Conversation Rituals

Conversation rituals are recurring patterns of conversation whose meaning or social function is not what it appears to be. Not understanding that the conversation you are in is part of a conversation ritual can cause problems. Some typical conversation rituals:

How are you? This is the classic American greeting, and is not normally seen as an actual request for a detailed report of the person's medical condition.

I’m sorry. Often saying I'm sorry is not about taking blame. Particularly among women, it really means: I’m taking your feelings into account. It can also be part of a 2-step ritual where both parties say I'm sorry:

Part 1:  I'm sorry for that typo ...
Part 2:  No, I'm sorry I wrote it so small.

Thanks. This is very similar to I'm Sorry, and is often part of a 2-step, symmetric ritual, such as you see between customer and clerk at a store.

        Part 1:  Thank you.
        Part 2:  Thanks.

Answering a 'thank you' with a 'your welcome' can be tricky. In some ways, this asymmetrical response is what is called for. In others, it is a way of establishing one-upness:

        Part 1:  Thank you.  {expressing good feelings}
        Part 2:  Your welcome  {interpreting 'thank you' as gratefulness of one in need}

The 'your welcome' seems to say acknowledge that person 1 was not fully together, not autonomous, and was dependent on person 2 to help them out. 

Ritual fighting & jousting. This is where people exchange mild put downs and compete for the purpose of establishing rapport. Women are more likely to misunderstand the ritual nature of this and take it personally. Even for men, though, it usually requires other clues, such a twinkle in the eye, to make clear that it is a ritual and not a real competition. 

Small talk. Discussion of unimportant things just to establish a relationship. Since establishing closeness is more important to women (according to Tannen, that is), we should observe women engaging in small talk more often than men. But both should do it. 

There are differences in what topics they use for small talk. Men tend to talk about things outside themselves: sports, or work, while women tend to talk about themselves (each other), or things close to, such as clothing. Talking about each other is a more efficient way of establishing a relationship.

Patting each other on the back. "Great talk" "Thanks, yours too".

Troubles talk. This is where people complain about problems to commiserate, not to solve problem. Men often misunderstand the ritual nature of troubles talk, thinking that they are being asked to actually solve a problem rather than commiserate or bring up parallel problems. 

Male and Female Differences

Behavior Male Female
Apologizing Avoid

See it as taking blame/responsibility

Which puts them one-down

Lawyer example is different kind of ritual: mutual accusation

Often say "I'm sorry"

Conversation smoother

Blame is part of 2-step ritual of sharing blame. Requires trust, familiarity, shared understanding

Thanking Avoid: acknowledges that you owe the other person Conversation closer; or part of 2-step ritual of mutual thanks
Fighting Verbal jousting is frequent way to evaluate ideas (debate) White women: Take it personally
Small Talk Men discuss things outside themselves: sports, politics, toys, maybe wives

Pass the time

Use the jousting style

Discuss themselves and their feelings

Keep in trust

Use confidant style

Praise Giving Give praise rarely & indirectly, give negative directly & immediately

Compliment can put giver in one-down position

Invitation for evaluation is taken literally

Give praise directly & often, & give negative indirectly & rarely. "if you can't say something nice.."

2-step exchange of compliments. Women give many to other women

Women invite evaluation as prelude to 2-step ritual

Complaining Men complain to incite action: solve problem or remove offender: public talk. Annoyed by women not wanting to fix problem

Problems can be way of saying how great I am: to match problem is to take that away (i didn't get sleep last night; me neither, never do; don't belittle me)

Deepen empathy, obtain reassurance & validation of feelings: rapport talk. Annoyed by men trying to fix their problems. Lumpectomy

Part of 2-step ritual of matching problems