Do you ever take offense to your partner’s interruptions, loud volume, and seeming inability to stop and take a breath while they’re speaking? Or, do you feel alienated by your partner’s excessive politeness and tendency to beat around the bush? Plot twist: Neither of you is right or wrong for exercising these and other conversational habits, but you just might have different conversation styles. In this article we’re going to explore two of the biggest determinants of conversational style, how they can impact the way romantic partners relate to one another, and what implications they have for your prenup-writing process.
High Involvement vs. High Consideration
In her highly-acclaimed book “Conversational Style”, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen presents an illuminating framework for understanding why people talk a certain way, what influences their style, and what each style entails. She coined the terms ‘high involvement’ and ‘high considerateness’ in order to describe a common dichotomy in conversation styles that we can all feel in some of our conversations, but may not have been able to put words to.
High involvement conversation style: People who speak quickly, interrupt regularly or engage in simultaneous speech, expect to be interrupted, talk more loudly at times, and simply talk a lot are characterized as having ‘high involvement’ conversational styles. If their interlocutor pauses while they’re talking, they may perceive the silence as a lack of rapport and rush to fill it with speech of their own in an attempt to reconnect (Tannen, 1984).
High considerateness conversation style: This describes those who are more conscious of both people taking turns talking. People who converse in this style are hesitant to interrupt and perceive others’ interruptions as domineering or rude. They’re more likely to stop talking in response to an interruption than someone with more of a high involvement style. They are also apt to speak at a more measured pace and moderate volume and speak less overall than those with a high involvement style. They have a higher tolerance for silence and are therefore more likely to lose their focus and/or take offense if interrupted while they pause (Tannen, 1984).
Is this starting to ring a bell? What’s your style, and what’s your partner’s? Do you notice how similarities or differences in conversational style can affect how you experience your interactions and how you interpret your partner’s conversational behavior?
Culture can also be characterized as using either a high involvement or high consideration style. For example, middle eastern, Russian, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and some South American and African cultures are likely suspects for high involvement. People from the far east, on the other hand (think Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian cultures) are more likely to exhibit a high considerateness style (Tannen, 1984). If you and your partner are from different cultural backgrounds, talking about your cultures’ conversational styles might help you understand one another better.
However, variety in conversational style can be attributed to plenty of other factors beyond culture, as well. For example, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Northern British Columbia found that women in particular tend to adopt a high-involvement style when engaging in conversations with female friends. Her research also suggested that when women talk about a shared experience, their conversational style converges (Boonstra, 1999). These observations also point to the idea that conversational style can change and adapt as a function of the topic or of the speaker’s relationship with their interlocutor(s). You may notice that you take on a highly involved role in some groups or relationships and more of a highly considerate role in others.
Additionally, gender can have a major influence on conversational style due to the vastly different ways in which men and women are socialized. In fact, Tannen (1984) argues that all conversations between men and women are essentially cross-cultural communications because of these tremendous differences in socialization.
Women, Tannen says, treat communication as “rapport-talk”, meaning that the primary goal of conversation is to build connection and intimacy. Girls are socialized starting from childhood to treat conversations as an invisible glue for keeping relationships strong. Therefore, women’s conversations are “negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus” (Tannen, 1984, p. 25). Boys, on the other hand, are socialized to see shared activities as the glue which holds relationships together. As a result, conversation is perceived as less important for connection-building. Instead of “rapport-talk”, men are more focused on “report talk”—that is, they treat conversation primarily as a way to give and receive information. They may also approach it with a somewhat competitive and status-oriented mindset in which they seek to gain the upper hand or establish their place in a social hierarchy (Tannen, 1984).
Of course, the gender dichotomy in communication style is not always applicable across the board, nor are cultural characterizations or patterns in how people tend to converse in particular contexts (such as those involving women speaking with one another, detailed above). All of these observations exist merely to point out an average rather than to lay claim to a universal truth. They all occur on a spectrum, with plenty of room for individual variations.
If you use a highly involved conversation style and your partner is a high considerateness person (or vice versa), you probably already know exactly how this can lead to clashes. However, when you educate yourselves on communication styles and develop the vocabulary to describe the dynamics at play, you give yourselves a chance to adapt.
We recommend splitting the difference: the high considerateness communicator can speed up a little and jump in more readily, whereas the high involvement communicator can make it a point to pause more in consideration of the fact that the other might have something more to say. In this way, you can narrow the gap as well as expand the range of what you’re both comfortable with (Frye, 2015). The reason this works is because humans respond well to mirroring; chances are, your partner will like seeing you talk like them sometimes, and you’ll enjoy hearing them talking like you (DeEtta Jones and Associates, 2021).
Directness vs. Indirectness
You know how some people will get straight to the point, whereas others will meander in a wandering fashion around what they’re trying to convey in order to be polite? This difference in conversational style can cause hairs to raise when couples with opposite styles have something important to discuss.
Level or lack of directness, too, can sometimes be attributed to culture as well as to gender (Anh Tour Guide, 2013.) However, it’s important to keep in mind that perceptions of differences are relative. For example, an American working with a Thai person might be infuriated by the Thai person’s seeming refusal to tell them directly what the problem is, whereas the Thai person might feel intimidated by the American’s brash directness. In this scenario, the US appears to be a country which favors direct communication. There are plenty of English idioms which support this characterization, too, such as “let’s get down to business”, and “don’t beat around the bush”.
