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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…

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