In 2007, after we returned from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and settled in Dallas, I went back to school for my masters in counseling.
While a lot of those classes are a blur of long papers, late nights and lots of Diet Coke, a few things really, really stuck with me. One of the best things I took away from grad school was a treasure trove of research by Dr. Deborah Tannen, who is an expert in the sociolinguistic differences in communications between men and women.
In her research, she filmed dozens and dozens of normal conversations between men and women, and then analyzed them for inherent differences. Some of the conversations were between very young children. A group of little boys on a playground talked about how high they could hit a ball: “I can hit it to here.” “I can hit it up to the sky.” “I can hit it to heaven.” “I can hit it all the way to GOD.”
Contrast this with two little girls who sat coloring, side by side: “My babysitter, Amber, has contacts.” “My mom and my dad have contacts too!” The first little girl goes back to coloring, then it occurs to her: “The SAME?!” She has a look of wonder and amazement on her face, as she realizes how she and her friend are “just the same.” (YouTube: Deborah Tannen: Gender-specific language rituals)
Tannen found that men tend to talk about the world “as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he was either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down or push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.” (Tannen, 24)
Women, on the other hand, tend to speak about the world “as an individual in a network of connections. In this world, conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others’ attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Though there are hierarchies in this world, too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than of power and accomplishment.” (Tannen, 25)
Tannen says she’s not out to promote gender stereotypes at all, but rather to acknowledge the differences so that we can increase understanding, communicate more effectively, and most importantly, acknowledge that differences are differences, not an indication of emotional weakness or a lack of intelligence. And, if we all understand and appreciate those differences, we’ll all be stronger and better for it.
Andy and I have certainly found this to be true in our marriage. We are total opposites in the ways that we approach situations. Our responses to the same circumstances are completely different. Our communication styles are wildly divergent. But we have learned through painful experience to respect each other’s varying perspectives deeply, and, most importantly of all, to welcome the differences.
These days when we make a decision together, we are absolutely confident that it’s a good decision, because so many varying perspectives have been considered. We don’t spend a lot of time correcting each other or trying to convince each other anymore. We just love and value each other in our differences.
Now, I’m not just saying all this for fascination’s sake, or to say that this can make your marriage better, or to help you think about how communication can be improved the workplace, although I think Deborah Tannen’s research is useful in all those areas.
I’m saying this because I think the issue of male-female communication styles has deeply impacted the church, and the way we think about God and the Bible.
I think about the Genesis account of creation, and God’s design for women as valuable, strong, image-bearing, matching helpers. (I think that's what God intended when he created women. Truly.)
I look at the research of Deborah Tannen about the differences in communication between men and women.
Then I think about how the public voice of the church, the voice we hear week after week from the pulpit, has been mostly masculine.
So it makes me wonder:
What have we been hearing, from an almost-exclusively masculine perspective in the church?
Probably a lot about achievement and hierarchy and battling for spiritual success.
When I think about the church having a masculine voice, it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of what we talk about is getting our theology exactly right, “us” vs. “them,” who’s right, who’s wrong, and how to protect ourselves against invaders.
I think even women who speak to other women in church tend to speak with a masculine voice. There’s a lot of advice from women to women about how to make it to the top, spiritually speaking. How to have the best interpretation of scripture, how to be a successful Christian, how to be a better wife or mother, how to be Mary instead of Martha, or how to keep being Martha while also being Mary (God help us).
Then I wonder some more:
What have we been missing out on, when we as a church have silenced the female voice that was created in the image of God?
I think we’ve missed out on the closeness, the support, the intimacy, the friendship. We miss out on how we are alike, and the wonder of connection.
I think we miss out on the female voice every Sunday morning, when we feel like we have to come to church dressed up just right, with our smiles stapled in place to make sure that nobody judges us as less-than on the spiritual hierarchy.
I think we miss out on the female voice every time we interpret a Bible story as a Great Example to Follow (or a Great Example to Shame You if Need Be) rather than an all-too-human companion with us on this terrible journey through life toward Home.
I think we miss out on the female voice every time someone walks away from church, feeling like they can’t have a place if they can’t throw their ball up to God.
We miss the female voice when we make Christianity a competition instead of a community.
And I think it happens all the time. People are just so tired of trying to measure up.
I wonder if we’d all be a little less fatigued if we had some female voices speaking in church. It might help if someone were saying, “Contacts? You have contacts? We’re just the same!”
I’m not saying that men should stop speaking.
I just wish that the church could find what Andy and I have found in our marriage: that there is an amazing satisfaction in listening to someone who is completely different, while completely valuing that perspective, believing that both of our voices are created in the image of God, and both of our voices are absolutely vital to a strong and healthy way forward. One is not more valuable than the other.
WE NEED BOTH VOICES.
Know this: I am passionately committed to speaking as a woman, whenever and wherever I find myself, knowing that I am inherently valuable, deliberately created as a woman to bear God’s image out in this world, with the woman’s voice that He gave me.
I am grateful to the strong and beautiful voice of Dr. Jackie Roese, whose work with The Marcella Project to ennoble women has ennobled me this past year. She gives me courage to think with my own brain, and speak with my own voice. Jackie's got a book coming out soon: Lime Green, all about her journey as a woman who does speak from the pulpit in conservative church circles, and who trains other women to do the same.
Source: Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Ballentine, 1990.