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Monday 17 Jun 2024

Dangling Conversations
dr george pollard

Women claim men talk too much. Women ask direct questions; men beat around the bush. Women say men bounce from topic to topic, bluntly. Men talk to exclude. Women talk to include. Often, women and men have dangling conversations. Can they connect? Yes, but it takes effort.

Who talks more, women or men? The one-off answer is women, and it's wrong. A first thought is often not right. On average, says Marjorie Swacker, women talk less than half as much as do men. Common sense isn't common, sensible or reliable. When it comes to talking, women are as effective as are men, even if they don't talk as much. There are many reasons men talk more than do women. Consider just a few.

Men tell you what they're going to tell you. They tell you what they told you. Sometimes, they tell you what they want to tell you. This takes words.

Here's an example of man talk. Take a breath before reading. "After 29 years teaching in a research university and fielding tens of thousands of questions, I can say, without pause, men, much more than women, have an unruly urge to qualify comments or questions, often hiding what they have to say or misplacing the point as they use many more words than are necessary."

That 54-word sentence wasn't easy to read. How many times did you lose the train of thought? Did other ideas drift across your mind as you read? Were you eager for the period to come into view? Can you imagine someone speaking that sentence at you? A dizzying thought for sure.

The example's a bit over-the-top, but reflects how men talk. They hedge, use too many words and don't know when to stop. Still, interruption is less likely if a man is talking than if a woman is talking. Men can just go on and on, and they often do.

Women say men over talk, in public, but not in private. "At home," says Fannie, "it's like pulling teeth to get Gene to say a word. When we went to the Puerto Rican Carnival, last week, he talked non-stop, with one guy after another. On the way home, in the car, nada."

Men need an audience. They talk a lot in public because it benefits them. The attention of strangers confers status. 'See how smart I am,' they think, 'others listen when I talk.' Fannie has heard it all a hundred times.

Men talk mostly for status and its rewards. Leave an opening for a critic and the reward's smaller. Hedging or qualifying makes criticism more difficult. "If the learned gentlemen would pay attention; if he'd listen closely as I speak," says the politico, "he'd know I didn't call him a hog. I didn't imply he was a pig weighing more than 180 pounds. I, in fact, asked after the health of his dog." Salvaging endangered status is easier when you lead up to a question, well hedged, and nail it with a surplus fact. Long-windedness is a skill best honed in public.

Looking for an opening, men ask more than one question at a time. "I might ask of the learned gentlemen," says the politico, "if he's stopped beating his dog. If he has, why did it take so long? If not, when can we expect his shameful acts to stop?" The learned person best answer all questions, carefully, or risk loss of social status.

Men also ask follow-up questions. "What is the health of the dog? When can we expect a formal report on the condition of the dog? Will my learned colleague come clean on this matter? When can we expect answers for our questions?" More questions, more answers and more chance to stumble, lose poise and concede status. The public realm is treacherous terrain; men are wary, but not silent.

Women like direct questions. "Are you sorry for mistreating your loyal dog?" The answer settles the matter.

All in all, men use a lot words to say little, in public and as often as they can. In private, status isn't much of an issue. There's less need to talk.

Men interrupt most often. Ask any woman who was the last to interrupt her while chatting; she'll say a man. Ask any man who was the last to interrupt him and he'll say another man.

Silent media, face or space, are the bane of men. They're unable to use these media as well as women do. Men miss large chunks of what's going on. Often, men don't notice gestures, posture or vocal stress, rhythm and tone. Words supply about 7% of the information sent when chatting. The rest arrives on little cats' feet; a slouch, a shrug and condescending smile.

Talking style aids social rivalry among men. Talk among status-seeking men, says Deborah Tannen, reports facts to all who'll listen. Joe Friday, of "Dragnet" fame, wanted "just the facts, ma'm." "All we want is the facts," he'd interrupt.

Men talk to get attention, and claim the rewards of public speak. Women speak to belong, not necessarily for all to hear, and to claim the rewards of private speak. Talk among men disconnects; talk among women connects.

Rapport, talking to connect, forges group bonds. A group offers safe haven for men and women, alike. The heart of any group is rapport: the stronger the rapport, the stronger the group. Men take risks, in public, for status and its rewards. Women create and preserve the bonds that keep the haven safe.

Talking for rapport has side benefits. Men find it hard to take part in more than one conversation at a time, women don't. Three women easily have two separate conversations, at the same time, without missing a beat. For men, misery is more than one person talking at time. Among women, talk overlaps without issue.

Women complain that men bounce from topic to topic. Men change topics as often as once a minute, says Deborah Tannen, and bluntly. As fast as topical status sets, men move on to another topic. In public, an idle tongue loses status, fast.

Women segue from topic to topic, after talking it out. They try to find out what there is to know before moving to another topic. Their style fits the information age.

There's no longer much swag in knowing. The Internet is the biggest open book so far imagined. Status based on knowledge, when anyone can know all there is to know, is tricky. The net satisfies information wants, in a flash. All you want to know all the time, even if it as often wrong as right.

There's plenty swag in being able to use what you know. Women put what they know to better use than men do. The net hastened the age of the woman.

Men talk publicly. Women prefer to talk privately. "When I come home from work," says Jack, "Diane never runs out of stuff to talk about. When she's at a party, she goes off in the corner, with Marge and Donna, and I guess they talk by themselves."

Outsiders, men, may think Diane, Marge and Donna are aloof, unfriendly or critical, but they share a strong bond. Off to the side, away from the centre of attention, they hone that bond. Their talk is for insiders, not outsiders. Social bonds need sheltering as well as fostering. Rapport is an act best done in private.

In meetings, men try to move along, briskly; women want to be thorough. Frustration easily sets in for women and men, alike. Good decisions are timely, but benefit from a full airing. An effective meeting involves both styles of talk.

How men and women talk goes to the heart of how they form social bonds. Men rely on status, and talk to exclude most others. Women rely on affinity. They talk to forge or strengthen bonds, include some others.

The list of gender talk differences is long. The point is simple. How you say, what you say is most important. "The medium is the message," said Marshall McLuhan. Yes, to a point, style trumps content.

Take a moment, next time you're at the mall or in line at the coffee shop, to notice what's going on around you. Hear how the social styles of men and women differ. Develop a fuller awareness of how who says what to whom.

Think about what you hear. Wonder why. Improve your style and form bonds that are more rewarding. Don't hear what you want to hear, and take no notice of the rest.


Note: situations and dialogues are fictive examples, not based on specific events or inspired by a specific person, unless explicitly stated as such. Examples are inspired by song lyrics, movie scenes and old jokes.

Bruce Dorval (1990), "Conversational Coherence and Its Development". Ablex.

Paul Simon (1970), "The Boxer," published by Paul Simon Music (BMI).

Marjorie Swacker (1976), "Women's Verbal Behavior at Learned and Professional Conferences." In "The Sociology of the Languages of American Women". Edited by Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crouch. Trinity University Press. Pages 155-160.

Deborah Tannen (1990), "You Just Don't Understand: men and women in conversation". William Morrow.

Deborah Tannen (1986), "That's Not What I Meant: how conversational style makes or breaks relationships". Ballantine.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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