Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand is Wonderful

Posted on January 11, 2022 by Richard Goulter

I finally finished reading through Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”. It’s interesting to see that it was published in 1990. I’d put it alongside Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” as a book which provides a no-fault explaination for behaviour which seems illogical.

The core of the book is that some of the conflict which arises between men and women arises resembles conflict which arises due to inter-cultural differences. Sometimes a man will say something intending to be supportive, but it comes across as offensive to a woman (or vice versa).
The model of interaction Tannen notes from observation is that typically men interact with the world with an emphasis on competition, with a sensitivity to their place in hierarchies, prioritising individuality and independence; and that typically women interact with the world with an emphasis on cooperation, with sensitivity to their place in communities, prioritising connection and intimacy. (The author is aware that people are complicated, and that such a partitioning won’t describe everyone, etc.).

The chapters in the book generally give an example of an interaction, and use the model to explain the situation. The example interactions are about how the gendered differences play out in telling jokes, or in presenting/lecturing, in domestic conversations, in work meetings, in political leadership, etc..
– One example of a difference was that in classroom discussions, the competition-oriented style is more inclined to answer questions and give opinions, whereas a communal-oriented style is more inclined to avoid offending. (e.g. avoiding conflict of disagreeing, or appearing to not be equal to others).

One example (which apparently the book introduced to wider culture) was that “men don’t want to ask for directions”. Asking for directions makes you dependent on someone else for help.
I think anyone in a relationship who reads through the book will be reminded of misunderstandings they’ve had with their partner.

An recurring example of how human interaction is complicated comes up in situations where one person helps another. Lending support might be a show of superiority, or an obligation from a subordinate position.

In the afterword of the book’s reprint, Tannen discusses that many people asked her whether she thought the differences in conversation style were biological, or cultural. She felt that many of the people asking had already made their minds up:
those who felt the differences were biological felt (typically men) felt that this meant there was no need for the status quo to change,
vs those who felt the differences were cultural (typically women; although I’d expect these days it would typically be progressives) and felt that this meant the conversation styles malleable.
– Tannen’s opinion (which she qualifies by saying it’s not within her domain of research) is that it’s not fully biological, but that cultural values are unlikely to change quickly. The differences should be understood as they are, as to mitigate the impact of conflicts arising from differences.

The book’s foreword similarly makes an interesting claim, as to why we should care about differences:

Pretending that women and men are the same hurts women, because the ways they are treated are based on the norms for men. It also hurts men who, with good intentions, speak to women as they would to men, and are nonplussed when their words don’t work as they expected, or even spark resentment and anger.

This paradox is expressed by an American Indian woman, Abby Abinati, describing why she found law school a difficult and alienating experience:

People did not like or accept the idea of Indians or women being lawyers. Some people could not decide which idea they hated more. Some pretended that it didn’t make any difference, that we were all the same. I, too, could be “one of the boys,” “one of the white boys.” Not likely. Both of these approaches created problems for me.

That some people thought she as a woman or an Indian shouldn’t be a lawyer is awful.
That she felt her identity as an Indian and a woman meant she felt left out when she was treated the same way as others would treat a white man… while it seems reasonable to say that people who are different should be recognised as different, but “treat people differently” just sounds disrespectful. – It’s natural to ask “What problems did it create for you? If not treated the same as ‘one of the white boys’, how’d you expect to be treated?”.

These days, there’s plenty of discussion towards the goal of reducing alienation of people who look different. But, there seems to be an underlying assumption that there’s no substantial difference in the way people interact.
– When differences are brought up, it kinda follows the two reactions mentioned above (“innate differences, nothing to be done” vs “the differences don’t exist! so, you’re saying women are inferior!?”). I think it’d be better if there were more acknowledgement of differences, and examples of ways to work with those differences.

I think the book’s treatment of cross-cultural communication is better than what gets passed around on Twitter.
e.g. the word “mansplaining” was only coined in the Twitter-era, and has come to be used as an unnecessarily-gendered substitute for the word “patronising”. The word’s initial usage, IIRC, was as by a female author frustrated by a conversation where a man explained her own book to her.
– Conflicts like this are typical of the kinds of inter-gender conflicts the book discusses. Tannen’s typical explanation is that a man is inclined to compete, to demonstrate his skill, with the expectation that a conversation partner reciprocate the competition; that a woman is inclined to cooperate, to not offend, and expect a conversation partner to not dominate a conversation.
– Twitter’s interpretation is that this conflict doesn’t happen between men, because men don’t patronise other men; Tannen’s interpretation is that this conflict doesn’t happen between men, because a man would simply reply “I know, I wrote the book”. Twitter’s interpretation is that men’s behaviour is pigheaded. Tannen’s interpretation is that the conflict arises due to different conversation styles.

I guess it’d be easy to paper-over the different styles of interaction.
From a framing where interaction is pro-competitive, and everything about one’s place in a hierarchy.. then interactions which style things in a social way seem frilly and stupid.
From a framing where interaction is pro-cooperative, and everything about one’s belonging to a group.. then interactions which style things in a competitive way are brash and crude.
– But it seems to me less dignity is lost (and less conflict is had) by considering these as different styles.

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