024 Gender Issues

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, has (in addition to scholarly publications) written two popular books which helpu us understand why we so often fail to understand one another. Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (New York: Ballantine Books, c. 1990) deserves its best-seller accolades and rewards careful reading.

We (men and women) don’t understand each other, Tannen says, because we too often ignore the differences between the sexes. Men and women forever long to live together, to share life together. We easily acknowledge biological differences. But too often we assume that as persons we’re more alike than we are. There is, today, intense political pressure to blur any distinctions, insisting that we must all be equal in everything, that acknowledging differences is discriminatory.

“Much as I understand and am in sympathy with those who wish there were no differences between women and men–only reparable social injustice–my research, others’ research, and my own and others’ experience tell me it simply isn’t so. There are gender differences in ways of speaking, and we need to identify and understand them” (p. 17). Such is the intent of her treatise.

In her first chapter, “Different Words, Different Worlds,” Tannen deals with the fact that while both sexes desire a degree of both intimacy and independence, women tend to more value intimacy while men tend to more value independence. Women often encourage and appreciate advice when making decisions, but men often resist and resent it.

Even at an early age girls often prefer to play in small groups, pairing off, if possible, with their best friend, while boys tend to play highly-structure outside games in large, hierarchical groups. In one of her research projects, she watched videotapes of conversations, ranging from second graders to university students. “I was overwhelmed,” she writes, “but the differences that separated the females and males of each age, and the striking similarities that linked the females, on the one hand, and the males, on the other, across the vast expanse of age. In many ways, the second-grade girls were more like the twenty-five-year-old women than like the second-grade boys” (p. 245). Whether this is a genetic or cultural difference is, in my view, rather irrelevant–we must deal with the solid realities of our world rather than the fantasies of social engineers.

Consequently, when men and women talk, they engage in cross-cultural communication. “Boys and girls grow up in different worlds, but we think we’re in the same one, so we judge each other’s behavior by the standards of our own” (p. 254). This causes “asymmetries: women and men talking at cross-purposes,” the subject of the second chapter. Women, Tannen, says, often just want someone to hear what they’re saying, to share their experiences, to empathize with their feelings. Men, on the other hand, usually talk to accomplish a task. to act, to address a problem by solving it.

When discussing their problems, “Women tend to show understanding of another woman’s feelings. When men try to reassure women by telling them that their situation is not so bleak, the women hear their feelings being belittled or discounted” (p. 59). Men, on the other hand, tend to not talk about problems unless they think they can be solved as a result. Thus, in public meetings, which by their very nature are rather action-oriented, men usually talk much more–and more aggressively–than women. Then, to their spouse’s amazement, they say little or nothing at home. “Men feel more comfortable doing ‘public speaking,’ while more women feel comfortable doing ‘private’ speaking.”

Another way of capturing these differences is by using the terms report-talk and rapport-talk” (pp. 76-77). Women seek to establish intimacy through rapport-talk; they develop and cultivate a network of friends with whom they constantly communicate. Men, on the other hand, try to preserve independence through report-talk; they usually discuss politics, sports, work, investments. “The game women play is ‘Do you like me?’ whereas the men play ‘Do you respect me?” (p. 129).

This often leads to tensions in the home. Tannen repeats a joke her father likes to tell: “A woman sues her husband for divorce. When the judge asks her why she wants a divorce, she explains that her husband has not spoken to her in two years. The judge asks the husband, ‘Why haven’t you spoken to your wife in two years?’ He replies, ‘I didn’t want to interrupt her'” (p. 188). It’s a stereotypical story which Tannen finds true to type.

Women routinely complain that their husbands don’t talk to them, won’t listen to them, won’t share the daily details of life with them. “He seems to have everything to say to everyone else, and nothing to say to me,” they lament. Men, however, often think their wives talk too much, start nagging once the honeymoon ends. “For many men, the comfort of home means freedom from having to prove themselves and impress through verbal display” (p. 86). The real problem, Tannen insists, is this: we have different conversational styles; we fail to understand what our spouse is saying–or saying by not saying anything.

Given the gap which separates us men and women, how then should we talk to each other? In some ways, it seems to me, the answer is quite simple. First we recognize and even celebrate the ineradicable, God-given differences which make complementary unions possible. Perhaps we can let God be God, men be men, women be women. Secondly, if we understand Tannen’s presentation, we can learn (if we’re men) to simply listen more without thinking we must solve every problem women may discuss. If we’re women, we can learn to respect a man’s need for silence, to know that silence does not mean lack of interest or affection.

Finally, and especially in public meetings, men need to realize that their accustomed communication style tends to be aggressive and domineering . . . and that women’s voices, aired more through questions and suggestions, can be wrongly ignored. Men simply must give more attention to women who are colleagues or friends. Women in meetings, on the other hand, should not interpret men’s assertive style as efforts to dominate women. “The effect of dominance is not always the result of an intention to dominate” (p. 18).

