You sit down at brunch with your sweetheart, ready for long conversations, a few rounds of footsie, and heart-pounding eye contact. After being served your mimosas, you interlace your hands gently on top of the table, leaning forward a bit to express interest. He shoots you that loving gaze, gives you that adorable two-eyed wink you haven’t quite figured out, then produces a stack of inch-thick magazines from a bag you didn’t notice him walk in with, and begins to read silently, seemingly oblivious to your presence.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar position, you’re not alone– in fact, all men are like this, and that is just their way of expressing intimacy and trust. At least, that is what New York Times Bestseller You Just Don’t Understand! seems to claim.
In this self-help book, linguist Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. makes some very strong assumptions about the way men and women communicate in today’s American society. Using secondary anthropological research, subjective observations, and personal worldview, she describes countless scenarios in which gender-based communication styles have created misunderstandings.
Though her main goal is to account for these differences so misunderstandings may be justified and relationships may be strengthened, there are quite a few things that must be pointed out before you take seriously anything she has to say.
In ten entertaining and intellectually accessible chapters, she conveys the basic thesis that men communicate to create hierarchy, while women communicate to create intimacy. With these basic functions in mind, she analyzes not only contrasting conversation styles, but the significances of gossip, lecture, interruption, listening, and conflict. A brief summary of her findings is as follows.
An insider to this particular culture of study, she writes women generally seek to avoid conflict, build community, and create equality. This explains why public speaking makes women uncomfortable, and why they answer others’ problems not with solutions, but with similar problems. Men, on the other hand, speak to establish themselves as knowledgeable, powerful, and protective. Their conversations thus consist of current events, competitive sports, and stories of intellectual or physical feats, and hearing others’ problems serve as an opportunity to demonstrate problem-solving agility. The intellectual tangents that result then create the distinct role of ‘listener,’ which many women find themselves in, frustrated at his apparently inattentiveness or selfishness.
Intimacy is also expressed differently by gender. While women create closeness by talking about and performing the closeness, men create closeness by expressing trust. She provides the following example for proving such. If a woman were to vent to her male partner about a stressful situation at work, he is likely to express intimacy by proposing to her the other side of the story, taking her emotional unpacking as a sign that she did not understand the full story. The woman is then hurt because she takes this opposition as a sign of disrespect or belittling, and the man cannot understand why. If, in conversation with a third party, the woman were later to argue the other perspective on the story, the man would likely flaunt his insight by drawing attention to the side of the story revealed during their first conversation, confusing the woman even more.
…Or Not to Read.
Largely problematic is her grossly generalized use of stereotyping.
Conveniently ignoring the number of differences between sex (i.e. biologically or physiologically male, female, both, or neither) and gender (i.e. socially constructed masculinity or femininity)– not to mention sexual orientation– she creates unnecessary polarities, such as that between sexes and cultural groups, in a way that’s reminiscent of 1890s colonialist belief. She makes careless racial comments throughout the book, proposing, for instance, that Jewish women are inherently better joke tellers, and that Japanese women are more prone to conversational submissiveness. What’s worse is that she provides a soft disclaimer only once, hidden in the preface:
Generalizations, while capturing similarities, obscure differences. Everyone is shaped by innumerable influences such as ethnicity, religion, class, race, age, profession, the geographical regions they and their relatives have lived in, and many other group identities– all mingled with individual personality and predilection…In innumerable ways, every person is utterly unlike anyone else– including anyone else from many of the same categories.
First, she uses “innumerable” an innumerable number of times. Second, if she truly believed this vital section of her book, she would make more references to it throughout. Perhaps she should have been more cautious with her diction and used more frequently phrases like, “In many cases I’ve seen…,” “My second-wave feminist self thinks…,” or “In the majority of White, but non-Jewish, American heterosexual romantic relationships studied from the 1960s through the 1980s…” Third, she leaves on a very uncertain note, claiming that the purpose of her book is not to prevent future conflict, nor to facilitate meta-communication (i.e. talk about talk), but to passively observe the differences and prevent misunderstandings from escalating to the point of divorce.
That is the Question.
As bitingly sarcastic as I’ve written about her work, I genuinely appreciate that she gave the non-university-attending masses the opportunity to reflect on the power of socialized communication. On top of that, it’s an easy and fun read that may actually apply to your relationship.
If you do decide to thumb through or read the book, which I don’t necessarily discourage, do so keeping in mind that all scientific research, including anthropological linguistics, is filtered by subjective understanding or bias because of the mere fact that it’s performed by humans. In addition, don’t underestimate your self-efficacy. If you identify with something on which she writes and want to bring that miscommunication to another’s attention, talk about it openly, but without gender or racial blaming, and without accepting that generalized behavior as acceptable justification.
Enjoy your read, but don’t take it too seriously.
Written by Yasmine Elli, a linguistically too-masculine, Japanese female.