This is another insight from teaching Deborah Tannen's work on gender differences in communication, while appreciating the deep symmetry between men's and women's ways of doing things. Tannen does not say the title line of this post directly. We thought it up in class discussion, putting together different elements of her work and our own experience.
In speech, men concentrate on the message, the content of what is being said. They do not need to look at someone to hear what he or she is saying. Indeed, sometimes looking at someone while they speak is a distraction from concentrating on what they say. Women, on the other hand, read the metamessage as well as the message – the tone of voice, body language, and subtle expressions that go along with what is being said. This is why it is essential for women to look at the person you are talking to. Otherwise, you would miss half of what was being communicated.
The women in the class often report that it drives them nuts when the men in their lives won't look at them when the women are speaking. Men do not report a similar problem; when two men talk to one another, they normally look anywhere but directly into one another's eyes. To do so either means the personal communication is extraordinarily intimate – or a challenge.
The men in the class often report that it drives them nuts when the women in their lives won't say directly what they mean. Women do not report a similar problem; when two women talk to one another, they normally speak any way but directly telling one another what to do. To do so means the personal communication is extraordinarily intimate (as in a family) – or a challenge.
Knowing these characteristic differences in communication lets us appreciate the ingenious complementarity of human life. And when these differences in communication style get in the way of actually communicating, we have another ingenious human skill to work around the problem: meta-communicating about how we are communicating. And, if necessary, we can both look at, and speak to, one another directly while meta-communicating.