Wednesday, August 25, 2010

That feeling of "GRRRRRRR"

How many times a day do you say "I'm sorry"?  If you're like me, these words come out of your mouth with some frequency, and over the years my daughters have made a concerted effort to break me of the habit.

I'd come to see it as a weakness, actually -- almost an apology for living -- and I've assumed for some time that this particular habit of speech was indicative of some deep hole in my psyche.

So it was with relief that I read yesterday, in Deborah Tannen's book  Talking from Nine to Five: Women and Men at Work, that "I'm sorry" is actually a conversational device, used primarily by women, to establish equality in a conversation.  And in fact, the habit of ending a conversational interaction with "Thanks" is a similar device.  Each phrase is part of a broader set of speech patterns acquired growing up which reflect the overall desire of young women to achieve balanced relationships.

While boys are busy establishing one-up-manship, girls are busy finding equal value in one another.  While boys are learning to jockey for position, girls are learning to step back and step down, and invite others to do the same. The problem is that these conversational devices and patterns have expected responses: it's a bit like a tennis game.  A woman who says, "I'm sorry" or "Thanks" can usually expect to hear, "Oh, no -- that was my fault" or "Thank YOU" hit back across the conversational net.  A compliment usually yields a compliment in return.  And a man who says, "I totally aced that" can usually expect to hear, "Oh, no -- my shot was WAY better than yours."

But each of these games has rules that are often unfamiliar to the other team -- Which means that when you mix the genders you can run into unanticipated responses.  A woman who says "I'm sorry" and gets "No problem" as a response is left holding an unexpected bag of guilt and responsibility.  A woman who says a routine "Thanks" to a man and gets "you're welcome" as a response is left feeling strangely indebted, as if she were somehow beholden to the man. And Tannen tells this great story about a woman and man who were returning after giving presentations: The woman compliments the man on his, and then, when she gets no response other than "Thanks," she asks, "and how was mine?" and he proceeds to give her a blow-by-blow description of what was wrong with her work.  Although she found things wrong with his as well, there was no longer an opportunity to address that, and in the end she was left feeling her work was inferior.

And then there's the case of the man who says, "I totally aced that" to a woman.  Instead of, "No, man, I beat you hands down," he's more likely to get "the look," indicating that the woman finds his remark arrogant and self-aggrandizing.  And in all of these situations you might find both parties walking away and shaking their heads.

The important thing to remember -- despite that feeling of "GRRRRRR" that lingers after such interactions, is that it's not that the other person is weak and inferior, or aggressive and arrogant: the problem is a difference in communication styles.

So don't be so hard on yourself!

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Good to know!

To think: All this time I thought "Thank you" and "You're welcome" were just good manners. If only....