If only we can begin to rightly hear one another, if only we become adept at cross-cultural communication, some of the flack and fall-out of the “war between the sexes” (which seems to be heating up, some think) may subside!

* * * * *

You Just Don’t Understand is a sequel to Tannen’s That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships (NY: Ballantine Books, c. 1986). Addressing the totality of personal relationships, she suggests that all communication, to a degree, is cross-cultural. Thus the study of language–linguistics–may help us form and preserve more healthy relationships.

Too often we assume that if we try to speak honestly and share our feelings, communication takes place. Unfortunately, we can be mutually unintelligible in our honesty! “The belief that sitting down and talking will ensure mutual understanding and solve problems is based on the assumption that we can say what we mean, and that what we say will be understood as we mean it. This is unlikely to happen if conversational styles differ” (p. 116). Unless we learn how to speak and listen accurately, we may never understand what others are actually saying. There’s a difference, for example, between transmitting information and establishing an atmosphere of politeness, both of which may be accomplished through conversation.

For the real “meaning” within a conversation resides in its “metamessage” rather than its apparent details. So we enshroud our words with signals, linguistic devices which serve as defense mechanisms as well as facilitate the frequently indirect messages we want heard. The tone of voice, the length of pauses, facial expressions, the use of questions, “ritual complaining,” jokes, teasing, all add texture to the metamessages of the most ordinary of conversations.

Some of the most important metamessages which frame conversations deal with “power and solidarity.” Titles we use–Doctor, Professor–carry their own message. Whether or not we address a person by his first or last name sets parameters to what’s sayable in a conversation. To try to establish solidarity, through the use of first names, where the relationships are clearly power-based, undercuts the legitimacy of the relationships.

Thus, “Trying to be ‘just folks’ when you’re not can seem hypocritical and provoke resentment when authority rears its head–for example, when a doctor insists that a patient or nurse follow his instructions about medical procedures. And teachers who encourage displays of solidarity find themselves squarely in the power camp when they have to assign grades or make decisions about placement” (p. 99). Parenthetically: my students seem to instinctively realize this–as Chaplain I’m routinely called Gerard, a term of solidarity, while in the classroom I’m usually addressed as Dr. Reed. Parents must be parents! “Parents who try to talk or dress like their teenage children are often chided by the children for doing it all wrong. What the children may be objecting to, at heart, is that their parents are claiming membership in a group they don’t really belong to–invoking unjustified solidarity” (p. 101). Similarly, the man who calls a female co-worker “honey,” imagining the word might establish solidarity with her, insults her–though his wife may find the term endearing.

Tannen has a probing chapter on criticism: “The Intimate Critic.” Finally, she offers advice on learning to speak and listen more adequately, helping us think more clearly about the whole communicative process.

* * * * *

Andrew Greeley, sociologist/priest/theologian/novelist as his interests dictate, churns out books about as rapidly as some of us put together sermons! I don’t endorse all his theological work (which tilts toward the left of even modern Catholic intellectuals), nor do I approve all the notions championed in his novels (though I’ve found them readable and generally inoffensive), but I’ve usually found his sociological studies useful.

In Faithful Attraction: Discovering Intimacy, Love and Fidelity in American Marriage (NY: Tom Doherty Associates, c. 1991), he draws on the most trustworthy of recent public opinion polls to validate the soundness of marriage in America. “This is a report on fidelity and intimacy in American marriage based on the first national probability sample study ever attempted on love and intimacy among married Americans. The typical finding of the study, as hinted by the title, is that fidelity is common in American marriage, even epidemic. Indeed it might be called pandemic rather than epidemic” (p. 20).

Rather than relying on impressionistic, anecdotal, journalistic accounts, frequently erroneous popular opinion, or skewed “polls” like the oft-cited (and notoriously-flawed) Kinsey Report or more recent Hite Reports, Greeley grounds this study in a 1989-1990 Gallup Poll, “the first full-scale national probability sample study of sexuality and fidelity in marriage” (pp. 24-25) and another equally careful research endeavor. To the extent we can find accurate sociological data regarding the subject, Greeley provides it.

Given the largely negative press about marriage and family, evident in a 1987 Newsweek cover story which prodded Greeley’s study, this work provides a healthy, encouraging antidote. For he argues–and provides the data needed–that marriages in this country remain solidly monogamous and strong (especially where religious faith exists) and provide couples maximal happiness in life. There’s no ignoring the reality of divorce, which is not treated in this study, but among those who are married there is much to applaud.

Throughout the various items presented, one factor emerges: religion improves marriage. “Religion is by far the most powerful correlate of marriage attitudes and behavior we have yet discussed in this book. Although many journalists and social scientists assume that secularization is a demonstrated fact, there is no evidence to support this assumption in the United Sates. Moreover, there is no stronger predictor of marital happiness than religious devotion” (p. 221).

