4.9 The revival of gender essentialism
After falling out of fashion in the wake of feminist influence in the 1970s and 1980s, there are signs that the notion of ‘essential’ gender differences is undergoing a revival. At an academic level, this has been stimulated by work within genetics, evolutionary psychology and neurology (see Baron-Cohen, 2003). At a more popular level, self-help manuals which apparently ‘explain’ the differences between men's and women's behaviours, and offer advice on coping with them, have become huge bestsellers. Some of these self-help books specifically address ‘differences’ in communication styles. There is a prominent example on the cover of Deborah Tannen's book 'You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation' (1991), which describes it as ‘the classic that shows us why we find it so difficult to talk to the opposite sex.’ Tannen's objective is to demonstrate that men and women have ‘different but equally valid styles’ of communication (Tannen, 1991, p. 15). Although she claims to be aware of the dangers of generalising about gender and behaviour, she states: ‘There are gender differences in ways of speaking, and we need to identify and understand them’ (p. 17). Having given an example of miscommunication involving her husband and herself, Tannen draws this conclusion:
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.
Tannen, 1991, pp. 24–25
In other words, according to Tannen, men and women seek very different things when they communicate, and operate according to different rules. John Gray's enormously popular ‘Venus and Mars’ books have further popularised this kind of thinking. Like Tannen, Gray argues that understanding gender differences in communication can help to improve relationships between men and women. He claims:
Not only do men and women communicate differently but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment.
Gray, 1993, p. 6
Gray goes on to claim that ‘A man's sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results’ (p. 20), while ‘A woman's sense of self is defined through her feelings and the quality of her relationships’ (p. 23). Of course, it follows from this that women are better at communication and personal relationships. Gray says that for women:
Relationships are more important than work and technology … Personal expression, especially of their feelings, is very important… Communication is of primary importance. To share their personal feelings is much more important than achieving goals and success. Talking and relating to one another is a source of tremendous fulfilment.
Gray, 1993, p. 23
What was your reaction to this brief summary of Tannen's and Gray's ideas on communication and gender? Did you nod in agreement, or did you want to take issue with their claims? The next two linked activities give you the opportunity to respond to these ideas.