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Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" is better than "The Naked Ape," better than "The Peter Principle." This book has the power to change lives. Our lives. (Give a copy to your teenager!) Tannen's presentation is easy to understand and accept, despite challenging fundamental beliefs. One insight, for instance -- though not her own -- is that men become professors at research universities because they value freedom (in a familiar, high-status, problem-solving occupation with reasonably good pay). They don't want to be told what to do. Women become professors in order to teach. Similar motives apply to entrepreneurs: men want to run their own businesses; women want to provide a good environment for their employees.

Tannen's main thesis is that men seek fulfillment and involvement with others through asymmetric or competitive relationships, with key goals of independence, physical action, problem solving, personal competence, and dominance (or a protective role); women seek interdependence and group empowerment through symmetric relationships. (Forgive me if I'm too brief about the female view. I still have difficulty grokking it.) Men act within status hierarchies, always seeking to be one-up or passing up such opportunities in order to show friendship. Women act within cooperative relationships and cliques, paying special attention to emotional alignment and friendship. Conversation rather than action is usually dominant. Status is seen as a tool in achieving group goals rather than an end in itself, and status differences are typically minimized or unperceived.

Not everyone is the same, but Tannen discusses common behaviors. Each of our actions has competitive and cooperative aspects, and cultural differences often cause men and women to interpret similar actions very differently. Men advertise their credentials and lecture about their work; women minimize individuality and seek commonality with strangers. Men top each others' "goof-up" stories in order to show a sense of community; women see this as upstaging and lack of sympathy. Men seek reassurance that their problems are surmountable; women seek reassurance that their feelings of frustration are valid. A man who "cooperates" by offering solutions to a problem may thwart his wife's efforts to establish rapport; a woman who "cooperates" by letting her husband talk without interruption may thwart his need to debate ideas without committing to them emotionally. Such differences in conversational style often lead to divorce/disassociation.

The stumbling blocks can arise from ethnic differences as easily as from gender styles. Some cultures need interruption for satisfactory interaction; others need gaps (invitations) in the conversation before they can participate. Californians expect longer pauses than New Yorkers, Midwesterners longer yet. Minor interruptions may be welcome if they support the speaker's point; unwelcome if they challenge it, ignore it, or usurp the conversation. Everyone likes a good listener, but good listeners must adapt to the speaker in order to show interest and agreement.

Here's an aside from my own experience. When I need a good car repair shop, it irritates me that my wife cites her friends' anecdotal experiences. I can understand the value of consumer surveys, but have little faith in single reports -- yet my wife gets angry at my pig-headedness if I say so. What's going on? Deborah Tannen would probably say that experiences -- good or bad -- after following a friend's recommendation help bind everyone together; experiences after objective, male-style research would not. Besides, the research approach doesn't necessarily give better results. Tannen says that men like to apply general principles or compiled knowledge to specific cases (expert systems); women like to integrate individual instances in more of a k-nearest-neighbor reasoning style (CBR). Besides, tell an anecdote to a friend and you invite corroboration or rebuttal. Tell it to dozens of friends, each of whom as talked to dozens of friends (who have talked to dozens of friends) and you begin to get a fair representation. If your friend has heard nothing bad about a company, chances are your friend's friends' friends haven't either. Gossip is like NetNews in its distribution and like a chain letter in its coverage. New incidents spread quickly; old ones become a "background radiation" known as a company's goodwill. It's not a bad system, really.

Unfortunately, feminine interaction styles are antithetical to the leadership qualities expected in Western public life. Women are always judged relative to feminine standards. A woman who is not hesitant and demure will be seen as cold, hard, and arrogant. In one study, identical resumes were judged acceptable if from men but "too businesslike, lacking personality" if from women. Tannen offers sympathy but no solution.

(The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. -- Lily Tomlin. [diderot, 6/93.])

For a more scholarly look at language and gender (in many languages) see Hume and McElhinny's new collection of 26 L&G syllabi. It's published by the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics (COSWL) for $20, but you can FTP a free version in seven parts from linguistics/handouts/syllabi on You can also post a "get LG-GEN-# SYL linguist" message to [email protected], where # is 0 through 6. File 6 is 148K. [Elizabeth V. Hume ([email protected]), LINGUIST, 7/26/93.]

Incidentally, an Australian study found that women's input determined the ultimate decision in 71% of home computer purchases, 88% of health insurance, 91% of household purchases, and 94% of furnishings. [Tom Peters, SJM, 7/26/93.]