Review: You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen

Published in 1990; 298 pages.  ★★★★☆

“So there it is:  Boys and girls grow up in different worlds, but we think we’re in the same one, so we judge each other’s behavior by the standards of our own.”

Women and men live in different worlds…made of different words.
Spending nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list, including eight months at number one, You Just Don’t Understandis a true cultural and intellectual phenomenon. This is the book that brought gender differences in ways of speaking to the forefront of public awareness. With a rare combination of scientific insight and delightful, humorous writing, Tannen shows why women and men can walk away from the same conversation with completely different impressions of what was said.
Studded with lively and entertaining examples of real conversations, this book gives you the tools to understand what went wrong — and to find a common language in which to strengthen relationships at work and at home. A classic in the field of interpersonal relations, this book will change forever the way you approach conversations.
(From Goodreads)

You Just Don’t Understand is an impressively accessible, balanced analysis of gender-based differences in communication.  I went into it expecting neither of these things, and found myself completely shocked and impressed with how clearly Tannen lays out ideas and how even-handedly she addresses communication styles (sometimes to the point of being frustrating to read, as she defended styles I find personally annoying – but then again, those were the most thought-provoking moments for me).  While the book is approaching 30 years old, it still felt relevant and provided useful tools for examining gender and communication norms, and was well worth the read.

One of its strengths lies in Dr. Tannen’s decision to focus not on causes behind communication styles, but simply on effects.  While I do think it’s valuable to look at the origins of social norms, that tends to be a highly polarizing topic and also… not necessarily relevant when discussing adults, who tend to be already set into certain behavioral patterns.  As adults, we must learn to navigate the situation that exists, as well as trying to improve upon it for the next generation.  This book is a tool – almost a field guide to different conversational styles, offering tips for identification and explanations of the underlying mindsets so that we can better interact with each other.

In the same way that learning a second language helps individuals understand their native tongue, I found that Tannen’s analysis of a variety of communication styles helped me to understand my own habits.  For instance, one of her central theses is that men tend to approach communication with a focus on status, but women approach it with a focus on connection- so for men, asking for help is a negative, because it reduces their apparent status, but for women it emphasizes their connectedness to others.  While personally I tend to prioritize connection in my relationships, I realized that my attitude towards money, for example, is highly status-based – I prize independence, and resist any suggestion of assistance from others even when it is in no way stigmatized.  By contrast, the way I approach making plans is very connection-based; most notable is the fact that there are sentences I can’t make myself formulate without the use of the first person plural.  In putting forth my opinions on what a group should do, I never speak in the singular; it’s always “we could try X” or “maybe we should do Y”.  “I want to do X” in the context of a group decision feels… wrong to me.

The chapter that was most fascinating, though, was Tannen’s discussion on interruptions.  This is an oft-studied aspect of communication, and I’m sure most people have seen the articles that regularly circulate about how men interrupt women more and what this means… but I suspect most of us, and I include myself in this, rarely give much thought to how such studies are conducted.  Dr. Tannen starts off by digging into how interruption is defined, and also raises the important point that it isn’t always unwelcome.  She describes ‘high-involvement’ and ‘high-considerateness’ styles, and then makes the point that a tendency towards one style over the other can be cultural, and that treating it solely as a gendered phenomenon is often ethnocentric:

“If the researchers who have found men interrupting women in conversation were to ‘analyze’ my audiotapes of conversations among New York Jewish and California Christian speakers, they would no doubt conclude that the new Yorkers ‘interrupted’ and ‘dominated’ – the impression of the Californians present.  This was not, however, the intention of the New Yorkers, and – crucially – not the result of their behavior alone.  Rather, the pattern of apparent interruption resulted from the difference in styles.  In short, such ‘research’ would do little more than apply the ethnocentric standards of the majority group to the culturally different behavior of the  minority group.”

Her reflection on how this research intersects with other stereotypes hit me hard:

“As a woman who has personally experienced the difficulty many women report in making themselves heard in some interactions with men (especially ‘public’ situations), I am tempted to embrace the studies that men interrupt women: it would allow me to explain my experience in a way that blames others.  As a high-involvement-style speaker, however, I am offended by the labeling of a feature of my conversational style as loathsome, based on the standards of those who do not share or understand it.  As a Jewish woman raised in New York who is not only offended but frightened by the negative stereotyping of New Yorkers and women and Jews, I recoil when scholarly research serves to support the stereotyping of a group of speakers as possessing negative intentions and character.  As a linguist and researcher, I know that the workings of conversation are more complex than that.  As a human being, I want to understand what is going on.”

I had to sit back and think about this for a while, because I too have found those studies to be validating and reassuring, and yet… I don’t think I ever really reflected on their broader implications.  As a scientist and an intersectional feminist, it is a gross oversight on my part to have tacitly accepted research-as-judgement-of-others in this way.

There were several other observations which seemed to me to be particularly salient to modern American political conversations.  For instance:  

“Nowhere is this inherent ambiguity clearer than in a brief comment in a newspaper article in which a couple, both psychologists, were jointly interviewed.  The journalist asked them the meaning of “being very polite”.  The two experts responded simultaneously, giving different answers.  The man said, “Subservience.”  The woman said, “Sensitivity.”  Both experts were right, but each were describing the view of a different gender.”

This seems to me to perfectly sum up the debates that rage over ‘political correctness’, as one side sees it as simply being considerate, and the other sees an imposition and a restriction on their freedom of speech.  Obviously, PC debates aren’t divided cleanly by gender, but these different viewpoints may be rooted in status versus connection-based thinking.

There were a few areas in which I felt this book could have been stronger.  Dr. Tannen used a lot of quotes from literature and short stories to illustrate her points, in supplement to formal studies, and I felt like this just wasn’t very strong evidence.  Literature says a lot about how an author views communication, yes, but it’s not actually a firsthand example of communication difficulties.

Additionally, while Tannen analyzes heterosexual relationships extensively (much of which made me very glad I’m not in one), there was very little comparison to same-sex couples, which could have served as a way of isolating gender difference as a variable.  The one time same-sex couples came up was this brief mention:

“An intriguing result of their comparison of heterosexual and homosexual couples is that only among lesbian couples did earning more money not establish a partner as relatively more powerful in the relationship.  Lesbians, they found, use money to avoid dependence but not to dominate.  And only among gay male couples did one partner feel more successful if the other partner’s income was lower.”

I suspect the explanation for this is simply a lack of research available, especially in the late 80s when Tannen would have been writing this book.  For that, and many other reasons, I finished this book wishing there was an updated edition filling in the gaps or examining new phenomena.  The interaction of gender and communication over the internet would be fascinating, especially approached in this even-handed manner.  Then again… maybe that would be its own book.  In all likelihood it already is, and I just haven’t looked for it.

All remaining questions aside, You Just Don’t Understand was definitely a solid introduction to thinking about gender and communication.  In fact, I feel like the questions are a testament to how interesting Tannen makes her subject – I finished more curious and engaged than I began.  It’s definitely a book that I’d recommend to almost anyone, especially those interested in the often-invisible ways language shapes our lives and relationships.


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