You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. – 1990


Reviewed by Laura Bryannan

That men and women are on different wavelengths when it comes to communicating is probably not news to you. However, “Can We Talk?” the cover story of the December issue of New Age Journal, provides some excellent new perspectives on this age-old problem. The author, Peggy Taylor, interviewed sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, who has written a book called You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Tannen’s research shows that the differences between the communication styles of men and women go far beyond mere socialization, and appear to be inherent in the basic make up of each sex.

Tannen first noticed these differences when studying videotapes another researcher had made of best friends asked to have a conversation together. In contrast to the girls, boys were extremely uncomfortable with this request. Girls in all age groups would face each other and immediately began to talk, eventually ending up discussing the problems of one girl. Boys, on the other hand, sat parallel to each other and would jump from topic to topic–centered around a time when they would do something together.

Tannen observed that,

“For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They’re friends with the boys they do things with.”

It’s not hard, from even these simple observations, to see the potential problems when men and women communicate. Women create feelings of closeness by conversing with their friends and lovers. Men don’t use communication in this way, so they can’t figure out why their women are continually talk, talk, talking. Eventually, many men just tune their women out. The ubiquitous image of the housewife at the breakfast table talking to her husband who has his head buried in the newspaper comes to mind.

Tannen notes that men are confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. One of these ways she calls “troubles talk.” She says, “For women, talking about troubles is the essence of connection. I tell you my troubles, you tell me your troubles, and we’re close. Men, however, hear troubles talk as a request for advice, so they respond with a solution.” When a man offers this kind of information the woman often feels as if he is trying to diminish her problem or cut her off.

In his eyes, he’s being supportive, because men don’t talk to each other about their troubles unless they really do want a solution; talking about their problems is wallowing in them. The man doesn’t realize that his woman was simply trying to establish a certain kind of intimacy with him–inviting him to reciprocate and share himself with her. Because of these essential differences in approach, Tannen says that the most common complaint she hears from men about women “…is that women complain all the time and don’t want to do anything about it…Men misunderstand the ritual nature of women’s complaining.”

An interesting dance emerges from these different approaches: The woman, craving closeness and intimacy with her man, talks to him about her problems with friends, family, her job, etc. She seeks to have her man respond as her girlfriends have always done, and talk with her about his concerns. The man, however, hears these conversations as requests for advice, not intimacy. He considers the problem and offers a solution, or dismisses the issue, as the boys he knew always did. When his woman continues to go on about these same concerns, showing no movement to consider his advice, he becomes confused and eventually angry; he begins to believe that his woman is an expert at talking about nothing. The woman begins to feel that her man doesn’t care about her because he won’t talk to her in a way that feels intimate.

It is important for women to understand that men’s communicating is all about status. Think about all those nature shows you’ve ever seen on PBS. The prime goal of male beasties is to be able to mate; to do this they must be powerful enough to challenge the lead males in the herd. As they grow up, they bide their time by establishing a pecking order. When a beastie is big and strong enough to have most of the other males “under” him, he is ready to take on the “old man.” If he wins the fight, he gets to mate with the females of his choice (and they will mate only with him).

Tannen has found that human males behave in exactly the same way. She discussed the research of Marjorie Goodwin, who studied boys in Philadelphia for a year and a half. “She found that boys give orders as a way of gaining social status. The high-status boys gave orders just to maintain their dominance, not because they particularly needed the thing done. And the boys who were being told what to do were low status, by virtue of doing what they were told.”

This dynamic is important to remember when looking at another major area of miscommunication between men and women. Women cannot understand the resistance men seem to have when asked for assistance or consideration of some kind or another. Women must remember the above scenario and understand that, for men, doing what they’re asked to do means they have lost status in that relationship. Men often feel that women are trying to manipulate them. What a woman might see as a simple request–no big deal– is seen by her man an attempt to manipulate him into a “one-down” position.

Tannen discusses this issue further:

“Women want men to do what we want. We want them to want to do what we want, because that’s what we do. If a woman perceives that something she’s doing is really hurting a man, she wants to stop doing it. If she perceives that he really wants her to do something, she wants to do it. She thinks that that’s love and he should feel the same way about her. But men have a gut-level resistance to doing what they’re told, to doing what someone expects them to do. It’s the opposite response of what women have.” She reminds readers that, of course, there are men who are very helpful toward their women. “But if a man is going to be touchy, it’s more likely to go in that direction. Whereas if a woman is insecure, she’s more likely to go in the other direction, [and] be super- accommodating.”

In sharp contrast to the communication style of men, which seeks to establish and maintain status and dominance, women’s communicating is more egalitarian, or rule-by-consensus. When women get together they seek the input of the other women present and make decisions based on the wishes of all. Tannen notes that this type of communication style is becoming more important, and is in alignment with the Japanese style of management. Men doing business with Japanese companies often have to radically change their style of communicating to accommodate the more personal and intimate approach of the Japanese businessman.