Spouses who share religious convictions “are 27 percentage points more likely to report agreement on general values,” and, even more impressive, the percentage rises to 36 if they go to church each week (p. 55). Only 11% of those who pray together think divorce might be possible, compared to 30% of those who don’t. Still more: “only 1% of those who pray together often and report the highest quality of sex think divorce is possible” (p. 63). “God and pleasure are, quite literally, a hard combination to beat” (p. 69).

Nearly one-third of the respondents regularly pray with their spouse. “Whether they pray often together or not is a very powerful correlate of marital happiness, the most powerful we have yet discovered. Seventy-five percent of those who pray say that the marriage is very happy, as opposed to 57% of those who do not pray so often” (p. 229). Still more: “Prayer, it is worth noting, is a much more powerful predictor of marital satisfaction than frequency of sexual intercourse–though the combination of sex and prayer correlates with very, very high levels of marital fulfillment” (p. 230).

Despite the generally up-beat tone of this tome, there are some discouraging words. Divorce continues to rip apart marriages and families–one in every two of today’s marriages seem destined to dissolve. Divorce leaves women, especially, impoverished and disadvantaged. In almost requiring that women work, modern society has placed considerable strain on those try to sustain both marriage and vocation. Greeley’s study shows that today’s working women are less happy than housewives of an earlier generation–but they are not less happy with marriage. What distresses them is a society which demands they work full-time as a career woman and still be a full-time mother.

Though there are certainly problems in the contemporary home, this book provides substantial reasons, especially for Christians, to face the future with confidence. Marriage and the family have survived and will survive. And it’s nice to have some data to fuel our hopes.

* * * * *

Revolutionaries have always known that the path to power involves using words as well as guns. In Church history, zealous insurgents have routinely sought to re-define words or re-design doctrines. G.K. Chesterton, in The Ball and the Cross, said that “the Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.” Words attach us to realities; fights about words contend for what’s priceless: ultimate realities.

Such concern prodded Helen Hull Hitchcock to edit a volume of essays, The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1992), which primarily addresses certain feminists’ endeavors to change the language of scripture and liturgy in order to change hearers’ concept of God and man. According to Naomi Goldenberg, “The feminist movement in Western culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Yahweh,” hoping to establish a pantheistic Mother Goddess of some sort in their place.

Thus the issue, Hitchcock says, is “objective religious truth” (p. xxi). Radicals, usually espousing some variant of “liberation theology,” seek to substitute their own largely subjective “truths” for the deposit of faith preserved by the Church. Tragically, she says, “Feminists (of both sexes) hate the Church, because she represents or in fact personifies, for them, everything which impinges on or limits their ‘liberty’ to do as they wish. The Church’s moral teaching constrains them, accuses them of sin. In effect, they must make the Church become ‘sin'” (p. xxiii). To do so, it is necessary to repudiate the past (the traditional Church) and create a more acceptable community, so it is necessary to cast aside the linguistic expressions which shaped it.

Of the eighteen essays in the volume I’ll focus only on the first. In “Words, Words Everywhere–And Not A Thought to Think,” Joyce A. Little emphasizes the importance of language in life. Unfortunately, modernity, with its mathematics and machines, has encouraged the use of increasingly abstract, disembodied words which detach us from life’s reality. As Romano Guardini noted, “‘man’s relations with nature have been altered radically, have become indirect,'” thus losing “‘the quality of real experience'” (p. 13).

Sufficiently detached from nature, we can fabricate an abstract world which allows us more control, more freedom. Even our own body, as part of nature, comes to be viewed “as rationally understandable and technologically controllable” (p. 13). Consequently, Dr. Little argues, abstract language enables us to reconceptualize reality: “Lust is free love, adultery is open marriage, homosexuality is a life-style, masturbation is safe sex, pregnancy is disease, abortion is termination of that disease, procreation is reproduction, birth prevention is birth control, natural mothers are surrogate mothers, unborn children are embryos, embryos are property, murder is mercy killing, mercy killing is assisted suicide, and suicide is death with dignity” (p. 14). In all such endeavors, there’s an effort evade reality and justify our behavior by changing our words.

The language we use affects the actions we choose. Thus adopting “inclusive language” is more than cosmetic conciliation. If we’re all identical “persons” whose bodies count for nothing, if it doesn’t matter whether one is male or female, then language should blur or eliminate traditional distinctions. For feminists who crusade for nonsexist language, “Men and women become persons, mothering and fathering become parenting, couples expecting a baby are encouraged to mouth such nonsense as ‘we are pregnant'” (p. 15).

In the same way, radical feminists seek to eliminate “patriarchal” language and Father/Son images of God. By ignoring the sacred task of translators, to accurately translate languages, ancient texts are being altered to suit modern prejudices. If successful, the essayists in this volume fear, the very nature of Roman Catholicism may be lost.

Whether they’re right or not, the book is thought-provoking, helping us better understand our world.


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