This week, the gadgetry news site, Mashable, reported on a digital wristband that lets couples communicate through taps, sort of like a modern click language, only these vibrations are transmitted wirelessly instead of vocally. Whether it will improve the age-old pitfalls in the ways that men and women relate, however, is anyone's guess.
Because when it comes to communication, the sexes simply do it differently.
And those differences start early. This year, a University of Maryland study found that the brains of 4- and 5- year-old girls had 30 percent higher levels of a protein involved in language development than their male peers. In a related experiment on rats, the researchers found that higher levels of the protein correlated with more vocalization (though, in this case, the male rats were the vocal ones) and drew a link between its presence and "the more communicative sex."
For practical purposes, the difference translates to when and how men and women use language, explains Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." Consider the way children define their best friends, she says. For girls, "your best friend is the one you tell everything to." And for boys, "your best friends are the ones you do everything with." And those patterns play out in adulthood, she says, giving this generic example: In a friendship between two couples, the men play tennis together, and the women catch up with long talks on the phone. And that's why the break-up of couple No. 1 shocks the man in couple No. 2 but not the woman, whose extended phone calls clued her in to the couple's marital strife.
But concluding that women simply talk more than men would be simplistic, Tannen warns. "There's this stereotype of women talking too much, and studies that look at couples at home find women talk more, and yet so many women have experienced – and you can observe by looking around in public settings – it's the men who talk more," she says. To explain, she returns to the example of children: Girls use language to bond with friends, boys use language to "negotiate their position in a group."
Fast-forward, and when boys become men, home may become a place where they feel free to unload the burden of talking; for women, it's a haven where they feel empowered to talk, unfettered by social judgements. Of course, these are generalizations, Tannen stresses. And they can be thrown off by someone's background, she says, noting that Irish, Jewish and Italian cultures tend to be more boisterous than Northern European ones.
Recognizing these distinctions can help men and women better understand the dynamics between them and how to better meet their needs. Take the classic example of the post-work exchange. For men, rehashing a hard day's work may feel like reliving its associated stress, while women may see the debriefing as a chance to vent and bond, says Richard Drobnick, a New Jersey-based marriage counselor trained by John Gray, author of the best-selling "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus."
Drobnick says men tend to believe communication should have a purpose. "It's like a problem to be solved," he says. "Women often use communication as a way to help them kind of discover what they are feeling and what they want to say ... They see conversation as an act of sharing, an opportunity to increase intimacy with their partner."
With this understanding, a woman can learn not to take personally her male partner's reticence or problem-solving response. She can also advise him that she needs to talk and for him to listen – that he "doesn't have to put out the fire," Drobnick says. For his part, a man can learn to share the events of his day. "I often help men actually write notes down about what happened during the day, knowing that women need that connection and do want to hear something."