Gender and cross-cultural communication


Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University, in her book “You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation” addresses lingual distinctions as they relate to the relations between men and women. The differences between how a man and a woman speaks and how this is essentially different cultures talking between is presented in this study by Tannen.

According to Tannen, there are gender differences like in many other cases in ways of speaking also. And thus we need to understand them in order to avoid needlessly blaming "others or ourselves -- or the relationship -- for the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles." Tannen’s approach on this is a sociolinguistic one, she feels that "because boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different cultures...talk between women and men is cross-cultural communication". 

Tannen traced speech patterns of previous studies and studied videos of pairs of speakers. Tannen argues that while studying gender specific speech styles the gender distinctions built into languages are to be considered. Each person's life is a sum total of series of conversations and understanding and using the words of language, all are absorbed and are passed on as different, disproportional assumptions about men and women.

The male benchmark is one of these assumptions. If, in fact, people believe that men's and women's speech styles are different (as Tannen does), it is usually the women who are told to change. She says, "Denying real differences can only compound the confusion that is already widespread in this era of shifting and re-forming relationships between women and men".

The women are treated on the basis of men, and men with good intentions speak to women as they would with other men and are puzzled when their words result to anger and resentment. Apart from the women changing; Tannen states that the change in women will not get the work done. All the while a woman invading into men’s conversation is considered rude. 

Tannen believes that women and men have different speech styles, and she defines them for us as "rapport-talk" and "report-talk," respectively. Women in conversations use language for intimacy, hence "rapport-talk." Girls are socialized as children to believe that "talk is the glue that holds relationships together", so that as adults conversations for women are "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. Conversation is for community; the woman is an individual in a network of connections. 

For men, conversations today are for information, thus "report-talk." Men negotiate to maintain the upper hand in a conversation and protect themselves from others' attempts to put them down. Boys learn in childhood to maintain relationships primarily through their activities, so conversation for adult males becomes a contest. A man is an individual in a hierarchical social order.

Because of the differences in speech as presented by Tannen, conversations result in meta-messages or information about the relations and attitudes among the people involved in the conversation. The meta-message is an individual’s interpretation of how a communication was meant. Conflicting meta-messages in a hierarchical linguistic relationship, have the potential to injure male pride and arouse their need for "one-upmanship" in the contest of conversation.

As Tannen claims, some people (not only women) practice co-operative overlapping in speech, while others refuse to participate until given specific time to speak. An overlap can be defined as two people speaking simultaneously during their conversation. Tannen defines the two types of people mentioned above as "high involvement" and "high considerateness" speakers. "High involvement" speakers give priority in a conversation to express enthusiastic support even if it involves simultaneous speech, while "high considerateness" speakers are more concerned with being considerate of others. They prefer not to impose on the conversation as a whole or on specific comments of another individual.

According to Tannen high-involvement speakers don't mind being overlapped because they yield to an intrusion on the conversation if they feel it and put off responding or ignore it completely if they don't. In addition, speakers from some cultural groups rarely pause between turns, because for them silence is seen as a sign of lack of rapport in a friendly conversation. Tannen’s references of overlapping are brief but frequent. It is understandable that in a discussion among high involvement speakers a hint of frustration might be seen on the part of a high consideration speaker.


Md Saifuddin Al Quaderi