One may get the impression from this discussion that women’s style of communicating is superior to men’s. Indeed, since the dawning of the women’s movement there have been many declaring that men just don’t know how to communicate (because they don’t communicate like women). Sensitivity courses galore have been offered in hopes of teaching men to communicate more like women. However, Tannen states that there is nothing pathological about men’s style of communication, and that women’s communicating also has it’s down-sides.

One fact I found particularly fascinating follows from women’s communication style of consensus-building. With women, consensus means thinking alike, being in agreement, being the SAME! When one woman in a group decides to go her own way in some matter, there is often trouble: “If a girl does something the other girls don’t like, she’ll be criticized, or even ostracized…What do girls put other girls down for? For standing out, for seeming better than the others…I mean, really–no wonder people talk about women’s fear of success!” In shock, Peggy Taylor, asked, “So you’re saying the female mode prevents excellence?” And Tannen replied, “It prevents displaying it.”

Pretty interesting, eh? I imagine that there are a fair number of women out there who have experienced that kind of isolation from their friends(?) at some time in their lives. It is unfortunate that exceptional women not only find themselves up against men who are threatened by their success, but are often faced with their sisters throwing stones in their path too. This need for consensus–for being alike–is something women need to explore further if we sincerely wish to support each other in advancing our individual goals and dreams.

In closing, Tannen makes the point that both sexes need to understand the inherent differences in their communication styles so that they don’t expect the impossible. There is middle ground where men and women can meet and find understanding. Women must learn that the kind of intimate talk they have with their girlfriends should remain just that. Trying to turn your man into a girlfriend will usually fail because men, in general, don’t create feelings of closeness in that way. Men, too can understand that when their woman is talking, she is attempting to connect to him–she’s not just talking to talk, nor is she trying to readjust the status of their relationship. By sharing more of himself he shows her, in a way she can understand, that he’s not pushing her away; that he does indeed love her and want to be close to her.

After reading this article, it’s easy to see that a major source of fuel for the battle between the sexes is this vastly different way of communicating. Perhaps if men stopped expecting women to communicate like men, and women stopped trying to get men to communicate like women, we would have enough energy left to appreciate how each sex compliments the other in a womderful way. Life would be pretty boring if men and women were the same (and I’m not referring to naughty bits here!) Viva la difference— what a challenging way to learn about life and each other!

Chapter Summaries of Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.  New York: Wm. Morrow, 1990. 

    1.        Different Words, Different Worlds

Conversation seen/used differently:

Men see themselves as:                                                               Women see themselves as:

individuals in hierarchically structured world who              indiv. in world of connection who negotiate

negotiate power + status, upper hand                                   closeness, confirmation, support, consensus

Intimacy and Independence: conversations have as goal to preserve status (M) or connection (W)


Women: Symmetry of connection creates community

Men:   Asymmetry of status creates contest

The Mixed Metamessages of Help: A message‑‑e.g., offer of help, expression of sympathy‑‑is always accompanied by metamessages‑‑info about the relations among the people involved and their attitudes toward what they are saying or doing and the people they are saying and doing it to.  E.g., giving help may send metamessage “I am more competent than you.”  Interpretation of metamessage depends heavily on wording, tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, etc. 

Framing = another way of thinking about metamessages: they indicate superior/inferior alignment, provide context for interpretation.  In effect, they frame you as dominant/ subordinate as well as framing what you say (e.g., talking to others like a teacher may frame you as condescending, pedantic; talking to others like a student seeking help and explanations may frame you as being insecure, incompetent, or naïve). 

The Modern Face of Chivalry: while message = being polite and showing connection, metamessage = control, giving permission or granting privilege (which can, conversely, be withdrawn too)

The Protective Frame: M‑‑>W reflects traditional alignment of men protecting women, but W‑‑>M reflects w’s traditional protection of children, framing man as child

                Different Means to the Same End: we can all play on status or connection to get things done w/conversation, e.g., to get a booked‑up plumber, play on status/hierarchy:

1) present yourself as an important person or

2) present yourself as one‑down, alone, needing help, special treatment or play on connection: know same people, from same place, etc.

