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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…


Never Apologize; It’s a Sign of Weakness–? November 1, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Recently the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada published two studies on men’s and women’s habits of apologizing, and Elizabeth Bernstein from the Wall Street Journal did a piece about it last week.

According to new research from Canadian psychologists, people apologize about four times a week. But, on average, they offer up these apologies much more often to strangers (22% of the time) than to romantic partners (11%) or family members (7%). The only folks we apologize to more? Friends (46%).

Men and women have different approaches and different expectations when it comes to acts of contrition.

Conventional wisdom says women apologize too much, and men don’t apologize often enough. Women are good at nurturing relationships, the thinking goes, while men are too egotistical to say they’re sorry or have a different take on social graces. Yet there’s no proof that women are better than men at apologizing—they just do it more often, sometimes for inconsequential offenses.

Two small studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, published last month by the journal Psychological Science, indicate men are just as willing as women to apologize if they think they’ve done something wrong. Men just have a different idea of what defines “something wrong.”

In the first study, 66 men and women kept daily diaries and recorded each time they committed—or were on the receiving end—of an offense. They also noted whether an apology was issued. The outcome: Women were offended more often, and they offered more apologies for their own behavior. Yet men were just as likely as women to apologize if they believed they’d done something wrong.

In the second study, 120 subjects imagined committing offenses, from being rude to a friend to inconveniencing someone they live with. The men said they would apologize less frequently. The researchers concluded the men had a higher threshold for what they found offensive. “We don’t think that women are too sensitive or that men are insensitive,” says Karina Schumann, one of the study’s authors. “We just know that women are more sensitive.”

And when men actually apologize, do they know why? Apparently not.

“To be honest, men never—well, almost never—have any idea what we are apologizing for,” says Mark Stevens, 63, chief executive of MSCO, a Rye Brook, N.Y., marketing consulting firm.

Mr. Stevens says during his 35-year marriage he has sincerely apologized to his wife, Carol, just five times—but has said he’s sorry an additional 3,500 times. He calls these mea culpas “fraudulent apologies.” They go something like this: “I don’t know why you’re unhappy, but I’m sorry.”

So here we have 186 Canadian men and women who are experiencing some kind of disconnect when it comes to apologies, and several people interviewed by Bernstein (two from NY, one from Florida) seem to agree.  But are we seeing anything other than stereotypes laid out in this piece? I can’t speak for the two Canadian studies—perhaps they have more content. Yes, we all know that men and women have different approaches to apologies, and a strong, silent type such as Jethro Gibbs (NCIS) can quote an even stronger, more silent predecessor (Nathan Brittles, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) with his classic comment, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” But why?  Perhaps Deborah Tannen has written her numerous works in vain. Tannen tells us that it is a matter of different linguistic styles: A man, having grown up playing games with groups of other boys where the main objective is to be top dog, can’t afford to be perceived as being one-down, especially if it is in a business setting. Women, on the other hand, have had a few close girlfriends growing up, and a semblance of equality (if not actual equality) must be present in most of their games. The friendship must be maintained, almost no matter what, and an apology isn’t viewed as “giving in,” but as a way to smooth over the rough spots. (And Tannen is not being judgmental here—she is trying to describe it the way she sees it.)

That being said, there is an additional element that the Canadian studies apparently don’t address at all (or else Bernstein didn’t think to mention it): Tannen emphasizes that expressions of sympathy, extended by women, are often mistaken for apologies by men. If I remember correctly, she analyzes such statements in her book Talking from 9 to 5: If a woman, in the workplace, wants to express her sympathy to a male co-worker, employee, or boss, she might say, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a tough time.” She wants to show her empathy, but he hears it as an apology, and responds, “It’s not your fault.” And she is left confused, because she didn’t think it was her fault, either!

As a woman working in a highly male-dominated field for the past 30+ years  I can absolutely attest to the reality of such exchanges, in a number of languages and on two continents. And if they count as female apologies, although they weren’t intended as such, it’s no wonder that women are perceived as apologizing far more frequently than men…I’m really sorry to see that we seem to have to reinvent the gender analysis wheel every 20 years or so. And that’s not an apology!