You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation |

You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation

Bridging communication gaps is the epitome of a successful relationship - whether it is between spouses, colleagues at work, siblings, or a parent and a child. You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversion, written by Deborah Tannen, is a book that studies the conversational styles between men and women and helps break the stereotypical ways of perceiving messages from the opposite gender.

The author Deborah Tannen is a sociolinguist who has made many contributions towards understanding how the language of everyday conversations affects relationships and in this book she has outdone her job in bringing that awareness to the general public. This is precisely the reason why the book won the New York Times Award for nearly four consecutive years. Owing to its popularity and efforts towards explaining cross-cultural exchanges between men and women to a global audience, it was translated in 31 languages!

The book is filled with real life examples and it may help to show one of them here:

“When Josh’s old high-school friend called him at work to say he would be in town, Josh invited him to stay for the weekend. That evening he told Linda they were having a house guest.

Linda was upset. How could Josh make these plans without discussing them with her beforehand? She would never do that to him. “Why don’t you tell your friend you have to check with your wife?” she asked.

Josh replied, “I can’t tell my friend, ‘I have to ask my wife for permission’!”

To Josh, checking with his wife would mean he was not free to act on his own. It would make him feel like a child or an underling. But Linda actually enjoys telling someone, “I have to check with Josh.” It makes her feel good to show that her life is intertwined with her husband’s.

It is a common sight to witness men and women being at different wavelengths when it comes to communicating. The example quoted above and many others referenced in the book glean towards this and show just how differently men and women think in general. Tannen has tried to unveil the complexities which form part of most relationships between men and women and she uses practical examples from everyday life to gage her audience to reflect. The book focuses attention on areas of common conflict and these may typically appear as;

1. Status vs. Support

In general, men take up conversations in a rather serious manner. They are more strongly opinionated as compared to women and come across as stiff because they do not want to be manipulated by others. On the contrary women seek comfort in sharing things as a means of gaining support and seeking validation.  

2. Independence vs. Intimacy

Women in general enjoy building on relationships and making them meaningful. Contrastingly, men think in terms of individuality and maintaining a certain stature which has firm boundaries. This striking contrast tends to create a barrier between the two in situations which are mutually inclusive.

3. Advice vs. Understanding

Men are genetically inclined toward analyzing things in black and white. This means that they  are likely to offer solutions to a problem rather than talk about it. Women on the other hand seek to be heard and understood, as they tend to posess a higher need for empathy and emotional support. Problems can stem from these different approaches.

4. Information vs. Feelings

Generally speaking, men like to adress things in a straight forward fashion and find it difficult to understand cues and clues. For instance, if a husband forgets to wish his wife happy anniversary in a timely manner, the wife would show disappointment and frustration through her behavuor toward him. This is because women are very emotional beings owing to their nurturing characteristics.

5. Orders vs. Proposals

Most men resist being told what to do. In contract, most women, she formulate their requests as proposals rather than orders. Her style of talking is a way of getting others to do what she wants – but by winning agreement first.

6. Conflict vs. Compromise

In trying to prevent fights, some women refuse to oppose the will of others openly. But sometimes it’s far more effective for a woman to assert herself, even at the risk of conflict.

Tannen firmly believes that people possess a tendency to adopt conversational styles that are influenced by age, regional backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and the work that you do. Gender plays a huge role, too, and that embedded and inherent. However, that said, it is not something that we cannot aim to understand and work upon improving.

 “Both women and men could benefit from learning each other’s styles. Many women could learn from men to accept some conflict and difference without seeing it as a threat to intimacy, and many men could learn from women to accept interdependence without seeing it as a threat to their freedom.”

What I particularly appreciated and found useful was how Tannen breaks down the psyche of both genders in each of the chapters pertaining to different areas of communication, such as friendship, hierarchy, rapport, intimacy, advice, gossip, and listening. In my view, this plays a huge role in contributing toward breaking free of those mythical barriers to communication and reforming them.

Although there are no practical suggestions in the book on how to really 'fix' the problem, which I believe could have been an added bonus for the reader in terms of strategies, the details and practical examples enlighten the reader to rethink in terms of understanding their partners and making a move toward realigning themselves in achieving a more complacent compromise. 

Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and mother of three boys. Always on the quest to learn, she is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. A writer in the making, she draws inspiration through deep conversations, laws of nature, and her own children. She and her family are currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.


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