A Conversation with Suzette Elgin


Are your words and actions based on schoolroom rules or football rules? Knowing can make all the difference in understanding your own position as well as someone else's.


TMA: Suzette, there's a great deal of talk about the differences between the genders and the way they talk to one another and to each other. I've wondered how much of that's real.

Suzette Elgin: Well, the position I take in the book is that it's basically not real. But Deborah Tannen [You Just Don't Understand and Talking from 9 to 5] and John Gray [Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Mars and Venus in the Bedroom], who I guess are the two people who usually come to one's mind on this subject, take the position that men and women speak different languages. Now, I don't know about John Gray, but certainly Dr. Tannen does not mean that literally. She means that the language of men and the language of women are extremely different, and she thinks that's a gender-based phenomenon.

The feeling about this matter is that there are two groups: there's Tannen's group who says this has something to do with gender, and then there is the group that I belong to who say no, it has something to do with power. In Genderspeak, what I say is that there are two kinds of English. One of them is dominant English and the other is subordinate English. Statistically, because so many more men are in the dominant position in any kind of interaction -- they tend to be the president, the senator -- you hear them using the dominant dialect so much more that you get the idea that it's gender linked. But when the ranking of power switches, so does the language behavior. So we have lots of evidence showing that when a female trial lawyer cross-examines a male witness, it's the female who uses the dominant and the male who uses the subordinate . . . or if you have a female police person arresting a male speeder, once again there is that switch. I think both sexes know both of those styles of language and use them in the appropriate situation. I don't think it has anything to do with gender, other than accidentally. That puts me in total opposition to Tannen.

TMA: I tend to agree with you.

SE: I'm just quite sure of it because I've been teaching communication skills now for more than a quarter of a century to every conceivable kind of group of both genders. I have never had to change my approach so that it fit a gender. I've never had to say, Well, men can do this very well, but women are unable to do this. There is zero difference. And I have never written a dialogue in which I didn't feel that you couldn't perfectly well switch the lines and give the male lines to the female -- except for "I'm pregnant", you know, the occasional thing like that that's excluded by biology. I just don't think that there's even any evidence for this idea that men and women speak different dialects. Not at all. I think it is power linked and both genders use whichever of those two dialects happens to fit their power status in any interaction. That's not a popular idea.

TMA: It surprises me to hear you say this because I agree with what you're saying and I thought we might end up arguing about it.

SE: Almost everybody agrees with what I'm saying. The problem is that when there is a best seller of the size of Tannen's -- what, three years on the bestseller lists? When that happens, it's almost impossible for your average working stiff, professor, writer or whatever to swim upstream against that tide. And of course the proposition that men and women speak different languages is incredibly seductive. It's so comforting. You don't have to say, Well, we don't understand each other because we don't try hard enough or Because I'm tired or Because he doesn't know the background, or anything like that. You can just say, Men and women speak different languages, therefore it is not my fault. And that is very comforting and seductive to somebody who is having trouble communicating with someone of the opposite gender. It removes the obligation to fix it.

TMA: Well, where there's this much smoke, there's some fire. To what extent is that paradigm true?

SE: Just very, very little. I mean even the tiniest things. For example, I recently read a book called The Christmas Box. Have you read that yet?

TMA: No.

SE: Don't. I read it because it got $4.3 million as an advance, and I thought, Hmm, this man must know something. Well, it turns out he doesn't.

TMA: Sounds like he knows how to market his book.

SE: He does know how to market his book. It went to auction and brought $4.3 million and it's only 83 pages long. Well, at one point he has an adult male character do the following line: "'I'm sorry,' he said demurely." Which means nobody who bought it for $4.3 million read it either. Once in a great while you come across something like that. I mean, men don't say something "demurely". Period. But once you eliminate a very small handful of items like that that are mostly a matter of vocabulary, there isn't any difference. And all of the evidence is contradictory. If, for example, you were to investigate the question, Who interrupts more, men or women? and you piled up all of the studies done on that -- and there are hundreds of them -- 30 percent would say men interrupt more, 30 percent would say women interrupt more and 30 percent would say you can't tell because they do it equally. And the studies are all from top scholars. What it turns out, of course, is, it depends. Men interrupt more in certain situations, women in others, with certain people. Communication is just not tidy for investigation because too many factors enter into it. A man will interrupt one woman constantly, and never interrupt some other woman. You just can't [get statistics with] that kind of thing. But there are some characteristics of the dominant style and some of the subordinate that you can sort of tie down.

