledging them. I didn't find her views sexist, since for the most part she avoiding placing value judgments on either style. She claims that women primarily engage in "rapport talk," while men prefer "report talk." My own metaphor for this distinction is horizontal versus vertical conversation. While both genders practice some combination of the two styles, women generally use conversation as a way of establishing bonds with others, while men use it to communicate information and reinforce social status (a sort of verbal one-upsmanship). One manifestation of this difference is in the two genders' handling of what Tannen calls "troubles talk." When men talk about problems, they are seeking solutions; women, on the other hand, are seeking sympathy. Both genders also use their own approaches when problems are brought to them - men offer to solve them, while women try to empathize. These fundamentally different approaches mean that men and women both often end up feeling frustrated with one another because they don't receive the response they expected.

Both these premises only scrape the surface of the content of this fascinating book - I highly encourage you all to read it. It will change the way you view conversations, and may go a long way to helping you understand frustrating situations.