Gender-Specific Conversational Styles

At a recent education conference, I attended a presentation by renowned linguist Deborah Tannen. The author of twenty-one books and more than 100 articles, Dr. Tannen’s area of study focuses on the effect of conversation from childhood through adulthood. The title of a few of her publications provides some insight into her research: You Just Don’t Understand, Talking from 9:00-5:00, and You’re Wearing That?

This lecture highlighted gender differences. She included some video clips showing best friends in conversation, which were not only entertaining but instructive, especially for educators. The most striking difference between the sexes is their use of eye contact and posture. From an early age, girls face their friends and look right into their eyes, often bending in towards them or whispering in their ears. Girls put value on being the same, so they also cooperate. On the other hand, boys sit parallel to each other, not making eye contact. They value competition, both physical and conversational. Whereas girls do not like a direct approach because they find it “bossy,” boys prefer very direct, succinct conversation. Most parents can attest to the experience of having a meaningful conversation with a teenage boy while riding in a car, because of parallel seating.

This gender difference can clearly have implications for instruction, especially private tutoring. Having done some research previously, I altered my approach with private instruction. I changed the seating arrangements depending on the gender of the student. I sit across the desk from the girls, but next to boys when I can. That little change helped the sessions become more effective because the gender-specific seating arrangements allow the student to be more comfortable during a tutoring session. Small changes in seating and conversational style can have a profound effect on learning.

Leave a Reply