TMA: Would you say that men and women do have a problem communicating with each other?

SE: Yes, they do.

TMA: And what is the root of that? How does that work?

SE: There are two things involved here. One of them is the fact that the scripts no longer work. Until very recently, awfully recently, maybe the mid-70s, males and females in public life certainly had a script; women knew what they were to say, men knew what they were to say. Women said "Yes, sir" and "I'll be happy to" and "Thank you, sir" and men said "File this", "Do that." They really knew. All of a sudden we have the script not working any more because we have women who are in the executive position over men and nobody knows quite what to say . . . and this is creating tremendous turmoil. And it affects you in the home because if you're a man who all day has taken orders from a woman, you have trouble walking into the house and being Ward Cleaver when you get there. And same for the woman. So we are in a period of transition where the scripts are just totally screwed up -- and of course the Republicans are trying desperately to reverse this situation and get us back to the scripts. So is John Gray, whose book is a manual for becoming the Beaver Cleaver household; it works very well if that's what you want.

The other thing that's going on right now, and I don't know how new this is, I don't know exactly where it started, but there is a very major split between the sexes in terms of the metaphor that they use to guide their behavior. For most American men, it's the football game. Most male adults operate out of a football game metaphor. Most female American adults operate out of the metaphor of the traditional schoolroom. And what that causes is the most incredible thing. It means that males and females use the same words with very different meanings attached. For example, the easiest one to understand is, if you're on a football field, it is not a lie to pretend you have the ball when you don't. It's not a lie to act as if you're going to run one direction and go the other way. That's the way the game is played. In the traditional schoolroom if what you say or do is false, it's a lie. Period. So what we have coming out of that is this constant business where the woman is saying, "You lied" and the man is saying, "I did not." And she's saying, "It wasn't true" and he says, "I know, but it wasn't a lie." When you run into that kind of thing, you know immediately these two people agree lying is wrong, but they don't agree as to what lies are.

We have the same problem with violence. Men and women define it differently. We have the same problem with cheating and cooperating and teamwork. Remember what cheating is in a traditional schoolroom? You have to work all by yourself with no help from anybody or it's cheating. On the football field, this just would not do. That particular item, that metaphor split, is what is the basic reason for all of the communication problems.

In my seminars, for example, I may have 500 CEOs before me and when I explain that metaphor split, all the men -- it's usually men -- they just look as if they've had an epiphany. And they say, "Of course, that explains it!" What's wonderful about it is that once both men and women know that that's the problem, they can deal with it. Once you understand that that's what's going on, you get an end to this breakdown in communication. I say to the men, When you can't communicate, ask yourself: if you were in a traditional schoolroom, what would be going on? How would people be reacting to what you're saying and doing? And to women, Ask yourself: if you were on the football field, what would be happening? What would be people's reaction to what you're doing? And it fixes it. Many people tell me that one piece of information is the most valuable thing they ever hear.

TMA: It's sounds almost as if you're saying that menspeak is expedient-speak.

SE: I don't think so at all. Because on the field they have to do precisely what the rules dictate. The problem is that they take those rules off the field and use them in business and in government and so on. But even there, if people knew that's what they were doing, it wouldn't be a problem because you could work around that, you could accommodate to it, you could deal with it. The problem is that most men and women in this country are not aware of this particular difference.

I once had a male client come to me, just heartsick, for a consultation. He was a businessman in his early 60s. He told me, "I don't know what's the matter." He said, "All of the men who work for me have no character, no morals. They lie, they cheat, they trick me, they betray me", and I knew instantly what was wrong. He was a man who had been raised by a grandmother and two maiden aunts on an isolated farm in New England. He had the traditional schoolroom model, but he was a man. When I explained this to him, it was just like a miracle had occurred. He said, "That's it! That's what's going on here!" Human beings are very good at dealing with things and working out solutions when they do understand what's going on. The problem is that men and women right now think the reason we can't communicate is that men are monstrous beasts and women are stupid airheads. That's not it at all. It's that they're playing by different rules.

TMA: I look back to my own life and I wasn't raised exactly the same as the man you mentioned, but I did live with my grandmother through several of my formative years. Now I have found for myself that I've never had a problem talking to women. And I'm able to move back and forth -- I mean I can talk to the guys in guyspeak or I can talk to the women and not have a problem. I've had a hard time understanding why other people couldn't do the same thing.

