Friday, March 23, 2007

Women Gaze Directly, But Talk Indirectly; Men Talk Directly, But Gaze Indirectly

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.


Anonymous said...

Gruntled -

Out of curiosity, do these traits transcend culture? I would think that gaze -- who looks directly and who doesn't -- would be as much, or more, of a status issue in some cultures than a gender difference.

That having been said, I'm a woman and I find it extremely difficult to concentrate on any lengthy statement (such as a lecture of a sermon) if I'm looking directly at the speaker. I always thought this was an information-processing problem, that non-verbal cues provide more information than my neurons can handle.

Gruntled said...

Gaze is certainly regulated culturally, especially among people of different rank. I expect, though, that among people of equal rank, the pattern I describe here would hold up.

I think lectures and sermons are very inefficient ways for people of either sex to learn from. How we interact to process the information, when the lecture becomes a discussion, does seem to differ by sex.

Michael Kruse said...

I remember a report from several years ago that studied men and women a variety of business negotiation situations. It concluded that (in the aggregate) women were better than men at picking up on nonverbal clues that revealed information about people they were negotiating with. On the other hand, women were less adept at concealing clues than men were. Conversely, men were not as good “readers” but they were better at concealment.

Kerri said...

a self-revelation that i should have had in Family Life class-- i have a hard time making eye contact in everyday parlance. even if i'm just talking to professors or friends, i'm constantly thinking "i should be looking at them! but then i'm staring! but in the eyes, that's too much! but now i'm staring at their nose! not the table, that's stupid!"
but then again, maybe lack of social graces simply isn't bounded by gender.

(so if i look like i'm having eye seizures while talking... now you know).

Gruntled said...

Metacommunication is, I think, our best solution to these communication conflicts. If you are the person you are -- are not -- are again, but in the nose, oh no! -- gazing at are sufficiently close, you can work out an explicit rule of where and how you will normally look

Or you live with eye seizures and anxiety. It's a free country.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about how this would affect my 4 year old son, who does not look at his interlocutor before he starts talking. This is, of course, because he is hopelessly egotistical and 4, so the fact that his mother is on the phone or talking to someone else does not mean that what he's saying isn't (obviously) more important. I figure the *idea* that he should look at someone once in a while is a good one, even if the rest of male culture will obliterate it.

Gruntled said...

You might at least be able to establish a mom-specific rule: look at ME when you are talking to me. It might not generalize to other adults, who all exist in an alternate plane.

Anonymous said...

Meta-communication, another perfect example of sociology putting words and study into stuff I didn't know I knew. Meta-shtuff is my new favorite tool.

just axing said...

I wish women would not gaze so directly so they wouldn't catch me looking at their hooters.