The Prattle of the Sexes
April 90 McCall's
(Scene: a couple sitting at the dinner table eating and talking - scene set by sketch in article)
Ralph: Say, Wanda, where did you get this meat?
Wanda: What's wrong with it?
Ralph: Gotcha, my pet! You have helped me illustrate Ralph's First Law of Male-Female Conversation. Ask a hundred American husbands where the roast beef came from and they will all name the local butcher or supermarket. Ask a hundred wives who have just cooked a meal, and every single one will turn slightly white, as you just did, and ask, "Whats wrong with it?"
Wanda: ...And I suppose this is because all women are insecure and unable to answer direct questions. Is that what you want to say Ralph?
Ralph: That would be unfair, my love. After all women constitute one of our top two sexes. It's just that us guys are so splendidly precise and logical. We don't hear "This meat is terrible" if someone is just asking which market we use.
Wanda: Before you break into a chorus of why can't a woman be more like a man, Ralph, let me admit that you have a point. Men are more direct and literal-minded in conversation, and women are more attuned to the metamessages, the nuances and emotional tone. That's why men are so abysmal at lamentation talk.
Ralph: What's lamentation talk? And how come I's so bad at it?
Wanda: Remember the argument we had last week? I said I felt bad because I was putting on on some weight and what did you say?
Ralph: I said what any loving and supportive husband would say: "Why don't you go on a diet?" You got mad for no reason at all. Then I pointed out, rather kindly, I thought, that you were endlessly worrying about the problem instead of dealing with it and moving on.
Wanda: Ralph, believe it or not, I already know that going on a diet is one way of losing weight. I didn't raise the subject with you so you could clobber me with cracker-barrel advice. It was lamentation talk. I wanted reasurrance and confirmation of my feelings about myself.
Ralph: Good grief, Wanda. What would happen to the world if guys went around confirming feelings. Most of us break out in hives if forced to talk about emotions for more than 40 seconds. We face things directly, in a manly way. We don't just sit around gabbing endlessly.
Wanda: That'ts just what Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist, says in her new book, You just Don't Understand:
Women and Men in Conversation. She says that women engage in lamentation talk all the time, offering matching troubles to reassure one another. This phenomenon seems to be true all around the world.
Ralph: I do that every week with Fred. We meet at the fence. He talks about his crabgrass problem. Then I talk about my crabgrass problem and we both go back inside feeling better. Lamentation talk about lawns is the very heartbeat of the suburban experience, Wanda.
Wanda: Don't be smart, Ralph. The problem is that troubles-talk grates on men, just as the man's standard response grates on women. Men can't wait to change the subject, as you just did with your crabgrass joke. Or to cut off the discussion by saying "Here's what you do. . . " If you had empathized, you would have sent a calming metamessage: "We're the same, you are not alone."
Ralph: So what was my offense?
Wanda: By giving the obvious advice about dieting, you sent a different metamessage: "We're not the same. You have the problems; I have the solutions." You Tarzan, me Jane.
Ralph: Having a solution is not a character flaw, dearest. How is your average male suppossed to know when a wife wants actual help and when she just wants her hubby to join her in a good wallow?
Wanda: Congratulations, Ralph, You have just illustrated many of Tannen's points about male conversation in a single sentence: It is often abstract, abrupt, polemical and concerned with being one-up, or at least avoiding being one-down. Have you ever noticed that you get irritated whenever I start a sentence with "Let's"?
Ralph: I love all your sentences, my pet.
Wanda: Tannen says women tend to use "Let's" as a way of seeking consensus. "Let's go for a walk: is the opening of a negotiation. But men tend to bristle at the word-they think they're being told what to do. That's also why you never ask directions when you're lost, Ralph. Like most men, you drive around in circles for ten minutes or so rather than take the subservient role of asking for help.
Ralph: So this is one of those books that say men are beasts?
Wanda: Actually not. Tannen says both male and female style are valid. Men speak and hear a language of status and independence, whereas women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy. Basically we come from different planets. This is why so many small parties tend to break down into one group speaking female and another speaking male. You know, the impersonal male stuff - traveling salesmean jokes, politics, sports and status.
Ralph: Wanda, have I told you the one about the man who wouldnt't ask directions? it seems he and his wife were driving along, totally engrossed in a deeply satisfying lamentation talk about being lost, when all of a sudden. . . .
Wanda: A&P Ralph.
Wanda: The meat is from the A&P. Now lets pass the potatoes, if that's ok with you.