Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers by Deborah Tannen, an Analysis on Gender-based Communication
In Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers, Deborah Tannen discussed the importance of communication in terms of making or breaking a relationship between couples. It explored in detail how most often than not, it is these failed attempts in communicating with one another that couples find themselves in shaky ground. By tracing the roots and the underlying causes of these differences, couples, or both men and women, are given insights as to how various cultural and personal experiences work dynamically to create these differences. Moreover, it only through the understanding of these differences that effective communication between opposite sexes could truly be achieved (Tannen). Effective communication is a vital lifeline of a successful relationship between a man and a woman. This paper would try to explore the social dynamics of communication as a culturally defined skill based on personal experiences and gender-based expectations of the society within the context of intimate relationship through compare and contrast analysis and how the understanding of these differences could help both men and women to communicate more effectively.
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Tannen argued that the difference in communication perspective, style, and approach between men and women begin during the early stages of their personal experiences in life. Culture in communication would be based and molded by the interaction of the gender with other people. For case in point, girls would tend to play in close-knit circle where trusts in relationship are highly valued reinforced by loyalty and shared secrets. For an existing member of the social group, this meant security and stability in terms of built relationship among playmates. However, for an outsider trying to get in the group is more difficult as the outsider would have to first gain the trust and confidence of the members of the social group. Once done, the former outsider would tend to enjoy an equal status among other members. And for those who break the social group wherein trust is violated, it will be more than difficult to enter back and regain the trust of the peers as compared to an outsider trying to make her way into the circle.
In this case, the emphasis on communication is building relationship. Communication among females is not merely a direct way of sending and or receiving messages rather, envelops to which relationships could be built. Communication is not merely a talk exercise but a form of building relationship, ergo the bond between girls are reinforced.
As compared to boys, communication is perceived as something that is more of a status-building endeavor rather than relationship building. Boys would often associate communication as something that would build their status. Thus, when a boy would tell an interesting story, more often than not someone else have to top it. If that can’t be done, the boy often times get the prestige and status. And because communication is hinge on status building rather than relationship, it is easier for boys to join social groups and accept new members of the circle. However, because the membership on the group is not based on built relationship, there is unequal social status. Unless a boy could prove his worth, then he is often times at the bottom of the pack.
In the case of boys, the emphasis on communication is developed in terms of direct messages—i.e. comparing stories and experiences. There are no underlying meanings, or social norm attached but an actual talk of something worth telling.
These two different approaches on personal experiences goes way back to childhood enculturation. The difference in past experiences of both man and woman defined their perception and attitude towards communication early on in life. These perceptions are built and reinforced through time that results to differences in perceiving communication which becomes culturally defined.
The other important point that Tannen made in understanding the male-female interpretation in communicating is geared on gender-based expectations. This meant that the dichotomy between gender-based norms defined the approaches they have towards communication.
For women, this meant that they find meaning through the implied message guised under what is being communicated. This process of being indirect but conveying negotiated agreement is termed by Tannen as Meta messages. Understanding Meta messages is a by-product of the culture of communication employed by women since they were little girls. Ergo, gender played a huge part among women in knowing, understanding, analyzing, and interpreting the ‘hidden’ or indirect messages within the context of the message being communicated. For case in point, women would bond together to help a friend who just broke up with her boyfriend because they knew that the Meta message behind consoling the broken-hearted friend meant reinforcing the personal relationship and that there is a need for the friend to have assurance that the break-up is not her loss, the boyfriend was a jerk, etc. The Meta message here is that the broken hearted friend needs to find assurance that she is an adequate women and that she was not at fault of the fall in the relationship.
For men, communication finds its meaning in the overt or direct message being communicated rather than over analyzing each messages being communicated. This culture is again based on the social norm experienced during childhood—that male does not necessarily find communication as way in building relationship and perceived it as something more direct. After all, narrating a story for status claim does not need much detail or underlying message for the man (or boy) to build his reputation on. In using the same example as stated above, men would seldom ‘dissect’ and analyze the fall of a relationship or a break-up with a woman. It is most likely that men would just talk about the overt reasons for the break up and leave it at that without going much further into the details and analyzing the psyche or the motives behind each particular scenario that might have lead to the break up.
Meta Messages and Direct Messages
Now, the misunderstanding in terms of communication ensues when the Meta messages and direct messages are clashed together in a conversation. Because women are hard-wired in a different way, and men on the other hand tend to have aversion to complicating things and love for the simple and logical, clashing perspectives when not addressed correctly could lead to miscommunication that could build up to have dire consequences in a relationship.
For instance, a woman seeking to have a conversation with her husband who’s watching television, would probably sit with him in the couch, and lean her head and ask casually what he is watching, who is winning, etc. Her Meta message is that she wants her presence known to the husband so that he could direct his attention towards her and not the television. The husband who was not paying attention to the indirect message being communicated would only pay attention to the overt message being communicated and would probably simply answer her question without paying special attention to her under the understanding that she is also interested on what he is watching. The wife feels hurt because she felt neglected or uninterested and storms out of the room. The husband is then left watching the television thinking that his wife was not that interested in the movie or program.
In the given example, interpreting meaning at different messages created conflict—at least in the part of the women who felt betrayed or hurt by her husband’s callousness to her needs. The husband who was not paying attention did not even realize that the simple exchanges have caused severe damage to their relationship. It is these small and simple encounters piled up together that more often than not lead to the decay of a relationship. The break-down in communication only tends to worsen these small misunderstanding until there is nothing left but to be separated since the relationship is no longer working for both of them.
The need to understand the differences in communication is vital for an efficient communication and quality of an intimate relationship. Because communication is vital, understanding the differences between the male-perception and female-perception with regards to communication is crucial to lessen the chances of miscommunication. Learning to decipher when a man is being direct or when a woman is sending Meta messages could also improve the quality of the relationship because this would assure that the needs of both parties are being communicated effectively.
Tannen, Deborah. Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers. 31 March 2006. 4 October 2010 <http://and-if-not.blogspot.com/2006_03_01_archive.html>.