Jessica's Blog

Relationship Communication—the Fundamental Differences in Discourse Practices between Men and Women

Relationships are a funny thing; especially the way people attach themselves to others. I believe it is because we all have this deep-rooted desire to be loved and accepted. What I find interesting though, is how even when the relationship can be hurtful and abusive some of us still remain attached. Why is this? Is it because we feel like this person is the only person who will love us? Is it because we will fear we will be alone and detached from the rest of the world if we break away from this person?  Do we fear we will lose not just his love, but the love of his friends and family—the whole social group that our significant-other has built around him or herself? I feel that these points all break down to the primal instincts that make us socialize with one another. It is our need to be part of a pack so that we may stay alive. We are, by nature, social creatures and therefore we have created symbols and norms that emphasize the idea of love and bonding.  In my anthropology class, called Language and Culture, I did some mild research on couple communication.  I, along with my two other group members, picked apart a couple of different angles as to why couples fight.  There was no over-whelming conclusive evidence that pointed to any one particular reason.   For this post I will focus on the broadest aspect that we found to be a cause for fighting in a relationship, the fundamental differences in discourse practices between men and women.

For my research I consulted three pieces of literature written by Deborah Tannen.  The last is her book entitled You Just Don’t Understand. In this piece I read segments throughout the work and all of chapter six, entitled Community and Contest: Styles in Conflict.  The book deals with the fundamental differences in men’s and women’s discourse practices, while chapter six focuses-in on the idea that, “Girls’ and boys’ different ways of trying to influence each other’s behavior reflect—and create-different social structures” (Tannen 1990:156).  To further explain, I first wish to state how men and women define their worlds differently and then I wish to note the fundamental language used to create these worlds.

The most straight-forward way of defining men’s and women’s discourse practices is back in chapter one—Different Words, Different Worlds.  Here, she states that many men engage in the world through the idea that individuals live in a hierarchical social order: “In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can… Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure” (Tannen 1990:24-25).  She then defines the woman’s world as a place where, “an individual [lives] in a network of connections…  Though there are hierarchies in this world too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than of power and accomplishment” (Tannen 1990:25).

Now, with these two worlds defined, I return to chapter six.  In this chapter, she focuses specifically on the idea that the ways in which men and women approach arguments differ due to their view of how the world works.  Tannen (1990:152) points specifically to childhood-development of conversational skills as the reason these fundamental differences occur.  She notes (1990:155) that boys often give one-another commands while girls develop, “creative ways of keeping the girls [in their group] equal in status”.  She illustrates this point by giving examples of discourse styles in different age-groups of children.  In the two case studies mentioned “… girls tended to make proposals for action by saying words like ‘Let’s,’ whereas boys often gave commands” (Tannen 1990: 152-153).  Further examples of phrases that could be found in both groups of boys are: “Gimme your…”, “Lie down”, and “Give me that”.  Further examples of what the girls could be found saying are: “Let’s go…”, “Let’s sit…”, “We gonna…”, and “We could” (Tannen 1990: 153).  It is important note that the forms of dialogue found in the girls’ speech are, “… attempts to influence what the others do without telling them what to do.  At the same time, they reinforce the identities of the girls as members of a community” (Tannen 1990:154). Tannen also notes (1990:154) that children are as much “…influenced by their parents styles just as adults are influenced by what they learned as children” (Tannen 1990:154).  To explain this chicken-or-the-egg paradox Tannen notes a study where it was found that “fathers issue more commands to their children than mothers do, and they issue more commands to their sons than to their daughters” (Tannen 1990: 154).

The next points address how the differences in men and women’s dialogue influence and construct each group’s social structures:

“Giving orders and getting others to follow them was the way that certain boys got to be and stay leaders.  A command, by definition, distinguishes the speaker from the addressee and frames him as having more power.  In contrast, the girls’ groups were organized in an egalitarian way… all participate jointly in decision making with minimal negotiation of status.” (Tannen 1990:156)

Tannen further notes girls, though they may not give direct orders, still typically have someone whose suggestions are taken most often (Tannen 1990: 157).  Later, she notes the importance of popularity games in girls’ play that show the importance of status.  In the game of four-square, girls will practice the art of being “nice-mean” to one another; where the object is to get someone out who is not a friend so that a friend can now play the game (Tannen 1990:171).  By doing this, girls can be nice without really being mean: “Getting people out was mean, but it wasn’t really mean if it was done for the purpose of being nice to someone else—getting a friend in” (Tannen 1990: 171). In further explanation of boys’ dialogue, Tannen states (1990:157) that boys typically didn’t give a reason for their demands at all because this reinforces an “order as moves in a contest”.

In conclusion, I wish to clearly make note of the fundamental differences in discourse practices between men and women in relation to childhood learning, in relation to interaction with other children and adult interaction: “…boys and girls are learning to handle complexity in different arenas—boys in terms of complex rules and activities, girls in terms of complex networks of relationships, and ways of using language to mediate those relationships” (Tannen 1990:181).


Tannen, Deborah

1990       You Just Don’t Understand. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.


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