Bridging the Gap

“Bridging the Gap” is a look into the ways that people, primarily men and women, are hardwired to communicate, and how that can affect relationships. D. Jeralds gives his perspective from experience, citing Deborah Tannen’s 1990 Washington Post article, “Sex, Lies, and Conversation.”

Communication is the key to success in all phases of life. Without communication it is impossible for two people to work together; and little can be accomplished. Communication is more than a conversation and often comes in forms that are unspoken. As we begin to understand the imperative role of communication in relationships, we realize that men and women act and respond in completely different ways. In Sex, Lies, and Conversation, Deborah Tannen dives into the fundamental differences in communication between genders. She manages to break down the adolescent behaviors and influences that ultimately contribute to each individual’s style of conversation. In order to establish a healthy relationship, it is crucial that we first understand the gender differences in adolescent social habits, body language and basic conversational format. If we are unwilling to take this step, there will likely be an everlasting gap that blocks clear communication in our present and future relationships.

Early in the essay, Tannen explains the childhood behaviors of each gender and how they differ. She points out the fact that boys and girls tend to play with children of their own gender and these “sex-separate groups have different organizational structures and interactive norms”. I can remember as a child, enjoying sports, video games and playing outside with other guys… never once thinking to invite girls. Even if I found myself in the same area with children of the opposite gender, I would naturally migrate to other males and the girls would segregate themselves as well. Inherently, girls find conversation and the sharing of secrets as the root of intimacy. In contrast, boys hold much less value in conversation and believe bonds lie in experiences and doing things with each other. These systematic differences in socialization make cross-gender communication seem like talking with someone of foreign descent. As children grow older, they mingle with the opposite sex more and more frequently, but often these adolescent conversational habits are carried on through the years.

Many years later when we become part of adult relationships, before we ever speak a word, we send numerous signals to our partner simply by body movements and gestures. Tannen demonstrates that men and women also have diverging mechanics of conversation. She states that, at every age during conversation “girls and women faced each other directly” but “boys and men sat at an angle to each other.” This type of behavior can prove to be confusing and portray mixed communication signals. When I stare off into space and do not face my partner directly in conversation, she may assume I lack interest or am distracted and not listening. And even though I adamantly express that my focus and attention is on her, she never understands why I prefer to look off into space rather than directly at her. Tannen explains that misalignment in cross gender communication occurs “as soon as men and women take physical positions.” Once I understand that it is not natural for me to face my partner directly, and that she communicates and responds better through eye contact, it allows me to adjust and provide the reassuring focus she desires.

Tannen also explores the differences between the conversational format of men and women. Walter Ongs 1981 book, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Conscience, explains that men use “agonistic”, or warlike, oppositional tactics in almost any situation. I have witnessed how a discussion between males can quickly become a debate resembling any competitive sport. I mean, who doesn’t love a good debate? On the contrary, women look at conversation as an opportunity to build relationships and establish a personal connection. These differences in basic fundamental conversational format can cause us to mistake the intent of and completely misinterpret the opposite genders message. Tannen explains that when a woman expresses a problem or concern, a response of familiarity and reassurance helps to create a sense of closeness.  Contrarily, men enjoy pointing out all sides of an argument (going back to how we like to debate), “this is heard as disloyalty” by women and refusal to offer requisite support. This point brings up the question…Am I being supportive enough? When I fire back several other perspectives and possible solutions when my partner comes to me with issues, she could feel ambushed. This article helped me to realize that women come to us with concerns and more often than not are aware of all points of view. They don’t want our solutions, but just for us to listen and be a comforting constituent. Men can have a tendency to find females unreasonable and unwilling to see the issue with an open mind, but in order to pry open the doors of clear communication with our partners we must swallow the rebuttals and refrain from trying to save the day.  Simply listen and support.

In order to have successful relationships and ultimately a successful marriage, one must become a master at cross-gender communication. In order to do this, we must put aside the inherent framework of communication and make efforts to view conversation from the opposite gender’s perspective. The psychological explanations presented in Tannen’s essay are useless in our goal of clear and effective communication between genders, as they often lead us to blame the opposite sex for the barriers that emerge. If we look at it as cross-cultural communication, it will help us to create solutions to male-female conversation without pointing fingers.


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