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See Inside His Brain, Her Brain

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

Different Styles, Similar Goals
Despite these differences, women's and men's conversational styles are more alike than they may appear. Although these styles may seem opposite, they can be used for similar purposes. Boys and men are also concerned with connection, and girls and women with power, even as they may have different ways of pursuing these goals.

Verbal rituals that focus on connection often involve affirming sameness, as we saw in the little girls' exchange about contact lenses and in the familiar responses: “The same thing happened to me” and “I'm the same way.” Yet the contrasting ritual, “That's nothing! Here's what happened to me…,” which is typically associated with men—and interpreted as competitive—can also create connection, by implying, “You shouldn't feel bad about what happened to you, because what happened to me was worse.” In other words, “topping” each other can be another way to commiserate.

Similarly, for girls and women, what appears on the surface to be aimed at connection can also be a way to exert power. Linguist Amy Sheldon of the University of Minnesota has investigated this process by videotaping preschool children playing in same-sex groups of three. She found that both boys and girls pursued their own goals, but whereas the boys she taped were obvious about thwarting another's goals, the girls often did so in ways that appeared to honor the other girls' goals as well. In one example, two girls, Eva and Kelly, were not eager to include the third girl, Tulla, in their play. Instead of telling Tulla outright that she could not play, they included her but assigned her a role that precluded her participation: “You can be the baby brother, but you aren't born yet.” Sheldon emphasizes that this is a highly assertive move, even as it maintains the appearance of accommodating Tulla's wish to be part of the game.

In this instance, the children's behavior is not a clear on-or-off application of hierarchy or connection but a blending of both. We could say that Eva and Kelly exercised power to keep Tulla from participating but also honored the connection by assigning her a role. In contrast, Sheldon observed that when boys played, they tended to insist more overtly on their own goals and even to threaten physical force. For example, when one boy, Nick, wanted to cut a plastic pickle that another boy had, he screamed, “I have to cut! I want to cut it! It's mine!” Sheldon stresses, however, that although boys and girls tended to use more of one strategy or another, the difference was not absolute but of degree. Boys did sometimes attempt to compromise, and girls did at times attempt physical force to get their way.

Sheldon's research reminds us that patterns, no matter how real, are never absolute. Again, the asking-directions example is instructive. I didn't realize how common that scenario is because my husband does stop and ask directions, whereas I am the one who says, “I'd rather find it myself on the map.” In this respect, he and I are not typical, as many of us are not typical of our genders, cultures, regions or any other group to which we belong.

Gender differences are a matter of relative focus on connection and hierarchy, as we all want to accomplish both goals to some extent. We are always engaged in negotiations over connection and relative power. Eva and Kelly served both goals when they included Tulla—and kept her from participating. Similarly, the boys who verbally competed about how high they could hit a ball also created connection by agreeing on the type of verbal game to play. To understand gender patterns, then, rather than asking, “Does this way of speaking serve hierarchy or connection?” we need to ask, “How does this way of talking reflect the interplay of connection and hierarchy?” And nowhere can this interplay be better explored than in the context that is both universal and fundamental: the family.

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