I’ve just finished re-reading Deborah Tannen’s early work (1990), You Just Don’t Understand. She’s a linguistic professor who has published some bestselling titles (That’s Not What I Meant, Talking 9-5). I’d read it ages ago, when it first came out & found it both interesting and helpful. Rereading it offered new insights.
If you’re a romance reader or writer, I expect you’ve heard the comment, “The whole story was just based on a misunderstanding! A five minute conversation would have cleared everything up on page two…!”
Well, spending five minutes with YJDU will clarify that communication between the sexes is rife with misunderstanding. That males and females—from the very beginning—bring quite different assumptions to conversations (both speaking and listening) and those assumptions can create significant misinterpretation, misunderstanding, frustration, anger, unhappiness, alienation and disappointment. A better understanding of the underlying assumptions on both sides can really help realign expectations and diminish misinterpretation. Additionally, the stories and research offer reassurance that you are not alone in your confusion, hurt, and frustration.
Before I became a romance editor and made my living on the differences between the sexes, I remember having a conversation with the father of a woman who had finally announced her engagement to her long-time partner. The couple hadn’t gotten married because their respective families didn’t approve of the relationships due to their being from different races or religions (can’t recall the issue).
The parent was earnestly explaining to me that he wasn’t racist (or whatever) but that building a successful marriage was so hard, and if the two parties came from totally different cultures, different upbringings, different experiences, that it would be that much harder to find the common ground needed to create a strong partnership.
As I listened, I sympathized—all his concerns were valid. And then I looked him in the eye and said, you know, I have never heard such a compelling treatise on the benefits of homosexual marriage. I mean with heterosexual relationships, you are asking people of the opposite sex to figure out a way to live together. Not easy! There’s a reason it’s called the opposite sex….
Yes, when you think about building a strong partnership between two people who are different sexes, have totally different bodies, bring different assumptions, expectations and world view, have different conversational styles (in some ways a different language), and were raised differently, it’s clear heterosexual marriage is not easy. That challenge has fueled countless stories, poems, songs and is often one of the central challenges of our lives.
It’s not easy to understand the opposite sex, but YJDU does give some helpful insights. Tannen opens with a perspective that had a lot of resonance for me: that all conversation has two diametrically opposed goals.
One is to connect, to reach out, to feel a bond with another, to feel part of the greater whole of humankind.
The other is the desire to maintain your sense of self, your autonomy, your uniqueness, your individuality and separateness.
Tannen indicates (my interpretation) that these simultaneous and opposite goals are present in every conversational interaction for both men and women. But she notes that men often have a slight default to autonomy in that 180 degree spread. And that women often have a slight default to connection. And that slight difference can and often does create a significant communication gap between the sexes.
If you think about it, much of “politeness” (which can vary significantly in different cultures) has been created to enable people to communicate and connect in a non-threatening way. To enable others to feel ‘safe’ in connecting, reassured that they are not being asked to lose their autonomy or sense of self.
Romances are all about the puzzle of how to be both an individual and be part of a team. And many address the challenge of having the woman need to nurture her sense of self, validate her right to her own individuality and needs in order to balance her natural tendency to compromise for others. And additionally presenting the flip side: of having the man appreciate that there are appropriate and necessary compromises that he must make to be part of a team, and to learn to appreciate the unique gifts that that connection will bring.
So if you haven't read it yet, check it out. And vive la différence!