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

“Mine's Higher” vs. “We're the Same”
My interest in the linguistic differences between women and men grew from research I conducted early in my career on conversations between speakers of different ethnic and regional backgrounds. These interactions often led to misunderstandings because members of each group had contrasting assumptions about what should be said and the appropriate way to say it. I sensed, and later showed, a parallel pattern in conversations between women and men—a gender-based culture clash.

I often illustrate—and trace—this phenomenon using video clips of preschoolers at a day care center. In one scene, four little boys are sitting together, talking about how high they can hit a ball. “Mine's up to there,” one small boy declares, raising his arm above his head. “Mine's up to the sky,” a second responds, pointing higher. A third boy counters, “Mine's up to heaven!” Then the fourth boy offers: “Mine's all the way up to God.” These boys' verbal exchange is obviously a game of hierarchy, as each one's claim tops the preceding one.

I contrast this video clip with another from the same preschool: two little girls are sitting at a small table, drawing. One girl suddenly raises her head, looks at the other, and says (apparently referring to contact lenses), “Did you know that my babysitter, called Amber, has already contacts?” The second girl looks puzzled at first but quickly gathers herself together and announces, with apparent relish, “My mom has already contacts and my dad does, too!” The first girl laughs with glee at this echo response, which even matches the first girl's odd syntax (“has already” rather than “already has”). After a pause, during which both girls return to drawing, the first one exclaims with delight, “The SAME?!” Being the same is as pleasing to her as topping one another is to the boys.

Although the specific conversational moves—topping versus matching—are different, what these contrasting conversations have in common is that they are rituals: self-evident assumptions about how the conversations should go and what a reasonable remark or response should look like. As with cross-cultural communication, we do not recognize them as rituals until we talk to others who do not share our assumptions.

Parents tell me that recognizing these as gender-related patterns in their children helps them deal with otherwise baffling behavior. For example, a woman recalled overhearing three little boys—her son and two of his friends—talking in the backseat as she was driving. One boy said, “When we went to Disneyland, we stayed three days.” The second boy said, “When we went to Disneyland, we stayed four days.” Then her son said, “We're going to move to Disneyland!” She was troubled to hear him utter an obvious untruth. Should she instruct her son not to tell lies? I assured her that the boys knew that her family was not going to move to Disneyland. But her son won that round.

A father told me about a similar confusion upon overhearing a conversation between his little girl and her friend. The friend had said, “I have a brother named Benjamin and a brother named Jonathan.” His daughter responded, “I have a brother named Benjamin and a brother named Jonathan, too.” But she didn't. Her father wondered why she would say such a thing. I explained that she was simply offering a matching experience as a sign of goodwill, to reinforce the friendship.

The contrasting focus on connection versus hierarchy also sheds light on innumerable adult conversations—and frustrations. Say a woman tells another about a personal problem and hears in response, “I know how you feel” or “the same thing happens to me.” The resulting “troubles talk” reinforces the connection between them. (Indeed, some women feel they have to dig up problems to tell friends to maintain intimacy.) Because this is not a conversational ritual he is used to, a man may well misread her conversational gambit as a request for help solving the problem. The result is mutual frustration: she blames him for telling her what to do and failing to provide the expected comfort, whereas he thinks he did exactly what she requested and cannot fathom why she would keep talking about a problem if she does not want to do anything about it.

Similar scenarios play out at work, where mutual misinterpretations may have career-altering consequences. For example, if a woman's boss overhears her telling a subordinate, “Could you do me a favor and get me a copy of that report?” he may think she lacks confidence. It appears to him as if she does not feel she has a right to ask her subordinate to do something. But the truth is probably the exact opposite. She knows the subordinate has to do what she asks. Her locution “do me a favor” is simply a way of not flaunting the power she obviously has—and thus saving face for the subordinate. If men often mishear women's ritual indirectness as lacking confidence (or even competence), women often misinterpret less indirect rituals as overbearing—and also lacking in confidence. Her thinking goes: he must really lack confidence if he has to throw his weight around like that.

Which takes us back to the woman and man in the car who have different assumptions about asking directions. From her point of view, asking directions means making a fleeting connection to a stranger and getting where you are going without losing anything. From his perspective, he would be putting himself in a one-down position to a stranger—an uncomfortable experience. He might even believe the effort is counterproductive because a stranger who does not know the way will be similarly motivated by a reluctance to appear one-down and send them on a wild-goose chase. For both reasons, it makes sense to avoid this discomfort and spend 10 minutes—or 20 or 30—finding the way on his own.

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