Notes on
You Just Don't Understand


It used to be feminists liked to emphasize sameness of men and women, because women were seen as inferior to men. So feminists of that era don't like Tannen's book, which documents linguistic and motivational differences. But more recently feminists have emphasized differences (women are better). Separatism.


Different Words, Different Worlds

Incident: Tannen & husband lived apart. People expressing sympathy for their long-distance relationship. She liked the sympathy, and agreed how hard it was. He didn't and would disagree that there was any disadvantage.

Thesis: Men view the world as a hierarchical social order in which they can be one-down or one-up relative to another. Conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upperhand and avoid being one-down. Women view world as a network of connections and varying closeness to others. Conversations are negotiations for closeness, and people protect themselves from begin pushed away. They want to maximize intimacy and avoid isolation.

Here's a modification of Tannen's views: suppose the biggest difference is really in reactions to inappropriate efforts to change status or intimacy. For example, in the sympathy issue, Tannen says empathy was fine so long as people didn't inappropriately intrude on her privacy (inappropriate intimacy). Perhaps her husband was not so concerned about one-downness as inappropriate efforts to use their living apart as a way to establish the upperhand. This is different from Tannen's view in that the focus is on the appropriateness of the interaction. This corrects a flaw in the Tannen's theory, because elsewhere she says that men are more comfortable than women with hierarchies, which seems true. So then why are they concerned about being one-down. The solution is that men are comfortable with hierarchies when legitimate. For example, they expect the boss to be the boss and are fine being treated as subordinate (strikes them as honest). But women are less comfortable with that. Female bosses will try to make it appear that everyone is equal, at least superficially (like the Japanese system). 

There are in a sense hierarchies in both worlds, but one is based on power / accomplishment / respect and the other is based on popularity / cooperativeness / consensus.

Sex: See world as: Want:
men hierarchy respect & autonomy
women network closeness & intimacy

Both care about autonomy and intimacy, but differ on which is the priority.

men make decisions unilaterally
women consult with partners

Sympathy and concern over problems by others can always be seen as either interest in connection or interest in getting one up:

Do they ask because they care and want to deepen intimacy, or because they want to emphasize person's weakness? How you view that determines your reaction.

Case of the man who was rule-flouting team leader and then became manager. Suddenly created rules and demanded conformity. When out of power, he maintained autonomy by flouting rules. He was uncomfortable not with hierarchy but with being one down. When in power, he did what he could to enlarge his power (and therefore autonomy).

Giving Help

Communications and interactions in general (including helping others) always contain information about the relationship between the people involved. Tannen calls this information the meta-message. 

Help is a mixed meta-message. The meta message might say 'I care about you' or it might say 'You need help. I am better than you'. A pat on the back can easily be intimate, or condescending.

Meta Messages and Framing

Could be an implication of the message -- when I help you, it implies that you need help and I don't. The meta message you receive is a based on a frame or context that changes how the message is perceived.

Chivalry can be seen as either chauvinistic or nice. Motioning for a woman to go ahead in driving situation essentially gives her permission and retains control. Or it's just nice.

The protective frame: extending arm in braking, annoys the husband. He feels belittled, like a child.

Name dropping can also be seen as either status grabbing, or connecting.

In general, men scrutinize interaction in search of one-up one-down, while women ask 'are they pulling away or getting close?' --- different default frames.

People can then have opposite reactions to same stimuli: editor sends letter instructing person to let editor know of whereabouts during the next 6 months. The man feels like prisoner on parole, the woman feels important.

Male female communication can be seen as cross-cultural communication: one speaks the language of connection and intimacy, the other language of status and autonomy. Different frames of interpretation.

This begins in childhood. Boys play in larger groups, with leaders who order others around, or who tell stories that are the focus of attention. Boys games often have winners and losers and complex rules that they then argue about.

Girls play in smaller groups, and focus a lot on best friends. Differentiation in the group has mostly to do with closeness/popularity. Most of their games do not have winners and losers. girls tend to make suggestions and ask questions to move the group, while boys say "gimme that".

Girls do know how to give orders, as when they play mommies and kiddies, but seem to use that in other contexts.

The chief commodity bartered by boys is status. low status boys are pushed around. Chief commodity bartered by girls is intimacy. Girls monitor friendships for subtle shifts in alliance, and they seek friendships with popular girls. But popularity brings dislike as well because popular girls must reject so many.


Assymetries: Men and Women Talking at Cross-Purposes

Eve has lump removed, feels bad about being cut into, and the scars. Sister and girlfriend commiserate with similar stories of their own. But husband says, no problem, get plastic surgery. She gets upset that he is suggesting more surgery and that he is unhappy with her looks. But he thinks he's been asked to solve a problem, and does.

Troubles talk. For women, telling about problem is bid for an expression of understanding or similar complaint. It reinforces rapport. But men think that women are actually asking them to help solve a problem, and will either offer solutions, or try to make them feel better by saying its not really a problem. Men get frustrated cuz women don't take their advice, and women are frustrated because they don't get any sense of connection.

For men, refraining from expressing sympathy can be generous, because it avoids taking a one-up position. (they wouldn't say, I know how you must feel, how awful for you etc.).

Men don't ask directions: is worth spending a few extra minutes for the satisfaction and autonomy of finding one's own way.

Men feel bad when they can't solve problems for others: example of car fixing and woman pretending it helped.


Rapport-Talk and Report-Talk

Stereotype is that women gab endlessly. But in many settings, studies show that men talk more: at meetings, mixed group discussions, classrooms. Yet at home, men are often really silent.

Men seem more comfortable than women in public speaking -- report talk -- and women are more comfortable in private speaking -- rapport talk.

For women, conversation is basically about establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is on displaying similarities and matching experiences. girls criticize peers who try to stand out or appear better than others.

For men, talk is about preserving independence and negotiating status in a hierarchical social order. do this by exhibiting knowledge and skill by holding center stage through verbal performance, such as story telling, joking or imparting information. they are comfortable speaking in large groups.


Home is where we have image of silent man and talkative woman. pg 78 husband is spellbinding storyteller at parties, but says nothing to wife.

When asked for best friends, women list people they talk regularly to, but men will list wives or high school buddies they haven't spoken to in years.

Men talk more for information, while women talk more for interaction. pg 78, rebecca expresses every little thought, husband is "stingier" in expressing only what he thinks is important. He feels "dizzy from having been bounced around like a yo-yo tied to the string of her stream of consciousness.

For many men, home means freedom from having to impress through verbal display, so they don't have to talk. But for women, home is safe, private, and they are finally free to talk.

Public situation:

Past President embarrasses exec committee with talk of her mother: was doing private talk in public situation.

Women refuse to tell jokes in large groups?

When men do all the talking, women see them as dominating, even when the men think that everyone has the right to talk, and that they are respecting women by assuming they will say what they want when they want to.