"Far more male-female relationships die in the dining room," New York writer Barbara Ehrenrich has said, "than in the bedroom. And the problem is not the cuisine, it's the conversation."
The Conversation Crisis, she claims, threatens "not only the family, but also the casual affair, the illicit liaison and possibly the entire institution of heterosexuality."
While most people are not predicting the demise of male-female relationships, confirmation of a schism should not surprise anyone who has listened to -- or participated in -- a conversation between consenting adults of the opposite sex. Marriage counselors call this phenomenon the "classic couple's communication gap" -- a problem as timeless as the "My-wife/husband-doesn't-understand-me" lament.
The scenario runs something like this:
She wants him to tell her his feelings. He wishes she would be more logical. She calls him cold; he says she's irrational. She complains he is "indifferent to her needs." He grumbles that she's "constantly tugging on him."
The tension builds. She gets more emotional, he more analytical. She cries, feeling hurt and rejected. He withdraws, feeling persecuted and annoyed. Each is frustrated, unable to understand -- or be understood by -- the other.
"It's almost as if," says psychiatrist H.G. Whittington, "men and women speak different languages."
To a significant extent, say other communication experts, they do.
"There really is a gender gap in communication," says Oregon psychologist Linda Olds, who has done extensive research on sex roles. "In both substance and style -- what they say and how they say it -- men and women seem to be coming from different value systems or psychic centers."
The basic difference, she says, surrounds a "cluster of characteristics" our culture has labeled either "masculine" or "feminine." Among traits considered "masculine," she says, are rationality, aggressiveness, competitiveness and linear thinking. "Feminine" attributes include gentleness, sensitivity, intuition and holistic thinking.
Children are taught, she says, "to think, speak and act in a manner deemed appropriate to their sex. So we grow up learning different communication skills. Then, ironically, we're attracted to the opposite sex because they're skilled in areas we are not. But when we try to interact, the communication gap may be huge."
In working with couples, says Olds, "It's common to see the masculine characteristics greatly valued -- because society views those traits as admirable -- while the feminine characteristics are not. Men tend to be frightened of any quality labeled feminine, and many depend on women to carry their emotional life.
"It doesn't work," she says, if either partner tries to draw the other into adopting their value system. Couples who work best "appreciate the other's perspective, and view their differences as complementary -- not opposing.
"You can see this illustrated in a group, where men tend to be very task-oriented and women very maintenance-oriented. Men will say things like, 'Who's next on the agenda?' and, 'What's the bottom line?' Women tend to ask, 'How does everyone feel about this?' or, 'You haven't spoken, what do you think?' Together, they make the group work."
Another factor in the Communication Gap, says Leonard Kriegel, author of On Men and Manhood, is that "men tend to be more competitive. For them, conversations have winners and losers in much the same way football does.
"Listen to a group of adolescent boys talking. It's very ritualized. The conversation is often not as much an exchange of information as a forum for one boy to impose his will on another." The boys may argue violently, "but when it's finished, they leave it behind and are back-slapping friends."
Because women don't relate to this kind of communication, says Temple University psychologist James P. Smith, they may have trouble in the still male-dominated workplace:
"The typical way a male boss strokes employes is to joke, needle or harass. That's how he shows affection. But women aren't used to this. They may be hurt or find it offensive.
"Instead of being in a competitive-type relationship, women may want the boss to be more honest and share more about what's really going on. That's more of a female communication style."
Physical differences also contribute to the male-female communication gap, says California speech pathologist Lillian Glass. "Women have a higher-pitched voice, which can connote immaturity. They tend to use more upper-chest breathing, which can result in a softer tone. Men have deeper, louder voices. So it's no wonder research shows that men do most of the interrupting."
Glass began studying communication differences between the sexes while helping actor Dustin Hoffman prepare for a movie role in which he plays a transsexual. "He had to learn how to talk like a woman. That meant adopting female facial gestures, like opening his mouth more, plus picking up some of the semantic things women do."
Among them, Glass says, are "making approving sounds, like 'umm humm' and using tag endings like 'don't you think?' which signal a need for approval."
These tag endings and encouraging sounds are "the woman's way of keeping the conversation going," claims New York sociologist Pamela Fishman, who is analyzing more than 50 hours of tapes of male-female chitchat for an upcoming book on the subject.
"Women do most of the conversational work," she says. "They ask questions nearly three times more often than men, and they raise topics of conversation a lot more often -- although what actually gets talked about is the men's topics.
"Women tend to ask, 'You know?' or, 'What do you think?' when the conversation falters. It's a way of saying, 'We are having a conversation, aren't we?' and of making sure they'll be responded to."
Although women keep the conversational ball rolling, she notes, "men have conversational control. Men excel at making minimal responses like 'yeah' and 'nope.' It's like they're saying, 'I am part of the conversation, but you'll have to do more to really communicate with me.'"
Skillful use of silence is just one way men exhibit superior power in conversations, adds Canadian psychologist Hilary Lips, co-author of The Psychology of Sex Differences. "When men want something they will ask directly, while women tend to be more covert.
"For example, a man might ask a woman, 'Will you please go to the store?' He wants something; he feels he has the status to ask for it and get it. But a woman asking a man might say, 'Gee, I really need a few things from the store, but I'm so tired.' Often this is because she feels she's in a low status position, and doesn't have the right to make a request."
Now that male-female roles are changing, "both women and men," she says, "are resorting more to indirect strategies. They're not sure what the rules are anymore, so they tend to back off and be less direct."
Men and women also speak a different "body language," says New York author Julius Fast, who wrote a well-known book by that title. "Men's gestures are broader and more aggressive than women's. Women tend to take up less space. When sitting or standing, they're less likely to sprawl as men do."
Body-language differences are based in part, Fast contends, "on the sexual overtones inherent in any exchange between a man and a woman. Even if they're unconscious, sexual signals are there.
"For instance, a man will tend to move closer to a woman than she feels comfortable with. It's up to the man to back off a bit if he wants to strengthen the communication. A man is allowed by society to initiate eye contact, and no one thinks twice. But if a woman makes eye contact she is inviting an approach."
Just as body language can be interpreted differently depending on sex, words also may be defined differently. When asked what "being very polite" signifies, Julius Fast replied "subservience"; simultaneously his wife, Barbara Fast, said "sensitivity."
This gender gap is at the root of many arguments between couples "because men and women approach the solution to problems differently," says Denver psychiatrist Whittington.
While men may view an argument as a contest -- "a small segment with a beginning and an end" -- women typically are conditioned "to be peacemakers," he says, "and see time as flowing continuously.
"Consequently, men are always puzzled, and frequently outraged, by a woman's tendency to bring up something that happened a week or a month or 10 years ago, since from the male viewpoint, this ancient event has nothing to do with what is happening in the here and now."
The first step in closing the "gender gap," says Dr. Whittington, "is to realize that there are communication differences that largely stem from our cultural conditioning . . . and possibly, are related to innate gender differences."
Then "really listen to what the other person is saying." Couples who see the gap only widening, he says, might consult a marriage therapist.
"Sometimes, all a counselor does is serve as a translator."