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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

What did you say?

Webster's defines communication as "a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior". I'm not going to pontificate about the subject, though I really could. I just want to put out there that this is perhaps the hardest part of ordinary life. It is a particularly difficult part of most relationships between men and women.

Somewhere along the road humans developed speech and writing, which standardized how we could transmit information between each other. Further along the road we developed devices to help us transmit the information. The written words could be collected and made available to people far away in distance or in time (by letter, by book). We found ways to use signals to replace our words (smoke signals,
semaphore, Morse code). Alexander Graham Bell helped us send the spoken word over great distances with the telephone; then recordings were possible and we could preserve the spoken word through time. Then the computer allowed us to send the spoken or written words almost anywhere and instantly, or record it, and manipulate it. But the ability to write with speed, or send our words great distances are not what make communication good, and if we manipulate either the written or spoken words that might change little. The important element is the content: rubbish in, rubbish out, applies to communication too. So, no matter how fast and clearly a shop assistant in Barbados says "It ova' dere." You are none the wiser where it is. In addition, throughout all this, technological advances have not done much to deal with some communication blockages that arise from differences in basic human "wiring".

One of my favorite topics is the gender divide, but in particular the way that men and women communicate differently amongst themselves and between the genders. If you have not read it I recommend Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation, which was published in 1990. [She has also since tackled the shark-infested waters of mothers and daughters in conversation in You're Wearing That?] You Just Don't Understand topped the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years, and stayed number one for eight months. It was translated into 29 other languages and on best-seller lists in six other nations. (Listen to Deborah Tannen on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, July 17, 2002). Here is what she cites as a fairly typical male-female exchange:

A married couple was in a car when the wife turned to her husband and asked, "Would you like to stop for a coffee?"

"No, thanks," he answered truthfully. So they didn't stop.

The result? The wife, who had indeed wanted to stop, became annoyed because she felt her preference had not been considered. The husband, seeing his wife was angry, became frustrated. Why didn't she just say what she wanted?

Unfortunately, he failed to see that his wife was asking the question not to get an instant decision, but to begin a negotiation. And the woman didn't realize that when her husband said no, he was just expressing his preference, not making a ruling. When a man and woman interpret the same interchange in such conflicting ways, it's no wonder they can find themselves leveling angry charges of selfishness and obstinacy at each other.

Another interesting study on the topic that was also published in the early 1990s and had similar literary successes is Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, by Dr. (PhD) John Gray. He has a number of arguments that are similar, though put a little differently--naturally; he's a man and Ms. Tannen is a woman. He believes that many men withdraw until they find a solution to the problem. He refers to this as "retreating into their cave." In some cases they may literally retreat, for example, to the garage or craft room. That imagery gets a humourous twist with Bob Becker's play Defending the Cave Man.

On the other hand, Dr. Gray believes that women want to discuss problems when they occur. This leads to a natural dynamic of the man "retreating" as the woman "advances" in her constant quest to grow closer. This becomes a major source of conflict between any man and woman. Another aspect is "emotional stroking". For example, Dr. Gray suggests that a man might count a $200 present he gives as 15 points and a $10 item as 1 point, while a woman counts each item as 1 point. The emotional stroke delivered by the sincere attention is as important as the value of the item. This can lead to conflict when a man thinks he has earned 15 points and deserves appropriate recognition while the female has only given him 1 point and recognizes him accordingly.

I'm more familiar with Ms. Tannen's writing, and if you read a condensed version of her book you will soon start to realize the gender communications differences, even if you don't understand them. As she says, learning the other gender's ways of talking is a leap across the communication gap between men and women, and a giant step towards genuine understanding. I'll borrow from this condensed version to highlight the differences. You can spend the rest of Sunday seeing how much you can relate to.

Status versus Support. Men typically grow up learning that conversation is often a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, however, talking is often a way to exchange confirmation and support.

Independence versus Intimacy. Women often think in terms of closeness and support, they strive to preserve intimacy. Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence. These traits can lead women and men to starkly different views of the same situation. The argument is that men often see suggestions for prior approval as challenges to their independence, whereas women see this as building bonds.

