4.11 Critiquing gender essentialism
Look again at what Tannen and Gray say about men's and women's communicative behaviour. Then review the description of essentialism and the social constructionist critique of it in Section 1.2. What criticisms might be made of Tannen's and Gray's claims?
As with ‘stereotypical’ accounts of ethnic difference, a social constructionist critique might argue that these are huge and generalised claims that overlook the enormous diversity of communicative behaviour that exists among men and women. Do all men and women communicate in these ways, in all contexts? And can these claims be applied to men and women in other societies and cultures, where gender relationships are very different? Following on from this, it might be argued that these generalised claims overlook similarities between men's and women's ways of communicating, and the importance of factors that they might have in common, based for example on their social class, education or age. Tannen's and Gray's analyses make gender the main tool for explaining people's behaviour and (like ‘ethnicist’ ideas) risk reducing complex individuals to one aspect of their identity. Then again, there might be other contextual factors that account for the ways in which people interact with each other, including the relationship between them.
Because of their popularity at a ‘common-sense’ level and their renewed academic respectability, ideas about fixed gender differences should not be dismissed lightly. They have important implications for the ways in which people think about and practise interpersonal communication in health and social care.