The idea that men and women are so different that they are from different planets will get in the way of communicating competently in your marriage. Gender stereotypes treat men and women as categories, not individual people who have hopes, wants, and dreams to share.
It is by sharing these aspects of themselves that couples create a joint reality.
To get beyond gender stereotypes in communication, we first need to say what they are.
Here are a few stereotypical ideas about how men and women communicate:
- Women talk more than men
- Communication matters more to women than men
- Men talk to get things done; women talk to make an emotional connection
- Men talk about things, women talk about people, relationships, and feelings
- Men use language to inform, preserve the independence and compete to maintain status, while women use language to enhance cooperation, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony
For some, such ideas about how men and women communicate became unquestioned articles of faith with the publication of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus and Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand.
Tannen is a well-respected linguist—a person of authority—who has publicly defended such black-and-white ideas about men and women despite the fact they are widely disputed by some 30 years of research on language, communication, and the sexes.
A close study of Tannen’s work done by Alice Freed, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at Montclair State University, argues that Tannen is an apologist for men. She excuses their insensitivities as part of their “need for independence.” She emphasizes the importance of women adjusting to men’s need for status and independence.
In You Just Don’t Understand we can read about Josh, who invites an old high-school friend to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Linda. The visit is to begin immediately upon Linda’s return from a week’s business trip. Josh did not discuss the invitation with her before he extended it to his friend. Tannen describes Linda as being upset by his failure to do so, her feelings being hurt.
It’s not about “permission;” it’s about negotiation
According to Tannen, Linda’s hurt feelings would disappear if only she understood that for Josh to ask permission would imply that he is not independent, not free to act on his own. He would feel controlled by Linda’s wish to be consulted.
But crosschecking with your partner is not “seeking permission.” It is being willing to negotiate with your spouse what works for both of you. If Josh feels “controlled,” he needs to examine that experience.
By the way, Tannen also relies on the old notion that “hurt feelings” are what is important to Linda. What is important to Linda, is that Josh was unwilling to negotiate with her about what he wanted.
Who talks more, men or women?
In The Female Brain, published in 2006, Louann Brizendine, M.D. claimed that women say about 20,000 words a day, while men say about 7,000. This mirrored the stereotype of women talking three times as much as men.
Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to investigate the research that supported such a claim. What he found was that the statement about how much men and women talk came from a self-help book, with no academic citation referencing the statement. Reviewing similar assertions yielded word counts for women ranging from 4,000 to 25,000 words, again with no research supporting such statements.
Brizendine retracted her statement when Liberman pointed out his research in a newspaper article, saying the statement would be deleted from future editions. However, the damage was done. This much-publicized, stereotypic sound bite will linger in people’s memories and get recycled in conversations. The retraction will not make the same impression. This is how myths about men and women acquire the status of facts.
It’s about status, not gender
A review of 56 studies conducted by linguistics researcher Deborah James and social psychologist Janice Drakich found only two studies showing that women talked more than men, while 34 studies found men talked more than women. Sixteen of the studies found they talked the same and four showed no clear pattern.
The review demonstrated that the amount that people talk is most likely related to the status of the person given the kind of setting in which the conversation occurs. This means that in more formal or public settings, the person who talks more is the person with the higher status.
A 2007 study conducted by Bobbi Carothers, a senior data analyst at Washington University, and Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, demonstrates the need for the Mars/Venus theories about the sexes to come back to earth.
Carothers and Reis re-analyzed data from 13 studies that had shown significant sex differences, and they collected their own data on a variety of psychological indicators, such as relationship interdependence, intimacy, sexuality, agreeableness, emotional stability, and conscientiousness. Using three separate statistical procedures, they looked for measures that could reliably distinguish a person as male or female. Here is what they found:
- On characteristics such as height, shoulder breadth, arm circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio, men and women fall into distinct groups (called taxons).
- Gender reliably predicts interest in stereotypic activities such as scrapbooking and cosmetics (women) and boxing and watching pornography (men).
These researchers looked at the data to see if they could separate the men from the women based on a particular psychological trait. This is what they found:
- For most of the psychological traits, including fear of success, criteria for mate selection, and empathy, men and women are from the same planet.
- A given person—a man, for example—may score in a stereotypic way on one measure (say aggression) and rank low on another stereotypic characteristic (like math ability).
For psychological traits, the overlap between men and women is so great that we cannot sort men and women into separate categories based on these traits. Carothers and Reis pointed out that it is not at all unusual for men to be empathic and women to be good at math.
Why does it matter?
Emphasizing inherent differences between the sexes—a practice that is certainly routine in the popular press and even in some academic circles—can be harmful in the context of a marriage relationship. Adhering to gender stereotypes gets in the way of looking at one’s partner as an individual. It is individual people, not categories of male and female, who share their perceptions, feelings, thoughts, hopes, and dreams—creating their own shared relationship reality.
- Be on guard against old gender stereotypes about communication between men and women.
- The popular press routinely emphasizes gender differences.
- You are both individual people, not a category.
- You can “understand” your spouse.
- Status is likely more important than gender in who talks the most.
- Individual people, not gender categories, have hopes, dreams, and desires.
References: 1. Cameron, Deborah. “What Language Barrier?” The Guardian October 2007 www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/01/gender.books 2. Tannen, Deborah. (1993) Gender and Conversational Interaction. Oxford University Press. 3. Freed, Alice. “We Understand Perfectly: A Critique of Tannen’s View of Cross-sex Communication.” In Locating Power: Proceedings of The Second Berkeley Women and Language Conference (vol. 1), eds. Kira Hall, Mary Bucholtz, and Birch Moonwomon Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 1992. 4. Brizidine, Louann. (2006) The Female Brain. New York: Harmony. 5. Liberman, Mark. “The Main Job of the Girl Brain,” Language Log (blog), August 6, 2006, http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/ languagelog/archives/003530.html. 6. James, Deborah and Janice Drakich. “Understanding Gender Differences in Amount of Talk: Critical Review of Research,” In Gender and Conversational Interaction, ed. Deborah Tannen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). 7. Carothers, Bobbi and Harry Reis. “Men and Women Are from Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 2 (2013).
Written by: Catherine Aponte, Psy.D Originally appeared on:Psychology Today Republished with permission