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What Is Conversation?

When men and women refer to "conversation," they might not be talking about the same thing at all, observes communication theorist Deborah Tannen:

Students in my class on gender differences recorded casual conversations between women friends and men friends. It was easy to get recordings of women friends talking, partly because ... the request to "record a conversation with your friend" met with easy compliance from the students' female friends and family members. But asking men to record conversations with their friends had mixed results. One woman's mother agreed readily, but her father insisted that he didn't have conversations with his friends.

"Don't you ever call Fred on the phone?" she asked, naming a man she knew to be his good friend.

"Not often," he said. "But if I do, it's because I have something to ask, and when I get the answer, I hang up."

Another woman's husband delivered a tape to her with great satisfaction and pride. "This is a good conversation," he announced, "because it's not just him and me shooting the breeze, like, 'Hi, how are you? I saw a good movie the other day,' and stuff. It's a problem-solving task. Each line is meaningful."

When the woman listened to the tape, she heard her husband and his friend trying to solve a computer problem. Not only did she not consider it "a good conversation," she didn't really regard it as a conversation at all.

His idea of a good conversation was one with factual, task-focused content. Hers was one with personal content.

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