Advice versus Understanding. Many men see complaints as challenges to come up with a solution. For instance, Eve had a benign lump removed from her breast and told Adam that she was distressed by the scar this left. Adam suggested that she have plastic surgery to remove the scar; he thought he was reassuring Eve by telling her there was something she could do about her scar. She reacted angrily by saying it was too bad if he did not like how she looked but she was not having any more surgery! She was looking for emotional support, not solutions.

Information versus Feelings. For most men, talk is information. Women, in contrast to men, often have practice in verbalizing their feelings with friends and relatives. Men can feel comfortable holding center stage at a social event, telling jokes and stories. They use conversation to claim attention and to entertain. Women can feel hurt that their husbands tell relative strangers things they have not told them. So, often, a man might not talk much at home. To avoid misunderstanding, both men and women can make adjustments. A woman may observe a man's desire to read the paper without conversing and not see it is a rejection. A man can understand a woman's desire to talk while he's reading the paper without feeling it is a manipulative intrusion.

Orders versus Proposals. Most men resist being told what to do. Women think that they are making suggestions, not demands. Most women formulate their requests as proposals rather than orders, and precede them with phrases such as "Let's...". That "female style" of talking is a way of getting others to do what she wants--but by winning agreement first. With certain men, this tactic backfires. If they sense that someone is trying to get them to do something indirectly, they feel manipulated and respond more resentfully than they would to a straightforward request.

Conflict versus Compromise. In trying to prevent fights, some women refuse to oppose the will of others openly. [My own observation is that this can result in the seemingly hypocritical behavior of women "skinning" each other in private ("Oooh! Look how fat she has become") but when face-to-face are all sweetness and smiles to each other ("Oh my! What I would do for your figure".] But sometimes it's far more effective for a woman to assert herself, even at the risk of conflict. Couples often find that a little conflict won't kill you--it can be seen as "constructive tension". Not least because men who habitually oppose others can adjust their style to opt for less confrontation.

Tricky, eh! The style differences are very important and need to be seen for what they are. Otherwise, we tend to draw unfair conclusions: "You're illogical," "You're self- centered," "You don't care about me." Once we grasp the two characteristic approaches, we stand a better chance of preventing disagreements from spiraling out of control--no success guaranteed, though.

I met Ms. Tannen once in Washington and had a brief discussion on this subject. In particular, I have a twist on the tale. These arguments are probably well fitted to many circumstances but I have found that in modern western societies, movements toward gender equality have led increasingly to situations where many women have become more "male" in the way they converse, and more men have become "in touch with their feminine side" in their styles of verbal negotiation. So, the soup gets all mixed up. Am I talking man to "man" or man to "woman"? If I was confused before, now my wires are totally crossed.

For sure, I have become comfortable "wearing" women's verbal clothes: I think I try to negotiate and am happy to refer before I decide. I'm sure, too (but is it my male misperception?) that my wife has more than a hint of verbal manliness. For instance, she will gladly extend invitations that I discover in passing or when I get included on the guest list. Is this a problem? It depends. Part of the "battle" between the genders has to do with whether the struggle is between seeming equals or between a dominant and an inferior person. Many traditional relationships have men as superior (wage earner, physically stronger, educationally more qualified, etc.). But that is changing, and we are seeing broadly, but also with some damaging repercussions in black communities, including in the Caribbean, a reversal whereby the woman has most of the "superior" attributes (better job, better education, less hampered by physical weakness). That is leading to some serious consideration about what social consequencese this may have (see, for example, an article in the Jamaica Gleaner about the gender gap at the University of the West Indies, where the ratio of females to males is 82:18). Remember, this social change is being amplified by a basic communication gap. If men and women feel that in some broad sense they are equals then the linguistic differences can easily be put into a context that makes them less threatening to a relationship. But if the sense of domination-inferiority seems to prevail, then the potential for conflict from the linguistic cross-talk can escalate.

We are not machines and don't have metering to help us see how emotionally we are affected when these social balances change. Many couples might think that it would be easier if the man came from Mars and the woman from Venus. That way, they could have stopped off at the Walmart on Andromeda 19 and bought themselves a pair of androids for mates (better still, buy one get one free). That way, the thinking and reactions could be programmed and made more predictable. Less conflict? Probably. Better for us in the long run? I doubt it. We have evolved in the face of challenges and this challenge of managing our language difference in a significantly changing social environment is another one to rise above. But this is a man speaking.



1 comment:

titilayo said...

I loved this post: great reading. I linked to it from my blog here.