Monday, February 20, 2006

"Only to My Girlfriends"

Deborah Tannen talks about talk. In a series of books on gender differences in speech, she has come back to the ways in which women use talk to establish connection, similarity, and equality with other people – especially with other women. Women often use what Tannen calls "troubles talk" as the common currency of social relations, sharing common difficulties inflicted by the world, work, children, and, especially, men. The point of sharing troubles is to bring connection. The usual response of other women is to bring sympathy – "you poor thing" – and empathy – "I know just how you feel."

Men, on the other hand, like to joke, banter, and argue about the world, politics, women, and the old standby, sports, as the common currency of social interaction. They are more reluctant to talk about their troubles. When they do so, they are usually looking for a way to solve their problems. From other men this kind of troubles talk normally elicits advice – "here's what you wanna do."

The contrasting styles of men and women are ripe for miscommunication. She tells him her troubles often, and he doesn't know why. He tries to offer helpful advice, and she gets mad. He finally tells her his troubles after much prodding, and she doesn't even try to help solve them. This can be an endless cycle of misunderstanding.

For men, having trouble in your love life is a secret. Telling it to others puts you one-down to them in status. You only reveal such secrets to the most select company, and only if the situation is dire. For women, having trouble in your love life is normal, since men as so inconsiderate and incomprehensible. Sharing those troubles is a gift that you give to other women, to establish connection. A big romantic secret is a big gift that you can generously share with your friends. It makes you the queen-for-a-day of the group, and establishes a bond among those in the know against all outsiders.

Presidential historians recently rated the top ten presidential scandals of all time for the University of Louisville. Bill Clinton's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky ranked #10. (This seems high to me; I think history will drop all sex scandals down below military and corruption scandals, but that is a male-type argument for another day).

Why did the Lewinsky scandal break? Bill Clinton, the married father who was President of the United States was nonetheless carrying on an affair in the White House with an intern his daughter's age. Not only was this wrong, it was insanely risky. He kept it utterly secret, even, it appears, from his best friends. He, in the way of men, assumed that she would see the danger the same way, and mention it to no one. He asked her, "You haven't told anyone about us, have you?" And what was Monica's fateful answer?

"Only to my girlfriends."


Anonymous said...

It appears obvious to me that there are different dialects used by men and women, which cause conflict in communication, as Tannen suggests. There is one aspect of the communication conflict between the sexes that I feel Tannen leaves out. When one sex abandons the dialect stereotypical of their gender and adopts the opposing sex's dialect, does this not cause conflict? I believe this scenerio can breed conflict in communication in the same way. For example, the husband complains to his wife about his boss expecting her to show sympathy and empathy, but when instead she adopts the male dialect and offers advice along the lines of confronting his boss, or just ignoring his imperfections, she takes the one-up position. Would the husband not see this as threatening? I believe that adopting the dialect of the opposite sex with out first informing the other can be just as damaging to communication.

Gruntled said...

I think your last line contains the right solution (if I may address your comment in a male way :-) ). Metacommunication -- talking about what kind of talk you are using -- can prevent the kind of miscommunication you cite.