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So, what's the meta message?

So, what's the meta message?


In her book ‘You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation, Deborah Tannen explores the differences between male and female conversation styles.

It’s important to note from the off that not all men always use male styles, not all women always use female styles, and there are other factors that influence us in the ways we speak too – where we are from, the class we are born into, our personality traits.

However, it’s fascinating to see how the purpose of conversation seems to be very different for men and women, and it’s useful for a researcher to think about what that means when talking to people of different genders and how we should bear that in mind when we are considering what they have said in conversation.

One important thing to think about from the outset is: what is the point of conversation. From what I’ve read in books on conversation analysis we need to recognise that conversation isn’t just about exchange of views or information… it’s about making meaning, negotiating relationships status… our place in the world.

When we, as researchers, initiate conversations in order to find things out what we’re getting is so much more than talk. We’re getting a dynamic set of messages that are about social relationships as much as they are about the topic in hand.
That means that we need to have a nuanced understanding of ‘what’s going on’ when we initiate conversations.

And… if there are differences between how men and women use conversation to convey their position or goals, then we need to know about it.
Here are some of the key findings in Tannen’s book I found particularly noteworthy from a researcher’s perspective:

  • Men often engage with the world as a hierarchical social order and conversations for men can be negotiations in which people try to maintain and achieve status – and independence/ autonomy is more likely to be key for them
  • On the other hand women can see themselves as an individual in a network of connections, and for them conversations are often negotiations for closeness – women seek to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation..

Men and women can be inclined to interpret the meaning within conversations (the meta message) differently too.

Imagine you ordered some food in a restaurant and you didn’t like the taste of it. The waiter says to you: “what’s wrong with the food?” Do you ‘hear’ the question as a challenge or a request for information? How we listen (and interpret what we are hearing) is as important in a conversation as what is being said. Conversations are made by both the speaker and the listener…

Tannen believes that “male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication”. This starts from the youngest age and is rooted in how boys and girls develop differently.

Boys develop strategies more aligned with competition (in the ways they play) and monitor status by observing shifts in who’s issuing orders and who’s following them. The glue that binds boys together is doing things together and talking about activities.

Girls develop strategies to deliver connection and intimacy. It is talk itself that binds them together.
This cross-cultural development leads to different styles of talking (and consequently misunderstandings between men and women…)

  • When talking about troubles – women often give understanding (and matching problems), men give advice. If you are a woman talking about a problem to a man you can be seeking sympathy when what you get is a set of instructions to solve a problem. When you are a man in trouble a woman can irritatingly tell you she’s got the same problem… rather than creating a connection (which is what she is seeking to do) it undermines your sense of self, and seems belittling.
  • When asking for information – women can be comfortable asking for information or seeking help, but men might feel less comfortable because the meta message here is that they are ‘one down’ on the person who has the information they need
  • Report talk vs Rapport talk: Men use talk to report – exhibiting knowledge and skill and by holding centre stage through verbal performance. Talk is for information. Women use talk for rapport, as a way of negotiating relationships and establishing friendships. Tannen believe men often ‘use up their talk’ in public places – at work in particular, whereas women save their talk for intimacy, and are more comfortable talking in domestic settings.

There are real complications in this cross-cultural approach to conversations. Take praise for example. Women are often quicker than men to praise, reflecting their desire to create bonds, make connections, make people feel good. However, the meta message of praise is of the ‘superior’ (teacher for example) bestowing recognition on the ‘inferior’. Getting praise can therefore be uncomfortable for men because it signals their ‘one down’ position in the conversation. This is a real case of cultural crossed wires. Women’s intention in giving praise is likely to be about ‘being nice’ but men may receive this as intended to signal superiority, which can irk if you are tuned into hierarchy and status more than connection…

Conversation is rooted in both talking and listening, and men and women often have distinct listening styles too. Women give far more listener responses (the umm-ing and ah-ing that shows the speaker you are listening, as well as saying ‘yes’, in encouragement.) Men are more likely to make statements rather than ask questions and are more likely to challenge than agree…

Again, we can see the danger for ‘cross-cultural’ miscommunication. If a man is talking, a woman is more likely to be nodding, saying yes, giving positive signals that (in her mind) show she is listening attentively. For a man, nodding and saying yes can imply agreement, and can actually signal a one-down submissive response – unable to challenge, unwilling to vie for position. Or conversely a man making statements rather than asking questions can seem like he’s not listening, not joining in to a woman. But he is – just through ‘man talk’.

Different styles of talking are not just limited to men and women. Overlapping talk – where one person carries on, perhaps picking up before another even left off, varies greatly in different cultures (and by different personality type). Tannen (in another book) identified different conversational styles (through analysis of a dinner party chat): at one end of the spectrum are high-involvement speakers – people who give priority to showing enthusiastic involvement. They jump on in to keep the conversation going, fill in silent gaps. At the other end are high-consideration speakers, who are careful with turn-taking in their conversation, and like to be sure that someone has finished speaking before they have their go.

If there’s a mix of these types talking together then those with high considerateness are likely to be dominated by those who are high-involvement.
Researchers often use the term ‘dominant respondent’ as a semi-polite way of describing a person in a group discussion who talks too much. Perhaps it’s more useful to think of dominant respondents in terms of high-involvement. It’s important too to make sure that turn-taking is built into the process for those high on the consideration spectrum… this means truly moderating the conversation, and making sure that the group understands that there are two main styles of conversation… and both need to be given space for self-expression.

Tannen’s purpose in writing her book was to help us understand what’s going on better when men and women speak, and to help us see that men and women are made (or at least conditioned) to use language and conversation differently from each other.

From a researcher perspective this is key. First, I’m struck by how we often set up research to favour women’s conversational styles. When we do group discussions we often encourage an atmosphere of intimacy and disclosure. I was taught, for example, that they ideal way to sit with a respondent (in a depth interview) was at a 45 degree angle, with open body stance. That really favours the way women like to sit and talk – with maximum eye contact. In fact, that might not be the most comfortable way for men to chat.

We also need to understand what’s going on in conversation. Is what’s being said more about rapport than report? Are we hearing agreement when really we should be interpreting encouragement? What is the meta messaging that’s going on? We might be asking people to talk about their shopping habits and experiences, but by attempting to get insight through conversation (in groups) we are getting a lot more information that we are asking for… information about status, closeness… the group dynamic. We might also be hearing a lot from ‘high involvement’ speakers because they simply want to keep things going, and less from ‘high consideration’ participants because they haven’t received the signal that it’s their turn to speak.

We need to ask ourselves ‘what’s going on here’ in each and every research conversation we have. We need to look for the group dynamic as a factor that has affected what respondents have said and how they have done their talking.
Helping respondents to understand what we need from them, and to guide them too (subtly) in the what could be happening in the group dynamic (explaining that we often defer to experts, and encouraging other points of view, explaining that some people like to broadcast and others want to take their time…) all of that is critical.

We need to challenge ourselves too about the value of conversations as part of research. Conversations are the ways in which we trade information and insight about ourselves, but they are also the ways in which we create new meaning and establish our status and place in the group. Every conversation has that going on too and we shouldn’t forget it!


Kath Rhodes, Qual Street Owner

I love love learning and so I invest time and resources with Ambreen and Claire into exploring social psychology, neuro science, creativity and new techniques in research. Read all about it and help yourself to the ideas that will deliver your business the insight it needs

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@Qualstreet on 17 March 2023