Women and Men: How Conversation Styles Can Affect Our Personal Stories

A woman friend felt anxious and depressed. She was facing a challenge with a colleague at work and began to tell her husband about it. Without giving her time to complete her statement of the problem, her husband launched into what she should do to “fix it.” She reacted with frustration, and he was confused. All dialogue stopped.

As sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (1990) explains it, the wife in this situation “wanted the gift of understanding” but her husband gave her “the gift of advice.” Of course, neither approach is right or wrong, nor is either approach the sole province of men or women – neurodiversity alone keeps us from being that predictable! But often, it can split along gender lines, with the woman looking for a personal bond, as she processes her response to a situation. The man, in his turn, “hears” herpersonal stories, neurodiversity, conversational styles, anxious, depressed asking for an immediate solution.

We hear each other through our individual filters of experience. In her experience, the wife was being clear in what she said. But by the time the words had passed through the filter of her husband’s experience, their perceived-meaning had been recast. He was concerned with the overt message contained in the words she used (“I have a problem”) and he responded to that message by suggesting solutions. The wife is smart and capable – she knew she would have to resolve the problem. But in sharing it with her mate, she was not seeking his solution. Instead, she was asking for connection. She sought a sense of his understanding that would translate into her feeling not alone in the situation – or in the world.

What does this have to do with our stories and how they evolve? Everything! These behaviors don’t just pop up of their own accord. They are modeled for us – by family, friends, and society (including characters in film, books, and TV). In the example of the couple, by the time they were grown and married, they had assimilated differing ways of communicating and responding. And likely, it was all unconsciously done.

Becoming curious about your own life stories, as Dr. Diane Engelman writes in Curiosity and Understanding How Our Stories Evolved, can help toward changing those stories. One method of figuring out how our stories evolved:

  • Consciously examine communication with others
  • Make note when disconnects occur
  • Observe how often this type of disconnect happens.
  • Also track times when communication goes well – what did you do different?

Perhaps we can track patterns to the way our parents communicated. Maybe we are emulating friends. Or perhaps it stems from deeper-seated differences in male and female roles in society. Understanding the pattern and the probable source can yield rich information. As we begin to track differences in our communication styles, we will find more pieces of the puzzle of how and why our personal stories take the form they do.

Tannen, Deborah (1990) You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

Note: In this post, the author, JB Allyn, is not directly or indirectly giving psychological or medical advice. Nor is she prescribing the use of any technique to treat medical, physical, or emotional problems. The author intends only to offer information of a general nature that may assist you in seeking personal growth. If you choose to use any of the information the author presents, she assumes no responsibility for your choices or actions.

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