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You Just Don’t Understand

Deborah Tannen

Human beings are pattern-seeking and pattern-seeing organisms.  It’s a fundamental trait of the species.  It’s because of patterns that we were able to develop language, categorize the things of this world, create tools, develop social structures.  Every word that we speak contains a category of phenomena — “dog” isn’t a specific dog, but a class of all dog-like things of all shapes and sizes.  “Run” isn’t a specific event, but a characterization of a huge range of activities undertaken by a huge range of creatures.  Without those categories, we couldn’t speak; we couldn’t function.  Like Funes the Memorious, we would be trapped in a world where every sensation was utterly unique and couldn’t be connected or communicated.

But those categories also betray us.  They allow us racism, they allow us sexism, they allow us to talk about “those people” in a way that is different from our people.  While we can’t operate without categories, we need to take care that those categories remain flexible.  We need to allow for individual needs and habits and desires; we need to allow people to choose to exist outside of the categories assigned to them.

You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation skirts dangerously close to abusing our categories of “men” and “women”.  Tannen’s central premise is as follows: in communication, men seek to establish status and heirarchy, whereas women seek to establish rapport and community.  Misunderstandings between men and women occur when men interpret a conversation as being about heirarchy, while women interpret the same conversation as being about rapport-building.  Tannen wisely leaves alone the issue of why this is.  She implies that it’s a cultural by-product (rather than a biological one), but mostly leaves that question alone.  Instead, she provides illustration of her premise by way of excerpts from short stories and child development research papers.

What Tannen argues is, for the most part, consistent with our stereotypes of men as competitors and women as caregivers.  As with most stereotypes, there’s good reason that the stereotypes exist.  In the broad sense, they’re accurate — men are raised to be competitive, and women are raised to be caregivers.  In the broad sense. And in the broad sense, stereotypes can be useful.  It’s helpful to know, for example, that women are less likely to participate in public meetings, because it give us an idea of how better to conduct public meetings to encourage everyone to participate.  The categories and pattern-recognition can certainly do us some good.

But, as with other stereotypes, they also can do us harm.  When we enter a conversation with someone with a pre-conceived expectation of how they should fit into our communcation categories of “men” and “women”, we can make some pretty offensive mistakes.  If I invite an African-American to my house for basketball and fried chicken, I’d be rightfully labeled a racist.  Whether those are or are not statistical preferences of African-Americans isn’t the point.  The point is that I’ve treated an individual as if they were a category, without bothering to address them as a person.

I often felt that way reading Tannen’s book.  Maybe “men”, as a category, statistically do approach conversation with a mind toward status and heirarchy.  I don’t know if they do, but they may.  But I do know that if someone tried to relate to me by appealing to my sense of status or my place in a social heirarchy, or tried to appeal to my sense of “masculine competitiveness”, I would distance myself pretty quickly from that person, because it’s so antithetical to how I structure my experience of the world.  And there are plenty of women — particularly those whom I encounter in my professional life — who would take serious offense if they felt I were trying to establish a rapport with them instead of respecting a professional status that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Tannen would disagree with none of this, I’m sure.  Her project is primarily explanatory, rather than prescriptive.  The danger is while taking apart some stereotypes of men and women, her explanation bolsters many more.  And many — perhaps most — of her readers will read that as prescriptive, something that tells us how we should interact with “men” and “women” rather than just a description of how we do interact.  It’s a subtle but important difference.  Whether her categorical descriptions of “men” or “women” are accurate, I don’t know.  But whether they are or not, we need to take care to use those categories as one of many tools to understand the people that we meet, rather than using the categories as shortcuts to excuse ourselves from having to make the effort.

1 comment to You Just Don’t Understand

  • Mom

    I really enjoyed this one. You can use blank spaces for “men” and “women”, fill in the spaces with other categories and much like a kaleidescope, subtley shift viewpoints. I really appreciate your introspective way of analyzing things. Wish we lived closer to have some interesting lunch or dinner conversations. Can’t wait to see your next review. The book looks intriguing. (forgive the spelling. I am quickly doing this over my 10 minute lunch.)

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