You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation
by Deborah Tannen, 1991

Excerpts from the Preface of the paperback edition of the book.
Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations. Analyzing everyday conversations, and their effects on relationships, has been the focus of my career as a sociolinguist. In this book I listen to the voices of women and men. I make sense of seemingly senseless misunderstandings that haunt our relationships, and show that a man and a woman can interpret the same conversation differently, even when there is no apparent misunderstanding. I explain why sincere attempts to communicate are so often confounded, and how we can prevent or relieve some of the frustration (p. 13)

Recognizing gender differences frees individuals from the burden of individual pathology. Many women and men feel dissatisfied with their close relationships and become even more frustrated when they try to talk things out. Taking a sociolinguistic approach to relationships makes it possible to explain these dissatisfactions without accusing anyone of being crazy or wrong, and without blaming -- or discarding -- the relationship. If we recognize and understand the differences between us, we can take them into account, adjust to, and learn from each other's styles (p.17).

The sociolinguistic approach I take in this book shows that many frictions arise because boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different cultures, so talk between women and men is cross-cultural communication. A cross-cultural approach to gender differences in conversational style differs from the work on gender and language which claims that conversations between men and women break down because men seek to dominate women. No one could deny that men as a class are dominant in our society, and that many individual men seek to dominate women in their lives. And yet, male dominance is not the whole story. It is not sufficient to account for everything that happens to women and men in conversations -- especially conversations in which both are genuinely trying to relate to each other with attention and respect. The effect of dominance is not always the result of an intention to dominate. That is the news that this book brings (p. 18).

If we can sort out differences based on conversational style, we will be in better position to confront real conflicts of interest -- and to find a shared language in which to negotiate them (p.18).

A Review
"A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of That's Not What I Meant!, Ms. Tannen has written a refreshing and readable account of the complexities of communication between men and women....Aside from the vivid examples and lively prose, what makes this book particularly engaging is that the author makes linguistics interesting and usable....This book will help many put their problems of communication with the opposite sex in a manageable perspective."
Ruth Rose
The New York Times Book Review.

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About Deborah Tannen