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“Sex, Lies, and Conversation” Response

Updated on May 1, 2012

Sadly, the one thing that seems so simple is what most couples in the U.S. have the most difficulty with… communication. The “Sex, Lies, and Conversation” essay by Deborah Tannen assumes an informative and logical tone as it attempts to reveal the underlying reason for high divorce rates sprouting from miscommunication. The people involved in the millions of divorce cases, amounting to nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population, and people having the start of a communication issue at home, dream of a solution to the “virtual epidemic of failed conversation.” Tannen gives insight into the wide spread communication issue with data from studies from both herself and other sources in hopes to shed light on the condition that is all too well known between couples. Tannen provides a well molded speculation, accurately stating that the difference in communication styles between men and women are due to the atmosphere in same sex groups; however, she fails to attribute the issue of miscommunication to any other causes. She fails to consider the male need for dominance in public, common-place disrespect shown by body language, or boredom and indifference while conversing.


Tannen points out how men, in a public setting, feel the need to be the one heard and listened to. This need gives them the incentive to talk more while on the other hand at home, in a private setting, men get in trouble for not talking enough with their spouses. Tannen only attributes this behavior to habits learned at a young age due to same sex groups, yet talking over their spouse in public could very well be caused by the need for dominance. Once in public men want to appear to “wear the pants” in the relationship and do so by demanding the attention of the surrounding audience. On the other hand they have no need to create a façade at home and turn off the works. They no longer feel the need to impress their significant other because they are already married and past the courtship phase. According to a man included in Tannen’s research, “When [he] comes home from work [he] has nothing to say. If [his wife] didn’t keep the conversation going, [they’d] spend the whole evening in silence.” Yet he was described as the one man who “had been particularly talkative, frequently offering ideas and anecdotes” while in the public setting of a guest lecture. Tannen states that “he felt challenged to show his intelligence and display his understanding of the lecture. But at home, where he has nothing to prove and no one to defend against, he is free to remain silent.” This further illustrates the differences that take place in men’s behavior when they are in different settings. Men also believe their part to contribute in conversation is to point out the other side of the argument, while women look for support and want their listener to see eye to eye with what they think is right. Walter Ong points out in Tannes’s essay “that men use ‘agonistic’ or warlike, oppositional formats to do almost anything; thus discussion becomes debate and conversation a competitive sport.” If men associate conversation with a sport then they will most definitely feel the need to “dominate” it while being observed by onlookers. In private they no longer have an audience to impress so their competitive side decreases along with the up keep of a conversation. Because of this, communication comes to a halt between spouses in households all around and marriages are being damaged.


Further assessing private behavior, Tannen pinpoints the alterations in how women and men appear while listening to one another. Tannen declares that “the impression of [men] not listening results from misalignments in the mechanics of conversation” because men tend to face away from each other, which they mimic while conversing with their spouses. This is another habit said to be acquired from hanging around “sex separate groups” growing up as children. The appearance of not listening could be just that. This could also be caused by an utter lack of respect men have for women. These mismanagements are actually considered disrespectful; to show your respect to someone in the American culture one looks the other in the eyes while conversing. The same is done to illustrate attentiveness and one certainly does not angle their body in another direction all together. Doing so sets off the alarms that inattention is taking place thus leading to the end product of disrespect. By making a simple adjustment men could illustrate their respect and demonstrate that they see their spouse as an equal worth listening to, yet they continue to act and maneuver in the same ways.


Men also tend to remain inattentive instead of responding while listening to their partner. Tannen states that this is due to the fact that men give “silent attention.” In reality this could be that men are bored with the conversation, hence the silence and lack of interaction with the discussion at hand. Typically, when someone is interested in something they are tempted to ask questions in order to receive more information. A “go on” state is entered by expressing that they want to know what happens next. By being inattentive and remaining in complete silence, men give off a bad impression that insinuates that they are uninterested in the conversation. Men also tend to frequently switch topics, which similarly gives women the bad impression that men aren’t paying attention. In addition, Tannen notes in her research that men tend to dismiss each other’s problems and seem to not take them seriously. This leads women to “perceive such responses as belittling” and “is heard as disloyalty… and refusal to offer the requisite support.” When women talk with each other and express their feelings, they walk away from the situation with a sense intimacy, feeling closer to one another. But “this attempt at establishing rapport can backfire when used with men” and can lead to distance in a relationship when men don’t respond and end up making their partner feel unsupported. The feeling of lack of support eventually leads to the loss of even wanting to start a conversation, which leads to spouses ending the attempt all together.


Tannen bases her entire article off of the idea of same sex groups and that this single handedly, in her opinion, influenced the behavior and mannerisms of adults today. Tannen falls short by not acknowledging that not all people growing up stuck strictly to same gender clusters. Because of this, her theory could not possibly pertain to the masses since not everyone had the same experience growing up. Tannen’s essay only provides itself to be useful to those who stuck to same sex groups in early years and she fails attribute the cause of miscommunication to things such as dominance in public, common-place disrespect shown by body language, or boredom and indifference while conversing. To be a substantial essay and to fully uncover the origin of hidden discrepancies in communication between men and women, Tannen would need to provide more than one theory that incorporates multiple causes that lead to miscommunication in married couples.



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    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Interesting reading of Tannen's article. I think her ideas are always interesting but I'm not quite sure I believe them! I do know that they always produce a lot of interesting conversations though! Voted up and interesting.

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      Laurin 5 years ago

      Learnt a lot from this hub.. Interesting too..Job well done..Thanks a lot for this hub..:)

      Visit:http://fullthrottleondemand.ca/blog/?p=15

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