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When I wrote You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation I didn’t know that what everyone would respond to most strongly is the question, “Why don’t men like to stop and ask for directions?” (Before the book was published, no one talked about this gender difference; as a result of the book, it is now the ubiquitous subject of jokes, cartoons, skits, greeting cards, and casual conversations.) The answer to this question will be revealed in the lectures that follow, as it captures the essence of what this course will address: the patterns that tend to distinguish how men and women use language in their everyday lives, and the consequences of these differences (as well as similarities) for conversations and relationships between women and men.
My goal in this series, in addition to illuminating the patterns of women’s and men’s uses of language, is to enhance understanding of how language works in everyday life. I am told by students who have taken my courses that this understanding helps them in their everyday lives, as every aspect of our lives involves talking to people of the other sex—in our personal relationships, our families, at work, and in trying to get just about anything done.
My research on cross-gender communication grew out of my linguistic research on how people use language in conversation. I was invited to take part in a research project organized by a psychologist, Bruce Dorval, that was funded by the Social Science Research Council. We examined videotapes of children talking to their best friends across a range of ages. In looking at Dorval’s videotapes, I noticed a pattern of physical orientation: At every age, girls and women sat face to face and looked directly at each other when they talked, whereas boys and men sat at angles, or parallel, and looked around the room. Seeing this pattern span such a range of ages is what prompted me to think of cross-gender communication as cross-cultural.