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You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

3.7 13
by Deborah Tannen

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Women and men live in different worlds...made of different words.

Spending nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list, including eight months at number one, You Just Don't Understand is a true cultural and intellectual phenomenon. This is the book that brought gender differences in ways of speaking to the forefront of public


Women and men live in different worlds...made of different words.

Spending nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list, including eight months at number one, You Just Don't Understand is a true cultural and intellectual phenomenon. This is the book that brought gender differences in ways of speaking to the forefront of public awareness. With a rare combination of scientific insight and delightful, humorous writing, Tannen shows why women and men can walk away from the same conversation with completely different impressions of what was said.

Studded with lively and entertaining examples of real conversations, this book gives you the tools to understand what went wrong -- and to find a common language in which to strengthen relationships at work and at home. A classic in the field of interpersonal relations, this book will change forever the way you approach conversations.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Georgetown University linguistics professor Tannen here ponders gender-based differences that, she claims, define and distinguish male and female communication. Opening with the rationale that ignoring such differences is more dangerous than blissful, she asserts that for most women conversation is a way of connecting and negotiating. Thus, their parleys tend to center on expressions of and responses to feelings, or what the author labels ``rapport-talk'' (private conversation). Men, on the other hand, use conversation to achieve or maintain social status; they set out to impart knowledge (termed ``report-talk,'' or public speaking). Calling on her research into the workings of dialogue, Tannen examines the functioning of argument and interruption, and convincingly supports her case for the existence of ``genderlect,'' contending that the better we understand it, the better our chances of bridging the communications gap integral to the battle of the sexes. (June)
The New York Times Book Review
“[A] refreshing and readable account of the complexities of communication between men and women.”
Los Angeles Times
“A chatty, earnest and endearing book that promises here–and–now rewards.”
Washington Post
“People are telling Tannen that the book is saving their marriages.”
Oliver Sacks
“A novelist’s ear for the way people speak with a rare power of original analysis.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Utterly fascinating. . . . A classic in the field.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Different Words,
Different Worlds

Many years ago I was married to a man who shouted at me, "I do not give you the right to raise your voice to me, because you are a woman and I am a man." This was frustrating, because I knew it was unfair. But I also knew just what was going on. I ascribed his unfairness to his having grown up in a country where few people thought women and men might have equal rights.

Now I am married to a man who is a partner and friend. We come from similar backgrounds and share values and interests. It is a continual source of pleasure to talk to him. It is wonderful to have someone I can tell everything to, someone who understands. But he doesn't always see things as I do, doesn't always react to things as I expect him to. And I often don't understand why he says what he does.

At the time I began working on this book, we had jobs in different cities. People frequently expressed sympathy by making comments like "That must be rough," and "How do you stand it?" I was inclined to accept their sympathy and say things like "We fly a lot." Sometimes I would reinforce their concern: "The worst part is having to pack and unpack all the time." But my husband reacted differently, often with irritation. He might respond by de-emphasizing the inconvenience: As academics, we had four-day weekends together, as well as long vacations throughout the year and four months in the summer. We even benefited from the intervening days of uninterrupted time for work. I once overheard him telling a dubious man that we were lucky,since studies have shown that married couples who live together spend less than half an hour a week talking to each other; he was implying that our situation had advantages.

I didn't object to the way my husband responded — everything he said was true — but I was surprised by it. I didn't understand why he reacted as he did. He explained that he sensed condescension in some expressions of concern, as if the questioner were implying, "Yours is not a real marriage; your ill-chosen profession has resulted in an unfortunate arrangement. I pity you, and look down at you from the height of complacence, since my wife and I have avoided your misfortune." It had not occurred to me that there might be an element of one-upmanship in these expressions of concern, though I could recognize it when it was pointed out. Even after I saw the point, though, I was inclined to regard my husband's response as slightly odd, a personal quirk. He frequently seemed to see others as adversaries when I didn't.

Having done the research that led to this book, I now see that my husband was simply engaging the world in a way that many men do: as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he was either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others' attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.

I, on the other hand, was approaching the world as many women do: as an individual in a network of connections. In this world, conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others' attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Though there are hierarchies in this world too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than of power and accomplishment.

Women are also concerned with achieving status and avoiding failure, but these are not the goals they are focused on all the time, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of connection. And men are also concerned with achieving involvement and avoiding isolation, but they are not focused on these goals, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of opposition.

