Anyone who has been in any kind of relationship—be it social, personal or business—knows that men and women approach and speak about issues very differently. Communication between the sexes operates on different planes which muddle their messages and often exacerbate the differences.
Writing in the L.A. Times recently, Sandy Banks relayed a conversation she had with Deborah Tannen, Linguist Professor at Georgetown University on this subject. Ms. Banks was reacting to what she perceived as somewhat snarky comments from some male readers on a previous column.
“In conservational patter,” Tannen said, “men tend to be sarcastic and more adversarial than women…It’s kind of a dialect thing, the way they expect people to talk to one another. Neither style is good or bad,” she said. “It’s a cultural ritual, not a matter of individual deficiencies.” And there are, of course, wide variations within male and female groups.
Still, the pattern of differences can make for confusion over meaning and intent.
Men use language to seek status and independence, women to seek intimacy and connection. “That’s a huge gulf,” Tannen said. Online discourse seems to magnify the gap. Research has shown that men tend to take a more combative approach online, while women use more affirmative speech, supporting and acknowledging others’ comments.
When Indiana University professor Susan Herring studied male and female posts to online forums, she found that men tended to assert their opinions as facts, while women framed theirs as “suggestions, offers and other non-assertive acts.” It’s easy to consider the research a reflection of timeworn stereotypes: Men are competitive, women collaborative. Men are direct, women indirect. Men use language to flex their power, women to build relationships.
But those linguistic traits may have evolutionary underpinnings; Our survival depended on males warding off strangers and females keeping peace in the clan.
Some believe the gender differences have biological roots. As early as preschool, girls use language to share secrets and tell stories among a small group of friends; boys play in large hierarchal groups and are expected to use language to exhibit skills, display knowledge and assert authority. Others blame a power imbalance entrenched in cultural standards; Women have lower status in many societies, so are less commanding in speech and manner than most men.
“It’s not an easy thing to talk about,” Tannen acknowledged. “When you say something is ‘typical’ of any group, they’re apt to feel maligned.” But if we’re not willing to address the differences, our most important conversations are at risk of veering off the rails.
After talking with Tanner, I felt a bit chagrined about the petulant emails I’d dash off to some of those disapproving men. I presumed they were talking down to me because I am a woman. But maybe those men were just talking to me like they talk to other men. Some were as offended by my responses as I’d been by their missives.
The “You’re not serious?” guy was genuinely surprised that I considered his opening salvo an insult. “Not sure where I was sarcastic, swore or offended you in my comments,” he wrote in response to my response—which he found “offensive in tome to a paid subscriber.”
When I reread his email, after I’d calmed down, I realized there was nothing in the five sentences he’d written that should have felt like an attack. I’d considered his “You’re not serious?” line as a sarcastic attempt to belittle me, when it might just have been his way of getting my attention and amplifying his dissent.
I apologized for lashing out at him, and confessed that I was tired of fielding emails from readers who feel entitled to be nasty because we disagree. He seemed to understand that. “I think perhaps you do have an oversensitive reaction to this topic,” he wrote. I think he was right. At the end of his last email he offered his own relational coda: “Hope you have a better day!”
It is important to understand these differences, so you can work at not having emotional responses to the styles or the words and be better able to harmonize the ongoing relationships.