I am re-reading a book that I keep around for reference material; It is Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, a seminal work on the differences between men’s and women’s communications styles. It was a book that heavily influenced my interest in historical sociolinguistics, because it of the emphasis that enculturation clearly played on communication styles.
I highly recommend it, but it’s getting a bit out of date now. It was originally published in 1990 and so I find the feminist dynamics to be a bit strained, but that, my loyal subjects, is a post for another time.
As I started to say earlier, I keep this book around for reference purposes, but this will be the first time I read it while in my current relationship. I was struck by how feminine (by Tannen’s standards) my husband’s discourse was, and how masculine my own is. However, I cannot say what influenced my husband’s discourse, but I can say my own was not influenced like Tannen say most little girls are. (This is part of what I mean by the book getting dated.)
Realistically, this means that Q and I communicate quite well. If there is not quite enough mindless chitchat about people and ideas to make my (ahem) feminine side perfectly happy, there is more than enough mutual planning and problem-solving to fill the needs of my (ahem) masculine side.
I was actually reading the book to refresh my memory on sociolinguistics, how what we mean to say is so often misinterpreted, because I intended to write a post on neuro-linguistic programming, a field I’m currently learning about because I’ve been asked my opinion on it. This is all by-the-by, and Deborah Tannen would say that the former paragraph was a feminine device to build intimacy and rapport, to share intimate details of my life in an effort to elicit a similar response and so create a bond.
The latter paragraph was a masculine demonstration of competency (by showing that people come to me for advice) couched in non-threatening language to avoid implying my superiority (commenting that I was researching it, and refreshing my knowledge).
But what I’ve found most interesting (and trusting that you won’t find it femininely innappropriate to share this story) I have formed a theory around my mother’s heretofore incomprehensible bitching and moaning of late.
No doubt you gentlemen have all heard the relationship advice that when a woman tells you her problems you must resist the urge to try to help her with them. She only wants your sympathy and your attention– not your advice.
Tannen says that women share negative experiences as a way of bonding; the other person is expected to say, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re feeling, the very same thing happened to me.” What women do is emphasize points of commonality because it says, You are not alone in this. You have support.
Amongst groups of women, complaining is a way of building intimacy and rapport. To solve the problem is not the point. If the problem were solved, there would have to be another problem, because the point is the conversation. This is a paraphrased passage from the book that was quite illuminating to me because lately my mother has been complaining a lot. It was puzzling to my family because she is not what I would call a negative person.
It occurs to me, in light of my reading, that she is feeling left out and complaining is a way of claiming intimacy and rapport. The conversation is the point. While she feels emotionally vulnerable, she falls back into old patterns that are perhaps truer of her generation than they are of mine.
In our family, focussing on the negative is not encouraged. Complaints mean you need to do something about the situation and you are open to input; this is why my mother’s laments are discouraging. Why does she continue to complain but not to make changes? Because the complaint is not the point. The conversation is. I know from past experience that when my mom feels that she is valued and involved she is the most positive and pro-active person you can meet.
Thanks to this paradigm shift, I’m going to spend some time listening to her, offering support without trying to solve her problems.
Do you have communications issues in your life? What do you think needs to shift?