Discussing our differences from this point of view, my husband pointed out to me a distinction I had missed: He reacted the way I just described only if expressions of concern came from men in whom he sensed an awareness of hierarchy. And there were times when I too disliked people's expressing sympathy about our commuting marriage. I recall being offended by one man who seemed to have a leering look in his eye when he asked, "How do you manage this long-distance romance?" Another time I was annoyed when a woman who knew me only by reputation approached us during the intermission of a play, discovered our situation by asking my husband where he worked, and kept the conversation going by asking us all about it. In these cases, I didn't feel put down; I felt intruded upon. If my husband was offended by what he perceived as claims to superior status, I felt these sympathizers were claiming inappropriate intimacy.

Intimacy and Independence

Intimacy is key in a world of connection where individuals negotiate complex networks of friendship, minimize differences, try to reach consensus, and avoid the appearance of superiority, which would highlight differences. In a world of status, independence is key, because a primary means of establishing status is to tell others what to do, and taking orders is a marker of low status. Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first and men on the second. It is as if their lifeblood ran in different directions.

These differences can give women and men differing views of the same situation, as they did in the case of a couple I will call Linda and Josh...

Meet the Author

Deborah Tannen is Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her books include the New York Times bestsellers You Just Don't Understand, You're Wearing THAT?, Talking from 9 to 5, and You Were Always Mom's Favorite!. She has written for and been featured in numerous major newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Time.

Brief Biography

Washington, D.C. metro area
Date of Birth:
June 7, 1945
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
B.A., Harpur College, 1966, Wayne State University, 1970; M.A. in Linguistics, UC Berkeley, 1976; Ph.D., 1979

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You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the book for a research paper I was writing. I found the book informative but hard to relate to my own life. However it was a great book towards my paper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is now dated, but it's insight is still very valuable. The author does an excellent job of offering a dispassionate view of the differences between the genders in conversation. This can still be a balm to many marriages
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
vteyedoc More than 1 year ago
Better than "Men are fro Mars.." by lightyears.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This probably needs to be listened to a few times, as I was multi-tasking while listening and missed specific details during a few situational events. This audiobook provides numerous examples of various interactive situations between couples, providing insight to what the women and men are thinking. It is obvious, after listening to this book, that most men and women think about a specific situation differently. The only knock is the narrator's outdated sounding voice, but if you can get past that then you can gain some valuable insight on the other's (woman or man) perspective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wow! This book is an eye opener not only for communication at work but in personal relationships as well. A worthwhile read for any man who has wondered just what he said wrong and for any woman who finds herself puzzled by the men who just don't 'get it.' Take the lessons to heart and your life will be running more smoothly in no time. Another book I enjoyed is Rat Race Relaxer: Your Potential & The Maze of Life by JoAnna Carey which helps you communicate what you want in return for running the rat race.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to order this novel for a psychology class at my college..I've never learned and have applied so much knowledge to my life before, all from a book we had to read for class!
Guest More than 1 year ago
but fails. Ultimately, stereotyping men's and women's styles as "status vs connection" is inherently judgemental: one never uses 'connection-seeking' as an insult in the way one uses 'status-seeking', few of us resist connection and many of us resent and resist status. It is also really no help to anyone, since we already have the assumption women are sweet and men are aggressive drummed into us from infancy. She does clarify the statement, and she gives good proof that her clarification is a better form than the unrefined original. But if she really thought what she keeps saying in the book, that neither style is inherently better than the other, she could not follow this up with another book (The Argument Culture) that basically attacks the male style, which is already the one people judge negatively.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tannen gives plenty of concrete examples all of us should be able to identify with on how reasoning differences and psychological factors clear communication obstacles between men and women with global implications across all socioeconomic strata.Can it be that major problems in society can have their roots in misunderstandings?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was very biased and only looked at the side of men as being powerful and having complete dominance over women which is certainly not true in life. This book also talked about how there are not many successful women, which again, is not true at all because there are plenty of women out there that have poisitions of authority in business and are taken seriously. Altogether, I was just not very impressed by this reading because I guess I had thought that it would have more of a story line to it but it mainly consisted of just facts and dialogue examples. In conclusion, this book just wasn't what I had expected.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting study of the problems generated by failed interpersonal communications between men and women because of psychological ,cultural and other factors with concrete,every day examples of common areas where men andwomen fail to clearly communicate by a Georgetown University scholar.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first glance, her theory is seemingly fair. But after digesting it all, you get the feeling that there is a negative connotation attached to the way men communicate. I'm not sure this is a fair or just method to judge others by...however I admit one can learn more about the way the sexes communicate.