He Said, She Said [Preview]

Women and men have different ways of speaking, but research reveals the conversational gender divide is not as stark as it seems

Why don't men like to stop and ask directions? This question, which I first addressed in my 1990 book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, garnered perhaps the most attention of any issue or insight in that book. It appeared on cocktail napkins (“Real men don't ask directions”) and became a staple of stand-up comics as well as jokes that made the rounds: “Why did Moses wander in the desert for 40 years?” and “Why does it take so many sperm to find just one egg?”

The attention surprised me. I had not known how widespread this experience was, but I included the asking-directions scenario because it crystallized key aspects of a phenomenon that, I had discovered, accounts for many of the frustrations that women and men experience in conversation. I have spent more than three decades collecting and analyzing thousands of examples of how women and men interact and have found that men's talk tends to focus on hierarchy—competition for relative power—whereas women's tends to focus on connection—relative closeness or distance. In other words, a man and woman might walk away from the same conversation asking different questions: he might wonder, “Did that conversation put me in a one-up or one-down position?” whereas she might wonder, “Did it bring us closer or push us farther apart?”

But wait! All conversations, and all relationships, reflect a combination of hierarchy and connection—the two are not mutually exclusive but inextricably intertwined. All of us aspire to be powerful, and we all want to connect with others. Since the publication of You Just Don't Understand, I have continued to investigate the nuances of women's and men's ways of speaking to clarify how their conversational styles are different ways of reaching the same goals. My newest work explores the context in which women's focus on hierarchy and men's on connection is most obvious and most intense: the family. In particular, sisters provide insight into relationships among women that are deeply influenced by competition as well as by connection.

So what does any of this have to do with asking for directions? The route to the answer may not yet be obvious, but read on and I promise to get you there.

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