He said, she said

October 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m supposed to have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics. I would, but I chucked it in, and I chucked in because I’m quite happy to do all the reading for a subject, but the data collection and writing up part of things is just deathly dull – especially when you have to write it all up according to some dusty old predetermined formula of research problems and research questions and blah, blah, blah…

Basically, I don’t have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics because I’m intrinsically lazy. But I am an armchair sociolinguist, and I love to analyse conversations that go on around me within that framework. And in case you’ve got this far and are thinking, “But what is it, for goodness’ sake?” it is, simply put, the study of the effects that society has on language .

One of the sub-categories of study is the differences in the way that men and women use language, often resulting in huge miscommunication. And in fact, the subject of my would-be thesis was gender-related, so I have a particular interest in this area. That’s why I was highly amused by a short Twitter conversation the other day, after I tweeted that I’d fixed the loose handle on the lid of my Le Creuset casserole with a butter knife, MacGyver-style.

A female follower replied that she’d had similar issues with hers, and two male followers joined in with solutions to the problem, and then discussed the merits of each other’s solutions for a couple of tweets. And I just giggled as it all unfolded, because it fitted so neatly into the way sociolinguists have observed the way we cope with sharing problems across the gender divide.

In broad sweeps – and I think many of us know this intuitively – when women have a problem, they tell their friends, and most of the time their friends nod, listen, agree they have a problem and offer tea and sympathy. They might offer a solution or two, but they start out by just being there and listening. Men, on the other hand, leap straight into the solutions. There’s a problem – it must be fixed. Fixing the problem is all. And it’s why I love this video, It’s Not About the Nail – it sums things up so well.

So here’s a fun bit of useful information (and I don’t recall the study that I read at university many years ago, but I know it exists). Did you know that men and women use agreement words and sounds like ‘Yes’ or ‘uh huh’ in conversation differently? Women use them to signal that they’re listening. Men, however, use them to signal that they agree. So, if you’re talking within your gender group, everyone understands each other. In a mixed gender situation, however, women get frustrated because men use their ‘yes’ less, and women therefore assume they’re not listening. Conversely, men get frustrated because they think women are just agreeing with everything they say and not thinking things through.

And I saw this demonstrated at a 60th birthday party last night, where my friend’s husband stood up and made a speech so full of details about her life that she was gobsmacked. “How did he know all of that stuff?” she asked me. “He must have been on my computer looking it all up.”

“Nope,” I said. “You’ve been married for 38 years now. He’s just been listening all this time.”

She shook her head. “It’s not possible,” she said. “Men never listen.”

So we quizzed him. And you know what? He had.

* If you want to read up more on this subject, Deborah Tannen is the guru in this area and writes very accessible books for the general public.


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