Deborah Tannen's View of Men & Women's Communication Differences

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Deborah Tannen's View of Men & Women's Communication Differences

Sex, Lies, & Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men & Women to Talk to Each Other?

“Sex, Lies, and Conversation: Why Is It So Hard For Men and Women To Talk To Each Other?” is an examination of communications differences between men and women. Deborah Tannen discusses these differences as a pattern in which “…American men tend to talk more than women in public situations, they often talk less at home. And this pattern is wreaking havoc with marriage” (Tannen, 1990). Tannen blames this pattern for the American divorce rate being so high as well as being the core of relationship problems. The author uses research to bolster her position that early childhood socialization creates differences in communication that are so radically opposed to one another that the communication between men and women becomes cross-cultural in nature.

Tannen begins her theory of cross-cultural differences using the research of Eleanor Maccoby which reflects how boy and girls develop different patterns of interaction and organizational structures. This is important to Tannen’s theory because this research shows that as children the gender differences are causal to creating communications differences. As well, because children tend to interact with one another according to gender, this fact marks the beginning of the pattern of cross-cultural communication.

From the childhood interactions, Tannen believes that men and woman develop communications styles that are oppositional in nature. She points out that men develop communication because their

…groups are larger, more inclusive, and more hierarchical, so boys must struggle to avoid the subordinate position in the group. This may play a role in women’s complaints that men don’t listen to them. Some men really don’t like to listen, because being the listener makes them feel one-down, like a child listening to adults or an employee to a boss (Tannen, 1990).

Whereas women develop patterns of communication that are more intimate and designed to create unity and closeness. Tannen provides proof of these differences in the role of communication by pointing to the research of psychologist Bruce Dorval in which men and women were videotaped having conversations with their same-sex best friends. Tannen points out that body and eye movements showed distinct difference between men and women in conversation. Tannen blames these differences for perceptions differences in which men might think women are not paying attention or vice versa. The difference in body language is important for establishing Tannen’s theory of cross-cultural differences between men and women.

Tannen provides further evidence of her theory when she cites the work of Walter Ong. According to Ong and Tannen, men are more antagonistic in conversation or seeking supremacy. Oppositely, women are seeking to increase rapport. The differences in how these communications patterns emerge are causal to each sex misunderstanding the other’s intent. Tannen states this idea in an example,

If Jane tells a problem and June says she has a similar one, they walk away feeling closer to each other. But this attempt at establishing rapport can backfire when used with men. Men take too literally women’s ritual “troubles talk,” just as women mistake men’s ritual challenges for real attack (Tannen, 1990).

The research and examples that Tannen uses shows this cross-cultural difference between men and women revealing how these differences are counterproductive to relationships. Tannen believes that these differences, “…require a new conceptual framework about the role of talk in human relationships (Tannen, 1990).” This new conceptual framework would be to view communication between men and women as cross-cultural rather than being the fault of either or both parties. Within this framework, learning the differences in the way both sexes communicate allows for an understanding to develop in which men and women can see past initial reactions to the divergent social patterns. Tannen claims that by developing this understanding, communication will improve naturally as a result of viewing these difference from the cross-cultural perspective. This idea can be seen in the way that one would treat someone from a different country or culture. For example, if someone from a culture that has less personal space we would not immediately become offended by them standing too close. This is because we would understand that he or she is standing too close because this as part of their cultural training. In the same respect, he or she would not be offended by someone backing away. The cross-cultural understanding would breed this form of reaction.

Tannen’s evidence of the effectiveness of cross-cultural understanding is stated in the example of a young woman and her boyfriend,

…who seemed to go to sleep when she wanted to talk. Previously, she had accused him of not listening, and he had refused to change his behavior, since that would be admitting fault. But then she learned about and explained to him the differences in women’s and men’s habitual ways of aligning themselves in conversation. The next time she told him she wanted to talk, he began, as usual, by lying down and covering his eyes. When the familiar negative reaction bubbled up, she reassured herself that he really was listening. But then he sat up and looked at her. Thrilled, she asked why. He said, “You like me to look at you when we talk, so I’ll try to do it.” Once he saw their differences as cross-cultural rather than right and wrong, he independently altered his behavior (Tannen, 1990).

While Tannen’s theory is compelling, it is also extremely anecdotal in nature. Much of the research that Tannen is quoting or citing is subjective and interpretive. For instance, the viewing of video tapes of conversations is an interesting study but the question remains whether these differences actually cause the miscommunication between men and women? It seems logical but there could be other differences such as tone or volume which play into communication differences. There could even be more complex interactions such as speech patterns and verbal cues. To distill the problem of relationships and divorce to a difference in communication pattern may be an oversimplification of the issue. There would need to be more research performed before fully accepting Tannen’s theory.

Another criticism of Tannen’s theory is the idea of developing a “new conceptual framework” concerning the role of conversation. Her idea of developing an understanding of cross-cultural communication leading to solutions, may be an overstatement of its impact. According to Tannen, merely by taking the view and developing the idea that communication between men and women is cultural, this will lead to improved communication naturally. The problem with this idea is that just because a person has knowledge of a problem does not mean that they will naturally act on it productively. A simple example of this can be seen in the fact that most people know that they should eat nutritious foods in order to avoid health risks yet do not. Having knowledge or understanding does not guarantee a particular result.

Tannen’s view that divorce and relationship failures are caused mainly by miscommunication may be an overstatement of a single factor. Relationships are dynamic and comprised of many factors which go beyond just communication. This is not to say that communication is not an important factor in successful relationships but there are other factors that may play a more important role.

Studies have shown that one of the largest components of a successful marriage is that individuals need to have common beliefs. Major differences in diversity have not shown to make for successful marriages. Individuals with wide differences in race, income, religion, and political affiliation consistently had the highest rates of marriage failure.

Variations — often large variations…in relationships and durations were found by race, origin, education, family background, financial, and other factors… (Goodwin et al, 2002).

One glaring example of this problem of commonality in belief can be seen in religion. Religion is a major factor in marriage failure. 63% of women and men who were divorced cited religion as one of the major difference in the relationship (Goodwin et al, 2002). Often individuals experience changes in religious viewpoint or attempt to overlook religious differences. This problem is best seen in the Jewish culture. In the last few decades American Jews have been engaging in marriages outside their religion (Cohen, 2009). The rate of divorce amongst American Jews has escalated in same decades in which intermarriage began to rise. But when Israeli Jews are examined the rates of divorce have remained about the same (Cohen, 2009). This is due to the fact that Israeli Jews marry other Jews and thus eliminates differences in belief. The problem reveals significant underlying cultural differences affecting marriage success. This divide between religious beliefs shows how disparities in individual thinking play a major role in marriage success. This example also shows how communication differences may only be one part of a complex problem.

Tannen’s theory should be given consideration since it is likely that it is one part of the solution. Viewing communication between men and women as cultural differences may be beneficial to some degree, but other considerations such as sharing common thinking, values, culture, and beliefs would seem equally important. While Tannen makes a strong point, further research would be needed to prove the impact of her cross-cultural framework.


Cohen, SM. (2009) Changes in American Jewish Identities Since 1948: From Norms to Aesthetics The American Jewish Scene, The Blog Retrieved from norms-to-aesthetics/

Goodwin PY, Mosher WD, Chandra A. Marriage and cohabitation in the United States: A statistical portrait based on Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(28). 2010.

Tannen, D. (1990, June 24). Sex, lies and conversation; why is it so hard for men and women to talk to each other? . Retrieved from

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