Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

He Says, She Says: But Do They Understand

March 3, 1997

What do women want? Men can't figure that out. What do men want? Women understand but would like some changes. One main source of confusion is in the different styles men and women use in conversation.

Social psychologist Carol Tavris, in her engaging book, "The Mismeasure of Woman," considered the ways men and women differ in language and willingness to share emotions. She reviewed the research on language and communications to highlight these differences.

Communications: Men and women speak differently. In her book, "You Just Don't Understand," Debra Tannen advanced a two-culture theory of miscommunications. The basic premise was that men engage in "report" talk - "to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order." Women use "rapport" talk as "a way of establishing connection and negotiating relationships."

A similar book, by linguist Robin Lakoff, "Talking Power: The Language of Politics," explores the two-culture idea from the idea of power.

She sees language differences not as a gender issue but a power issue. West concludes, "Men's language is the language of the powerful. It is meant to be direct, clear, succinct, and would be expected of those who need not fear giving offense . . . It is the language of people who are in charge of making observable changes in the real world.

"Women's language developed as a way of surviving and even flourishing without control over economic, physical or social reality. Then it is necessary to listen more than speak, agree more than confront, be delicate, be indirect, say dangerous things in such a way their impact will be felt after the speaker is out of range of the hearer's retaliation."

Woman’s language evolved to persuade and influence rather than to assert and demand. Women are skilled at anticipating what others want or need. It is a language to placate the powerful and soothe ruffled feathers. This language is oriented toward cooperation, and attention to the news and feelings of others (gossip).

Women speak more tentatively with men than they do with other women. They offer more disclaimers, more modesty, more hedged statements, more moderating terms, tag questions and hesitations. They attend to feelings and are more polite in their unwillingness to interrupt the speaker.

Why? Psychologist Linda Carli found that by using more indirect and tentative communications, women are more influential with men than if they spoke directly. They like her more and find her more trustworthy. Men are more inclined to listen if they sense a woman is not challenging his status or trying to enhance her own.

Women, more than men, can speak the male dialect. They certainly do so in business and professional settings. Males are less able to switch to female speech.

My own experience in counseling couples is that men especially need to learn the intimate language of relationships rather than to use the language of the workplace. These are precisely the skills that women have honed in their lives. By learning to speak tentatively, the speaker communicates more respect, consideration and equality than by the direct style that men typically use.


Why don't men talk more? As boys and adolescents, men learn a side-by side style of intimacy. We use physical gestures, laugh at each other's jokes and do one another favors. There is a lot of teasing, in-group jokes, humor and horsing around. It is a male way of disguising affection and closeness. We men associate intimacy with being together and being relaxed and comfortable around one another.

Men equate intimacy and love with action - doing things for others. Intimacy is defined as being helpful, doing useful work, being a protector and a provider, putting the wishes of the family ahead of their own.

The image of masculinity is to be strong, silent, assertive and competent. Men are expected to have self control - to remain calm and stoical under pressure. They learn to inhibit and be silent about emotions so they can engage in problem solving. They hide their weaknesses, fears, anxiety, sadness and grief.

What do women want? Talk. Deep talk. Small talk. They want men to reveal their feelings and to be vulnerable - not an easy task for a man. Women were raised with face-to-face, heart-to-heart exchanges with their girlfriends. Women are almost eager to reveal weaknesses, foibles and fears without hesitancy. No male ego here.

By sharing feelings, women experience relief from stress, feel better and gain ideas for self-improvement. It is a way of bonding. A "girls night out" has utter frankness and personal self-disclosure that would make most men cringe - and probably blush.

A female view of intimacy places greater emphasis on talking and expressing one's affection and admiration. For men, the purpose of talking about feelings and problems is to solve them.

When a woman brings up a feeling or problem with their male partner, they expect confirmation, understanding and listening. What do they get? Advice! He immediately assumes her sharing of feelings is a request for help. He stops listening and starts to be helpful. Wrong! What she wants is confirmation, understanding and a sounding board for her thoughts.

What is needed is the ability to do both languages. Men can learn the language of intimacy. Women can be sensitive and more accepting of male stoicism and playfulness. By understanding each other's worlds, we can accept each other's gifts and give more of what the other wants.