SE: Well, it may be because you're one of the lucky people who can use both metaphors, having had in your formative years exposure to both of them and the chance to really learn them. And people have asked me, "What if little girls played football, would that fix it?" And I say no, because when a girl stepped off the field, she wouldn't be allowed to continue that way. The men, it's perfectly okay for them to take those rules off the field, but not women. Women are going to get in big difficulty if they try. The big problem comes in when you have men who firmly believe that they're operating by the rules of, oh, say, Christianity. And then when you say, "But you lied", they know somewhere below the level of conscious awareness that they didn't lie. But since they don't know they're using football rules, they can't defend themselves, so they start yelling.

TMA: Well yeah, it becomes a matter of expediency. Men say what they need to say and the way they need to say it in order to accomplish their objective.

SE: Sure. In order to make a touchdown. But you see, a man who said that to someone, he says, Yes indeed, what I did violated lots of codes . . . however, it was what had to be done if we were going to climb that mountain, close that deal, whatever. People may dislike what he did and they may dislike his attitude, but he's honest and you can work with him. It's when a man starts saying, "I did not" do whatever it was, which is what men tend to do -- when a man starts saying, "I did not lie", "I did not cheat", "I did not betray", he means . . . according to the rules I was playing by. But men don't know that's what they're doing because that's not how the human mind operates. When you put them in touch with what's going on, it's incredible how much better they do. Furthermore, they often make more admirable decisions because they will say to themselves consciously, Is this something where I want to use football rules or not? When it's totally unconscious, they don't do that. It's just a reactive kind of thing. I have a dialogue in Genderspeak that's from real life, where a woman said to this man, "But how could you possibly have told her that you love her?" This was a situation where she knew he certainly didn't. And he looked at her and he said, "But if I hadn't said that, she wouldn't have gone to Bermuda with me."

TMA: Or to bed or whatever.

SE: Right. Yeah. And she said, He's a monster, he has no character. I said, No, that's not true. He has applied football rules where it's no longer appropriate. That's what happened. When men understand that's what they're doing, they quite often will call me a month, six weeks later and say, "I am a lot more conscious now that I'm doing that. I stop and say, Hey wait a minute. Is this a place to play football?" And by the same token, women say, "I ask myself, 'Is this a place for me to be Little Miss Muffet in the schoolroom, or should I be quarterbacking here?'" Both of them can do it, it's just a matter of filling in the information gap. Works wonders.

TMA: Good stuff.

SE: Oh, thank you, I'm glad to hear it. I have not had a lot of luck knocking Deborah Tannen off the best seller list. Or John Gray, who is even more of a phenomenon than Tannen is.

TMA: He makes a great infomercial.

SE: He makes a great infomercial, and his book really is the perfect handbook for becoming the Beaver Cleaver household. If you're willing to follow the scripts he gives you, you will have that sort of household. And for the family that can afford it, that's wonderful. The family where the woman can stay home and be June Cleaver.

TMA: I'd like to get you guys on a panel sometime and watch him respond to you saying that.

SE: Oh, he wouldn't like it at all. He really wouldn't like it. And of course he is a celebrity, which is a whole career in itself, and I'm not one of those. I read the interview with him in People and I just couldn't believe it. Did you read that? His entire interview was about the sexual behavior of his mother, the sexual behavior of his sister, the sexual behavior of his previous wives and girlfriends, the sexual behavior of his father. And I just thought, If that's what you have to do be a celebrity, you can leave me off the list. I just thought, Oh, his poor family. As far as I'm concerned, it was sick, discussing his mother's bedroom behavior in print. I thought that was just unspeakable. But it sells a lot of books.

TMA: From what we've talked about so far, I think we've covered the man's world and woman's world. What about the famous male refusal to talk about feelings?

SE: Well, there's a whole chapter in Genderspeak about that. I tell women what they have to understand is that conversational intimacy, to a man, is exactly the same thing as sexual intimacy is to a woman. I say, Think of men as reluctant virgins, because what a man is afraid of is that she won't respect him in the morning. So women will come to me and say, I don't understand it . . . he'll bare his soul to some woman in an airport, but me he won't talk to. And I say, Sure, because he'll never see that woman in the airport again as long as he lives and so what if she doesn't respect him. It doesn't make any difference. And when you tell women that's what's going on, they're immediately able to deal with it. For example, [women need to be aware so that] they don't do this thing that men complain of: men will say, "I tell her one thing and immediately it's yeah yeah, and then what, and more and more." It's the same sort of thing you tell a man when he's going to seduce a virgin: you say, Take it easy . . . just because you get her to let you put your hand in her bra or whatever, don't proceed immediately to full scale behavior. Where feelings are concerned, women have to treat men in exactly the same way, because little boys are taught to hide their feelings. "Real men", you know, don't talk about how they feel.