Who’s Deceptive?: Playing on either status or connection can be seen as manipulative depending on which you think is more fundamental

                Mixed Judgments and Misjudgments: E.g., women display connection (which they think positive, i.e., thanking husband in preface to book) and men interpret this as lack of independence, synonymous w/incompetence and insecurity

In Pursuit of Freedom: E.g., surveyed views on freedom thru divorce:

Women said felt freed from internal burden of emotional responsibility for interdependence, worrying @ being responsive to mate

Men said felt freed from external burden of obligations, constraints on behavior (need to consult, account for actions)         

Male‑Female Conversation is Cross‑Cultural Communication:

Gorwing up in different worlds leads to diff. conversational styles, also known as genderlects

It Begins at the Beginning: with social encouragement for girls to be cooperative and boys to be competitive

                The Key is Understanding difference in conversational styles, which are equally valid; this makes world a more familiar place

    2.        Asymmetries: Women and Men Talking at Cross‑purposes:

Women match troubles, look for understanding, support, and comfort through similarities

Men are more likely to respond to complaints w/info/advice, but their attempt at helping often received as not being sympathetic and solution proferred may even be interpreted as men

suggesting something (“You can get scar operated on”: for M, is a solution, don’t worry; for W = man wants her to get operation)

“They’re my troubles‑‑not yours”: when women match troubles w/men, seen as denying uniqueness of men’s experience

“I’ll fix it for you”: men see selves as problem‑solvers and focus on solutions, on message, while women focus on metamessage of community–“We’re the same, you’re not alone”

Parallel Tracks: girls respond to complaints/troubles by confirming feelings, while boys talk of own problems and dismiss other’s as insignificant (=don’t worry, it’s not so bad) 

Matching Troubles: women reinforce similarity, confirm feelings, foster sense of community

A Different Symmetry: boys’ dismissal of other’s problems can also be interpreted through lense of alignment: not sympathizing = refusal to take superior and condescending role

“Don’t ask”: asking for information:

                for women: reinforces bonds, feeling of community

                for men: creates hierarchy, frames man as inferior, one‑down

                “I’ll fix it if it kills me”: social contract influences men to try/pretend to help women even if can’t and women to create context w/i which to thank for (non‑existant) help because

must show appreciation

“I’ll help you if it kills me”: Men provide help/info in a way that reinforces their status, shows they have power (use difficult vocab), while women minimize difference in expertise to

be as comprehensible as possible and give off metamessages of support

“Trust me”: not to trust a man = ? his skill, knowledge

“Be nice”: stance of expert more fundamental to our notion of masculinity than our notion of femininity; women give praise vs. info (tho even giving praise can be seen as being one‑up, for women, esp. as mothers/nurses, seen more as doing others’ bidding)

Overlapping Motivations: as helpers men + women perform different tasks or w/different goals.

Man fixes s.t. to show concern for woman, to reinforce his reputation for skill, but also reinforces feeling of being in control, self‑sufficient, and able to dominate the world of objects.

Evelyn Fox Keller’s thesis: the conception of science as dominating and controlling nature is essentially a masculine view

Women and men place different relative weights on status vs. connection in interpreting intentions; women more likely to be able to receive help/info than men

The View from a Different Mountain: a main reason differences in conversational style are frustrating and disturbing are that they contradict not only what we expect (understanding, similar views for those closest to us) but our view of ourselves as understanding the world and having our feet planted on the ground.

    3.        “Put Down That Paper and Talk to Me!”: Rapport‑talk and Report‑talk: folklinguistics: women talk too much, but sociolinguistic research shows that men talk more than women

Rapport‑talk and Report‑talk: 1) private 2)public spheres

1) conv. = language of rapport, way of estab. connections and negotiating relationships; emphasis on similarity and matching experiences vs. difference (no boasting, appearing superior)

2) conv. = means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in hierarchical social order; done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, by holding center stage through verbal performance (storytelling, joking, giving info).  Men learn to use talk to get and keep attention

Private Speaking: The Wordy Woman and the Mute Man:

Source of stereotype that women talk more than men:

1) Dale Spender: since w + children should be seen and not heard, any amount of talk from them seems like too much;

2) men hear women talking when they themselves would not (i.e. private speaking on

phone, w/friends, about topics they wouldn’t discuss)

Women disappointed when men don’t talk or share feelings


Best Friends = center of girl’s social life; essence of adult female friendship = conversational‑style talk

“Talk to me!”: Women use talk to interact; telling = showing involvement, listening = show interest and caring.  Women have a lifetime of verbalizing feelings.

Men talk to exchange info; don’t express “feelings and passing thoughts” because this is not seen as important

                What to Do with Doubts: Difference in awareness of power of words to affect others:   Men can see voicing doubts as expressing “passing thoughts,” so they avoid doing it because they don’t want to cause harm for something transitional

Women see expressing doubts as an expression of trust in a relationship, sharing and working towards something.

For girls: talk holds relationship together

For boys: relationships held together by activities, or talk about activities, so men most inclined to talk when they need to impress or when their status is in question.

Making Adjustments: both sexes can do this when they understand where the misunderstanding comes from


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