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Vive la difference in linguistic styles?

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Sandy Banks: Men use language to seek status and independence, women to seek intimacy and connection
Sandy Banks: Gender differences in communication style can make for confusion over meaning and intent

I wasn't surprised by the response to my Tuesday column on the Isla Vista rampage; several readers — more men than women — took issue with my stance that societal attitudes toward women had a role in shaping the killer.

But I was surprised that the tone of readers who wrote to disagree differed dramatically by gender:

The women's emails were civil and precise; they took pains to be polite. Most of the men resorted to sarcasm and insults, questioning my intelligence as they challenged my perspective.

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FOR THE RECORD:
Conversation styles: In the June 7 Section A, a column about the difference in conversation styles between men and women misspelled the last name of Times reader Lois Tannenbaum as Tannebaum. —

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At least that's how I perceived it. And science, as it turns out, has my back on this: Decades of research have found fundamental differences in the communication styles of women and men.

The women who wrote me tended to wade in gently, as in this email from Lois Tannebaum of West Hills: "I should probably give this more time [before] responding, but your column brought up so many thoughts in my head."

She went on to criticize my "female victim theme," but ended collegially: "Please rethink your column today. I think you've come to the wrong conclusions."

The men who disagreed didn't seem to feel the need for such gentility.

"You're not serious?" one man's brief email began. Another opened with this declaration: "I was at first surprised by your limited scope. Then I remembered that as a woman, your ability to reason is limited."

Another male reader addressed me as if I were a child: "I understand your emotional reaction, but it has clouded your ability to reason carefully. I suggest an apology to men in a future column would be appropriate..."

An apology to men?

Those emails had me so worked up, I followed their lead and responded with broadsides instead.

::

Linguist Deborah Tannen wasn't surprised by what my in box revealed. The Georgetown University professor has written 22 books analyzing communication differences, including the bestseller "You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation."

"In conversational patter," she said, "men tend to be sarcastic and more adversarial than women.... It's kind of a dialect thing, the way they expect people to talk to one another."

Neither style is good or bad, she said. "It's a cultural ritual, not a matter of individual deficiencies." And there are, of course, wide variations within male and female groups.

Still, the pattern of differences can make for confusion over meaning and intent.

Men use language to seek status and independence, women to seek intimacy and connection. "That's a huge gulf," Tannen said.

Online discourse seems to magnify the gap. Research has shown that men tend to take a more combative approach online, while women use more affirmative speech, supporting and acknowledging others' comments.

When Indiana University professor Susan Herring studied male and female posts to online forums, she found that men tended to assert their opinions as facts, while women framed theirs as "suggestions, offers and other non-assertive acts."

It's easy to consider the research a reflection of timeworn stereotypes: Men are competitive, women collaborative. Men are direct, women indirect. Men use language to flex their power, women to build relationships.

But those linguistic traits may have evolutionary underpinnings: Our survival depended on males warding off strangers and females keeping peace in the clan.

Linguists acknowledge the moderating impact of many other factors: region, culture, ethnic group, age and class all influence our conversational style.

But some believe the gender differences have biological roots. As early as preschool, girls use language to share secrets and tell stories among a small group of friends; boys play in larger hierarchal groups and are expected to use language to exhibit skills, display knowledge and assert authority.

Others blame a power imbalance entrenched in cultural standards: Women have lower status in many societies, so are less commanding in speech and manner than most men.

"It's not an easy thing to talk about," Tannen acknowledged. "When you say something is 'typical' of any group, they're apt to feel maligned."

But if we're not willing to address the differences, our most important conversations are at risk of veering off the rails.

::

After talking with Tannen, I felt a bit chagrined about the petulant emails I'd dashed off to some of those disapproving men.

I presumed they were talking down to me because I am a woman. But maybe those men were just talking to me like they talk to other men.

Some were as offended by my responses as I'd been by their missives.

The "You're not serious?" guy was genuinely surprised that I considered his opening salvo an insult. "Not sure where I was sarcastic, swore or offended you in my comments," he wrote in response to my response — which he found "offensive in tone to a paid subscriber."

When I reread his email, after I'd calmed down, I realized there was nothing in the five sentences he'd written that should have felt like an attack. I'd considered his "You're not serious?" line as a sarcastic attempt to belittle me, when it might just have been his way of getting my attention and amplifying his dissent.

I apologized for lashing out at him, and confessed that I was tired of fielding emails from readers who feel entitled to be nasty because we disagree. He seemed to understand that. "I think perhaps you do have an oversensitive reaction to this topic," he wrote. I think he was right.

At the end of his last email he offered his own relational coda: "Hope you have a better day!"

I'm trying not to over-analyze the exclamation point. And I refrained from adding a smiley-face when I wrote him back.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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