TMA: Well, I think there is some truth that there are women who don't respect a man who will talk about his feelings -- but that's following the standard script, right?

SE: That's right. That's the standard script. Exactly. And if you've got John Wayne and Doris Day, they're going to be happy together. But what women tend to do is, they beg and beg and beg and beg some man to tell his feelings, and then when he does, they do some disgusting thing like talk about it to their girlfriends --

TMA: Or go, Yuck.

SE: Or go yuck, or laugh. And this, of course, is exactly what he expected.

TMA: What he's afraid of, yeah.

SE: It's what he's afraid of, it's what he expected, and he's never going to trust a woman in that way again. And it's happened to every man at some point. They have had some woman -- the way they feel about it, trick them -- into conversational intimacy and then make them feel like a fool in the same way that women will say some man tricked them into bed and then made them feel like a slut. It's an exact analog and it is, once again, a metaphor split. Metaphor drives everything we do. I know metaphor has become very chic recently with George Lakoff's book, Metaphors We Live By and so on, but I was doing the metaphor work in 1968. It's not something new in our human lives; it drives everything we do.

TMA: Are there other major reasons for communication breakdown between the sexes?

SE: One is the metaphor split I told you about; one is the shifting scripts I told you about; and the other is the difference in voice. Men have the voice that is viewed by our culture as the adult voice. You know, deep, rich, that kind of thing. And women tend to have a high kind of a thing. When you hear God's voice from the burning bush, it is never Cher. Those three things are the primary reason for male/female communication breakdown.

TMA: There's one more thing here that I want to touch on. I know that one of the points you make is that hostile communication is more dangerous for your health than being overweight or cigarette smoking or high LDL cholesterol.

SE: I have a whole book about that, that was published long before most of the books on the subject. It's called Staying Well with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. We know now that for all diseases and disorders -- across the board -- the two major risk factors are hostility and loneliness. Not all those other things on the list, but hostility and loneliness. What happens when you use hostile language or when you are chronically exposed to other people's hostile language is that your blood pressure goes up, your heart races, the chemicals in your body get all out of balance.

TMA: Sure.

SE: Sure. Stress, wear, and tear. That pounding in your head and that knot in your stomach and all that stuff. There is now massive evidence that demonstrates that people who are constantly exposed to hostility, which is usually in the form of language, get sick oftener, get injured oftener, and die sooner.

The reason we didn't know it until recently, however commonsense it may have seemed, was because we did not have powerful enough computers. We have computers now that can look at hundreds of thousands of medical histories over decades and give you a printout. When you work on that scale, the real patterns pop up. When you do what we had to do previously, where you could only look at maybe a thousand over two or three years -- and even that was a big job -- short term, it looked like the person with the meanest mouth gets all the goodies. But when you get enough power to look at big masses of data, absolutely no way.

Hostile language is dangerous. When I have to approach CEOs, I don't say to them, You've got to give up hostile language because it's not nice, or You must be a kinder, gentler, fuzzier person, or any of those things. I say, "Hostile language will kill you." And then they sit right up straight and listen to me. It's like secondhand smoke. It is just as dangerous for the other people around as it is for the person directly involved in it. It's as dangerous for the abuser as it is for the victim. It's dangerous for their helpless audience. Like parents who've got kids sitting there while they fight all the time, it's just as bad for their health as it is for the person who is directly attacked, and it is just as bad for the one who is doing it. Evidence is absolutely overwhelming.

TMA: Well, you say it, and I know it intuitively. Of course it's right.

SE: Sure, "of course." And I think everybody knows it. Almost everything that I teach people ought to be something that their common sense backs up for them and that they recognize as something they already know. I tell them, "If I'm doing what I do right, you will keep thinking, 'I knew that.'" The problem is that we have all this information in our heads that is like a gigantic library with no card catalog or index of any kind. It's all in there, but we can't get at it. What I do is set up indexes for people so they can use that information.

Suzette Elgin, Ph.D. is the author of Genderspeak; The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense; and You Can't Say That To Me, which is an application of that system to close, ongoing relationships where verbal abuse is a problem. She is an Associate Professor Emeritus in Linguistics, now retired from San Diego State University and the founder and director of the Ozark Center for Language Studies, located at her home near Huntsville, Arkansas. Dr. Elgin conducts seminars and workshops around the country and maintains a private practice as a consultant in communications.


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