Male and Female Conversational Styles
November 19-20. 1985 arms talks were held in Geneva Switzerland between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. At the end a joint statement was issued. There was agreement on two points: a nuclear war would be a world-wide catastrophe and talks should be continued.
Aired October 1985, WPR’s Morning Edition
An important conference, negotiations at the highest level. An official group portrait was taken at the end. Men seated around a table. Perhaps in the back ground a female could be seen, an aide, a translator, someone who put bottles of mineral water on the table, or a reporter waiting in a crowd to ask a question. But talking at the table, only men.
In a recent book, Cheris Kramarae described the many empirical studies documenting the very different conversational styles of women and men. For men talk is a contest. Men listen less than women, interrupt more, respond less to what the other person is saying. For them, the point is not so much to understand, but rather to score. Differences are emphasized rather than possible points of agreement. Women, it seems, converse differently. The point is not to compete, but to reach a consensus, to work diverging attitudes and narratives into a story that will satisfy all participants.
Needless, to say researchers find that men and women often have trouble talking to each other. Having a woman at the table can be disruptive. When it’s all men as at Geneva, things go more smoothly. Each player knows the game and plays it well. The point is to shine, to exhibit superior logic, to enhance one’s own moral stand, which often comes down to a trading of intransigent positions, with little opportunity for any bridging of differences.
So why then is our bargaining team at Geneva all men? Why not a delegation of women, women who might find that elusive point where, with our threatened common humanity in question, we and the Soviets might begin to listen to each other’s fears, resentments, hopes for the future. It might be worth a try.