You just don’t understand: Women and Men in Conversation 
by Deborah Tannen.
Virago, 330 pp., £14.99, May 1991, 1 85381 381 8
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Three years ago the University of Cambridge voted to revise its Statutes and Ordinances: all references to ‘he’ were to be replaced with ‘he or she’ or (mindful of the university’s responsibilities to English style) with some more elegant, non-sexist circumlocution. No longer would female students and staff be forced to assume that all the rules and regulations applied equally to them even though they were framed entirely in terms of the male gender. Women were to be formally and publicly included, to the last dot and comma.

Strikingly there were few outright objections to the principles behind this change. The time is long gone, even in Cambridge, when anyone would dare (openly) to suggest that women’s presence in the university was better hidden, better subsumed under an elastic interpretation of the male pronoun. Public objections concentrated on the alleged expense of the whole procedure, and on the dangerous side-track that these worthy ideological changes might represent – the ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ argument. When the Tory Government was busy pouring kerosene on the whole university enterprise, was it not playing into the Government’s hands to start distracting ourselves by tinkering with the Statutes?

For most women in the University, support for the change was necessarily tinged with ambivalence. Here was a gesture of good faith on the part of the aggressively masculine university; it could hardly be snubbed. Besides, there did appear to be a remote chance that a change of language might lead to a change of attitude: the more that people were forced to write in non-sexist terms, the more hope there was that they might in the end come to think in those terms as well. All the same, for many of the small minority of female academics in the university, this gesture seemed quite simply too little too late: a few deft linguistic revisions were not likely to make us feel a full part of a university which in many ways continued to treat us as ‘foreigners’ (tolerated, welcomed, loved maybe – but still foreigners) in a native male preserve. Cambridge is, I am sure, no different from most other establishment institutions in this respect. The ‘plight’ of its female academics is unlikely to win much sympathy in the world – especially when it is compared with the barely concealed discrimination practised against (say) women police officers. But the fact remains that Cambridge – for all its sincere liberal intentions and its Equal Opportunities Policy – is a place where most women feel that in some strange, undefinable way they do not quite belong.

That sense of exclusion would come as no surprise to Deborah Tannen, and she could certainly produce a ready explanation for it. It is not a result, she would argue, of simple outnumbering. To be sure, Cambridge does have the lowest proportion of female academic staff of any university in this country (about 10 per cent): but, as we all know, the dynamics of personal and political relations within such a vast disparity are much more complex than those raw numbers might suggest. Nor would she blame that range of symbolic, territorial exclusions about which women in Cambridge so often complain. It is not just a question, she would say, of the repeated humiliation of being forced outside into the rain, a five-minutes walk around the college, merely to find a women’s lavatory – which is, in any case, of such inadequate proportions that no one six months pregnant could even hope to force their way in. No. For Tannen, the explanation would lie in issues of language – not in the narrow conflicts over sexist expression, but in the underlying, unspoken rules of (male) rhetoric, of what can be said and how.

The point of You just don’t understand is to explain that men and women speak crucially different languages – genderlects. Most institutions conduct their business (whether committees, seminars or just lunch) in ‘men’s talk’; and for most women that is a foreign tongue, involving rules of relevance, aggression, timing, vocabulary, humour and persuasion quite different from those that apply when women talk together. Men, she argues, use conversation as a means of establishing status; they use it to get and keep attention; they use it to exhibit their own knowledge and skill – ‘holding centre stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking, or imparting information’. Women, by contrast, use talk as a means of establishing intimacy, connection and rapport; they use it not as a mechanism of domination, but as part of a ‘negotiation for closeness, in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus’. If this is right, it can be no surprise that women working in male institutions feel a sense of not belonging: they can never quite be one of the lads, because in the last resort they do not talk the lads’ language.

For most women this kind of analysis must ring at least partly true. Tannen neatly captures the sense of bafflement that women feel when brought into conversation (or a committee) with a group of men: that combination of disdain for the loathsome self-display of the preening, talking male and grudging admiration for the obvious effectiveness of that style of discourse, for the fact that people really do stop and listen. It is not an entirely new analysis, of course – by no means as ‘revolutionary’ as the dust-jacket tries to suggest. From Aeschylus (Choephori, 665-7) to Dale Spender, there have been numerous attempts to define the differences between male and female modes of language. But Tannen, in her popular, ‘Everything you wanted to know’, style does a good job in teasing out the details in contexts as diverse as university committees, toddler playgroups and the bourgeois marriage.

