(en)gendering dialogue

A colleague of mine recently shared a hard-to-find video relating the work of linguist Deborah Tannen to children’s communication styles in same-sex pairs and groups. (If anyone discovers the link, let me know–I’ll happily include it here!) While I have mixed feelings about any work that runs the risk of being interpreted as biological determinism, I had to laugh outloud as one little girl leaned in to the other and cried, “Same!” as they were comparing notes on their families. The boys at a similar age were engaged in classic one-upmanship behavior, declaring how far they could each hit a baseball until the final child had hit the ball all the way to God, while the girls were seeking to find points of similarity–even to the point of creating new details about their lives in order to connect.

I believe we human beings are a unique mix of feminine and masculine energies, the gift of both nature and nurture. In my experience, this mix of gendered elements, both fixed and continually shaped by environment, is key in how we approach dialogue–what draws us in, and what turns us away. As we State of Formation authors were introducing ourselves via short email messages to the group, I was a classic female Tannen subject. I’d scan messages for a point of connection and then send an email to say, in essence, “Same!” Whether it was to mention a shared institution, region of the world, experience, or to offer a resource that links the author’s viewpoint to mine, I was looking to connect–it is where the path to dialogue begins for me, and I’m not terribly interested in projects or places where this step is skipped. If this is indeed my feminine energy leading the way, how about others? What gender-spirit brings you to dialogue? What are the essential experiences for your particular mix of feminine and masculine?

I’ll readily admit to steering away from more controversial topics until I’ve established a relationship with someone, and I likely shy away from people who make clear their intention is to convince me of something or hold their views over mine. The “one over” stance is one I’ve held at many points in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, so I will not pretend this energy isn’t in my make-up, but it’s less and less dominant–and less and less useful for me, I’ve found. If I know what you think about when you’re alone–what scares you when you think about those you love moving through an uncertain world–what generates pride in who you are and where you’ve come from, I can wade in to the conversation with comfort. Typically, any potential defense is set aside. I can be curious about how you think as you do, and the experiences that have shaped your ideas that are both like and unlike mine. We are in a relationship–the home of dialogue, for me. And, sometimes, if we enter that home in just the right way, or we share it for just the right amount of time, a miracle takes place–the relationship becomes what is real, and any conflicts or controversies that might have previously framed our coming together suddenly cease to matter. In essence, I find more I can say, “Same!” to than I find that sets us apart.

As I was contemplating this post, I was trying to uncover in my own mind what value there might be in the “one over” perspective in dialogue. If I am truly aiming to ask an authentic question about our gendered spirits, what are the gifts brought by the Tannen-defined masculine spirit in dialogue? I’m hoping you all will shine a light for me–this is a complementary question to my work in women’s leadership and in dialogue–but know that a bright light already appeared as I remembered one of my many thoughtful Muslim classmates and a comment he made in one shared dialogue experience. “Let us outdo one another in acts of loving kindness,” he said. “Same!” I say to that.

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6 thoughts on “(en)gendering dialogue

  1. This post brings to mind this previous one on dialogue, by Tim Brauhn:

    http://goo.gl/L91l8

    There may be similarities between how we are discussing debate and dialogue there.

    I have one more thing to add. You say: “I’ll readily admit to steering away from more controversial topics until I’ve established a relationship with someone”. For me, one of the central ways I like to establish a relationship is precisely to see where they stand on a controversial topic. This enables me to get the measure of someone, I suppose, and test their values. So quite often the first thing I will do on meeting someone (alright, not quite the first, but soon after!) is engage in a controversial discussion.

    1. James, thanks for reading and commenting. I do think there are connections between my post and the dialogue/debate discussion. I’m always looking for the both-and, and I’m going to try on this. I have a tendency to dismiss debate within this context because it has long been the tool of privilege rather than the margins, and because it can be a tool that shuts out traditionally feminine/feminist ways of learning and thinking. I think your point about the audience members at a debate being the beneficiaries is intriguing, though, and I’m willing to consider how this, too, can be a place for shifts and important learning.

      As for your diving right in with controversial discussions, this was clear from your introduction to the group. If I’m remembering correctly, you said something about hoping to prove through your posts that your viewpoint is “qualitatively better” than that of others. My immediate response was to be a bit jarred–as I said, I’m not likely to engage people who set out to convince me or change me–but it is interesting to me now to recognize this comment as one of your ways of starting a relationship.

      In this, we probably couldn’t be more different–but that is the joy of this project, isn’t it?

      1. “Qualitatively better”? I can’t remember where I said that but it sounds like something I might say ;). I would want to clarify, though, that although I do believe that some positions on some issues are qualitatively better than others, I certainly don’t see it as my role here to demonstrate that. There are lots of questions I still have and I am looking for real, constructive dialogue…

        1. Now it’s time for me to use my other favorite dialogue technique–the authentic and well-timed apology. I clearly took someone else’s words and put them in your “pen”–I’m so sorry. I’m glad to now have images of one another, as this is less likely to happen–nevertheless, I would have been better off saying, “Was it you who, in the introductions, noted….” and gone from there. I’d say it won’t happen again, but inevitably it will–I’m human!

          The beauty? I saved many of the introductions, returned to read yours, and was delighted to again meet you in that context. It’s clear you are doing good work. I’m sure our “qualitatively better” colleague is as well–the phrase just stuck with me and finally prompted my post.

          Again, I apologize for this.

          1. No need for an apology – I think I may well have said something similar in a comment to someone’s post – I can certainly imagine myself doing so! But I think the context will have mitigated it somewhat… =D

  2. Well, this was interesting. I haven’t read Tannen in years, but reading your post made me realize that I don’t typically look for “same” or “one up”, but usually “what’s new”–not in the sense of gossip, but in the sense of who knows something that I don’t know or has experience with something I never even imagined. That’s where I tend to focus my energy and dialogue. I hope I am not speaking out of turn here since I don’t belong to your group, but just thought I throw that out there.

    Happy holidays to all.

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