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The Art of Talking and Listening November 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Elizabeth Bernstein from WSJ, as I speculated a few blogposts ago, has apparently still not read Deborah Tannen, but even so, her latest piece , “She Talks a Lot, He Listens a Little” is pretty interesting:  Is it true that women talk more than men? Yes indeed, it is. And do men listen less than women do? Apparently.

…”He doesn’t tell me to get to the point because he knows it would be a big insult,” says Ms. Macaluso, 43, a homemaker. Says her husband: “I made the mistake of telling my wife to speed up—just once. She started over and made me sit through the whole thing again.”

Do women talk more than men? Not always, of course. Some men are big gabbers, just as some women are silent types. And yet, the stereotype that women talk more than men holds pretty true.

There are environmental reasons—many men are raised not to share their feelings. But biology plays a surprisingly strong a part, as well. There is evidence that women’s and men’s brains process language differently, according to Marianne Legato, a cardiologist and founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at New York’s Columbia University. She says that listening to, understanding and producing speech may be easier for women because they have more nerve cells in the left half of the brain, which is used to process language, a greater degree of connectivity between the two parts of the brain and more of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the part of the brain that controls language.

Although the ability to understand and process language diminishes in both men and women as we age, it does so earlier for men (after age 35) than women (post-menopause). Women also get a boost of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, when they speak to others, and estrogen enhances its effects. While men get this, too, testosterone blunts its effects. “This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view—men can’t defend their families if they are burdened with high levels of a hormone that compels them to make friends of all they meet,” says Dr. Legato, author of “Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.” “Thus, men in their prime with high levels of testosterone are the least likely to be interested in social exchanges and bonding to others.”

Bernstein’s piece ends on a sour note: there’s nothing we can do, women will want to yak to the tune of 1000 words per day, and men will want to close their ears after the first 750 words. So, says Bernstein, maybe we have to find partners whose style of yakking/silence will complement our own. But had she read Tannen, she could have gone in another direction. Because it isn’t just that women talk more than men, we also tend to talk about other things, and with other expectations. Women often engage in what Tannen calls “troubles-talk,” where they share their moments of frustration and irritation, but without expecting a solution. Men, on the other hand, find it very hard to listen to such talk without wanting to help, and provide problem-solving. So the phenomenological value of talking for the purpose of sharing an experience is entirely different than the sharing of information for the sake of problem-solving, or the typical trash talk about a common interest, such as sport.  And this is where Tannen’s approach gives us more guidance than merely pointing out the fact that women like to talk, and men don’t: Because Tannen believes that while our linguistic styles are to a great extent gender-hardwired, we can learn to appreciate the style of the Other, understand his or her expectations, and perhaps even adapt to his or her style. Sometimes women want to tell a long story, in great detail, and all they want in response, says Tannen, is “Poor Baby!” Even a man of few words can handle that, and be the perfect listener…

That being said, with Thanksgiving coming up, I hope you’ll all have some good conversations with people you care about. And I hope you’ll find the right moment to talk, and the right moment to listen! Sometimes we forget that listening is an art, too, and as Tannen points out, just because your husband doesn’t look at you while you’re talking and he’s driving (if the traditional style of family driving persists in your family), doesn’t mean he hasn’t heard what you said…



1. Asur - November 22, 2010

Yeah, I hate when people take their eyes off the road while they’re driving–as a driver, you have an obligation to keep your attention on driving.

It took me years to cull that habit out of my wife.

2. Paul J. Moloney - November 29, 2010

If some people talk too much and some people talk too little, it might be debated which is the greater defect. If some men talking too little is the cause of some women talking too much, it would seem that some men talking too little is the greater defect. The man talking too little presents the first imbalance. Conversation between a man and a woman does not seem to be a matter of equality in regards to the amount said to each other, but, rather, it seems to be a matter of equity. The one who may say little does not say too little and the one who says much does not say too much. Speaking well seems to be a matter of saying the right thing to the right person in the right amount on the right topic at the right time and place.

3. Kaelyn Roberts - December 1, 2010

In order to be a good speaker, I believe, you have to be a good listener first.
In my experience, those who talk a lot usually make good points, but they show little compassion to how others feel and normally dont really care what their pears think. On the opposite side of things, I also feel that people who listen more than they talk are more in tune with other’s emotions and are less abrasive in social situations.

4. Candace Newton phil 108 - December 8, 2010

I do not find it surprising that women have a tendency to talk more than men. Women have the tendency to start gossip and to talk about a subject in drastic measures that some one may or may not want to hear. I being a girl and used to the girl communication, find it very hard sometimes to listen to some of my friends go on and on about their lives as if there should be a book about them. It can be annoying at times but I would have to say that it is in a girls nature to talk. From when we were young if girls we upset about something then we would tell them it is okay and ask them to tell us what is wrong. But boys on the other hand are told they are alright and shouldn’t cry like a little girl but be tough. Women talk so freely about their feelings where it may be a little harder for some men to open up so easily. It may be in the way we have grown up in society as well as biological reasons. Either way even though listening can be very hard it needs to be done. Just the same as talking needs to be done. I would agree with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in saying we are “storytelling animals”. I think that it is good for us men and women to share our personal thoughts and feelings with others. I think it helps us physically as well as mentally in expressing those feelings and thoughts. It can help us release stress, find humor, find appreciation and along with many other things it helps us understand each other better. We are social beings and communication helps us play our social role, as well as listening. As a person listening you do not need to be as emotionally envolved like the person talking is. All there needs to be is acknowledgeable gestures. The main point is that if someone needs to communicate they will need a listener because you do not get the same feelings when keeping your thoughts to your self as you would sharing with someone you care about. We as social beings want to share with others being it for personal or unselfish reasons. We want to feel we are not alone and look for attention from others by sharing in comunication. In everyway we communicate and listen we learn something. I find that listening to something is better than listening to nothing. And for you men out there or women who seem to always be the listener, just know that they trust in you to share their excessive information. If they get mad at you for not listening it means they care for you and really want your thoughts. Dont be afraid to also share with them because it might be good for you, you never know. Any way you go you learn along the way.

5. Mitchell Gassaway philo 108 - December 9, 2010

i have to agree with Tannen, when she said that “Women often engage in what Tannen calls “troubles-talk,” where they share their moments of frustration and irritation, but without expecting a solution. Men, on the other hand, find it very hard to listen to such talk without wanting to help, and provide problem-solving”.
i work with mostly females, and i have noticed that women need to express there feelings either good or bad to somebody, simply to get a response back. i have also noticed that when a female wants somebody to agree with her she talks to another female and when she wants a solution to a problem or how Tannen put it “problem-solving” response they talk to males. female and male minds do think differently and when i have a problem and i want somebody to,in a since, “feel my pain” im not going to talk to one of my guy friends…

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