The problem is that her faith in the crucial importance of her genderlects makes her analysis wilfully anti-political. Her message is liberal, forgiving, anxious to promote ‘mutual understanding’. Men need to realise that women may be put off, even hurt, by aggressive male conversational style. Women need to realise that men are not intending to be unsympathetic or dominating: it is simply that the language learnt at their father’s knee may make them appear so. If women could make an effort to understand the rules and constraints of that foreign, male discourse, they would not feel so threatened by it. Maybe that is so. But if you follow that line of reasoning very far, you soon find that these genderlects turn into nothing more than convenient alibis for all the old male powergames. ‘I can’t help it, honest, it’s my language.’

Consider Tannen’s story of a couple who had just spent their first night in bed together. ‘It was a weeknight, and they both had to go to work the next day, so she was delighted when he made the rash and romantic suggestion that they have breakfast together and report late for work.’ The woman was full of anticipation as she prepared the breakfast, but no sooner had she put his plate in front of him than he picked up the newspaper and proceeded to spend the whole meal silently buried in it, munching away. She could not even see his face behind the paper, let alone gaze lovingly into his eyes.

Maybe there is more to this story than we are told. After all, Tannen quotes only the woman’s version. But judging it as it stands, I find it hard to interpret the man’s action as anything other than rudeness verging on exploitation. First he gets his sex, then he gets his breakfast cooked and paper provided. But that is not Tannen’s line. For her it is a matter of language again. In fact, she congratulates the woman concerned, who apparently realised that different genderlects were at stake here: ‘She realised that, unlike her, he did not feel the need for talk to reinforce their intimacy. The companionability of her presence was all he needed, and that did not mean that he didn’t cherish her presence.’ Any women who actually believed this ridiculous interpretation would no doubt also believe that washing-up and nappy-changing were somehow at odds with men’s sense of their own language. She would probably accept, too, the inevitability of male abuse, their verbal violence against women – just ‘getting attention’ again, she would say.

It is one thing to point out how male and female rhetoric differs, and to examine the implications of that difference for our working and private lives. It is quite another to use the bland tone of popular sociology to conceal the fact that language is not just a mechanism that separates men and women, but a central mechanism in men’s exploitation of women. Men’s talk is not an innocent foreign tongue that women would be well advised to get to know better. It is one of the main weapons in the armoury of male domination. Within that sexual-political context, Tannen’s pleas for ‘opening lines of communication’ between men and women seem feeble and reactionary – rather like suggesting to Roman slaves that life might be better if they improved their Latin.

Tannen is also surprisingly insensitive to the language of intimacy. We never meet her male and female talkers with their clothes off. We meet them in the office, on committees, in restaurants, in their cars and (as in the case of the disastrous breakfast) in various states of post-coital misunderstanding. But Tannen never makes clear how her genderlects operate in the (perhaps) very different world of the bedroom or of the office floor. Even ‘flirting’ gets only three passing references. This is quite simply to ignore language’s (not just female language’s) potential for establishing closeness, as well as for marking separation; it is to ignore language’s potential to subvert the very barriers that it seems to impose.

The closer Tannen comes to discussing sex, the more she neglects words and takes refuge in bodies (body language). She points out that the traditional parades of physical intimacy cast the man in the role of protector, while the woman plays the part of the protected child – the (male) arm round the (female) shoulder; the (female) head buried in the crook of the (male) neck. This is true enough as far as it goes. Most women no doubt do have a much closer acquaintance with men’s necks (whether daddy’s or lover’s) than men ever have with women’s. But there are more complicated issues at stake here than the simple asymmetry, protection and submission that Tannen suggests. Those issues are to be seen not only in the mere fact of the bodily gesture, but also in what women say when they are in that position: for it is at those moments that many women are empowered to claim a primacy for their own language. Those are the moments when the consensual character of the female genderlect can have its way against the sparring parade of the male. Those are the moments when the female rules apply. Men only take women in their arms at the cost of allowing them to speak.

That is, of course, precious little political comfort. It is no political solace at all to have a voice in the bedroom but not in the boardroom or the seminar. All the same, it is an injustice to the theme of ‘women and men in conversation’ to exclude the most intimate conversations we have – as if sex was to do only with bodies, not with words.

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