However, exchange the Thai person for an Israeli and the same problem occurs, except this time the American is more likely to be taken aback and even offended by the Israeli’s no-nonsense directness. This difference is so prevalent that Jewish immigrants from the USA who move to Israel (and who purportedly share some cultural similarities with Jewish Israelis) are known to characterize Israelis as rude and conflictive as a result of their extremely direct communication style. Israelis, on the other hand, see themselves as warm and passionate and their American brothers and sisters as fake and impossible to read.
Language can also come into play in influencing a culture’s level of directness. The Hebrew language, for example, is known for not having the range of polite words and idioms that many languages (such as English) use to express politeness through indirectness. For example, when a US person might say “I was just wondering what time the meeting is tomorrow”, an Israeli would simply ask directly “What time is the meeting tomorrow?” As a result, Israelis often shake their heads at “American” ways of phrasing things indirectly and love to utter the constant refrain “tachless”, which translates to something like “be direct” or perhaps “get to the point”.
Put simply, perceptions of whether a particular culture or person has a direct or indirect conversation style are highly relative and largely influenced by the contrast between two individuals or cultures. In your last relationship, you might have been the direct one, whereas in your current relationship perhaps you instead find yourself startled by your partner’s directness.
If you and your partner come from different cultural backgrounds, it’s extra-important to be acutely aware of the conversational norms of each other’s cultures, including level of directness.
However, when it comes to conversational style, there is as much variety within cultures as there is between cultures, so observe your partner as an individual in addition to considering their culture.
Regarding gender, men and women in the USA have also been found to clash when it comes to level of directness. Since women are socialized to be more polite and soft, they tend to be more polite when making requests, giving their opinions, and expressing criticism (Anh Tour Guide, 2013). Because in the USA the genders are socialized to view directness as a more masculine trait, it can feel out-of-place when women communicate using a direct conversation style. Unfortunately, this often leads to them earning badges like “bitchy” or “rude” even though a man communicating similarly wouldn’t elicit a second thought (Boonstra, 1999). Similarly, a man communicating in a more polite and indirect way might be considered weak.
This limiting set of double standards highlights the importance of being aware of how one perceives different conversation styles, especially as these styles relate to interactions with one’s partner. If you or your partner deviate from your gender’s average regarding any aspect of communication style, check yourselves and make sure you aren’t unconsciously placing unfair expectations on your partner as a result of how you expect their gender to communicate.
Conversational Style and Prenups
Your conversational styles can also influence your experiences negotiating and drafting a prenup. Because your prenup is one of the most important documents of your life, it’s extremely important to be aware of how conversational styles could come into play in affecting the whole process, from how you bring up a prenup to what actually makes it into your prenup.
For example, if one of you is a high involvement communicator and the other is high considerateness, the latter partner might end up feeling steamrolled and that their needs and desires for the prenup take a backseat to their partner’s. Picture this: You’re discussing various prenuptial agreement clauses and one of you is allowing plenty of space for the other to express themselves, and stopping to think and contemplate when it’s their turn to talk. The other one of you, however, is worried that the other’s silence indicates displeasure or lack of rapport. Therefore, they rush to jump in and fill the silences. The high involvement party might perceive their partner’s more reserved approach as expressing neutrality or agreement, not realizing that their partner feels stifled and unable to obtain the space in the conversation they need to truly think and express themselves.
Taken to its extreme, this problematic dynamic could even result in an invalid prenup, particularly if one person signs the agreement while still holding back a strong sense of displeasure with its conditions. A court could potentially spin this into signing as a result of coercion.
To promote a transparent and smooth prenup process, talk about the differences in your conversational styles beforehand. You could aim to meet in the middle: A high involvement partner might try to hold back a bit and defer to their partner, while a high considerateness partner could work on being more proactive. Alternatively, the couple might appoint the high considerateness partner as the chairperson or leader of the discussion. Being in a position of authority in determining the structure of the conversation might help a more reserved partner to create the space they need for self-expression.
Differences in directness can also heavily impact the prenup process. If there were ever a time to be direct about your needs, it’s when you’re drafting a prenup. However, we know that directness doesn’t come easily to everyone, especially when such sensitive issues are at stake. But, y Before beginning the discussion, both partners should separately make a list of their needs and desires for the prenup. In writing. Then, partners should exchange these written lists, explain them to one another, and encourage each other to ask questions to clarify any vagueness. Before concluding the discussion, partners should ask each other directly if there’s anything with which they don’t feel completely comfortable—and answer honestly.
In a relationship as well as when drafting a prenup, it’s crucial for both partners to both allow for and adapt to each other’s conversation styles. Being aware of whether and to what extent your spouse’s culture, gender, and personality as an individual affects their involvement, considerateness, and level of directness in conversation can help you to understand their communication style better as well as to cultivate patience if their style is different from yours. Remember, there are no right or wrong conversational styles and there’s plenty of perspective to be gained from understanding and accommodating other styles.
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Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected]
Anh Tour Guide. Unit 4: Verbal Communication: The Way We Speak. Retrieved from: http://anh-tourguide.blogspot.com/2011/11/unit-4-verbal-communication-way-we.html
Boonstra, J. 1999. Conversational Styles and Personality Characteristics in Women’s Close Friendships and Acquaintance Relationships. Master’s Thesis. Library and Archives Canada, Published Heritage Branch: Ottawa, Canada.
DeEtta Jones and Associates. Why Can’t We Just Talk to Each Other? Conversational Values and You. Retrieved from: https://www.deettajones.com/blog/Conversational-Values-and-You
Frye, H. 2015. Your Communication Style: High Involvement or High Consideration? Retrieved from: https://upwordsinc.com/your-communica-consideration/
Tannen, D. 1984. Conversational Style. Praeger: Westport, Connecticut.