Sometimes it feels like we are speaking different languages. What I think I said isn’t what he heard and vice-versa. Maybe if I knew just how men and woman communicate differently, I could do something about it. What are the differences in communication between men and women?
Only recently have researchers begun to understand how drastically different men and women communicate. Deborah Tannen and other sociolinguists have come to believe that the genders speak so differently, in fact, that they can be considered different languages — or at least different “genderlects.”
In her ground-breaking book, You Just Don’t Understand, Tannen suggests that men grow up in a competitive world. To men, life is a challenge, a confrontation, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure, a contest in which they strive to be one up on their colleagues. In their conversations, men attempt to establish power and status. In the world of status, independence is the key.
Women, on the other hand, approach the world seeking connection and intimacy, close friendships, and equality with their friends. In their conversations, they try to give confirmation and support and to reach consensus. For women, intimacy is the key in the world of connection.
If women emphasize connections and intimacy and men emphasize independence and status, conflicts and misunderstandings are bound to arise. For example, many women feel it is natural to consult their partners at every turn, while men automatically make more decisions without consultation. Women expect decisions to be discussed first and to be made by consensus. They appreciate discussion itself as evidence of involvement and caring. But many men feel oppressed by lengthy discussions about what they see as minor decisions. They feel unfree if they can’t act without a lot of talking first. Women may try to invite a freewheeling conversation by asking “What do you think?” Men may take the question literally and think they are being asked to make a decision when in reality their partner only wanted conversation.
For many men who work in competitive positions, the comfort of home means freedom from having to prove themselves and impress others through verbal display. At last, they are in a situation where talk is not required and they are free to remain silent. But for a woman, home is the place where she and her partner are free to talk. Especially for the traditional housewife, the return of her husband from work means they can talk, interact, and be intimate. In this situation, the woman is likely to take her husband’s silence as a rejection while he takes her need to talk as an invasion of his privacy.
Although the communication styles of men and women differ in many respects, it is a mistake to think that one style is better than the other. What is important is to learn how to interpret each other’s messages and explain your own in a way your partner can accept. There’s no one right way to listen, to talk, or to have a conversation. Although a woman may focus more often on intimacy and rapport and her partner more on status, this difference need not lead to misunderstanding if the couple accepts that such differences do not imply that one partner’s communication style is correct and the other’s is wrong.