You remember those T-shirts we saw, the ones that came out about the time of Nelson Mandela's visit? "You wouldn't understand," they said. "It's a black thing."

I've caught myself saying similar things to you. Not about skin color, but about gender. "It's a female thing. You wouldn't get it."But I have this theory, see. In a more equitable world, everybody would suffer cramps and jock itch. In a simpler world, everyone would care about fantasy baseball and Glamour magazine.

But you and I are different. You're a guy. I'm a girl. You talk in secret code. I don't own a decoder ring.

I like those yuppie soap operas, detailed stories that circle round and round. You like rootin'-tootin' action flicks.

Pick your words. You're linear. I'm not. You're focused. I'm diffused. You act. I emote.

It's an age-old topic, this gender difference thing. The cave dwellers probably chatted about the same stuff, while the men killed animals and the women sewed animal-skin jackets - in fashionable Neanderthal colors, of course.

And no matter that you happen to cook better than I do, or that I play a mean game of asphalt basketball. You and me, Big Guy. Let's face it. We just talk different.

"Whoa," you're thinking. (I can hear you. You think loud.) "Don't you remember that whole women's lib movement? Haven't you come a long way, baby? Why are we talking about stereotypes in public? Isn't it illegal?"

But it isn't just me talking this way. Lots of people are reading Deborah Tannen's new book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation."

She's an academic type, this Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. She says men and women use language differently.

Women use words searching for intimacy and connection. Men seek to preserve independence and negotiate status. Women want consensus. Men want to win.

Here, listen to this: "To a woman, talking means relaxing," according to Tannen. "That's what she does with her friends. A man sees talking as a kind of display - it involves competition, getting the edge, showing what you know."

Tannen wrote this book after watching children and adults talk to their friends. Quickly, she recognized men and women don't play by the same rules.

"I was overwhelmed by the differences that separated the females and males at each age, and the striking similarities that linked the females on one hand, and the males, on the other, across the vast expanse of age," Tannen writes.

"In many ways, the second-grade girls were more like the 25-year-old women than like the second-grade boys."

Of course, anyone who has ever been on a cheap date with a guy like you didn't need some well-paid author to tell her that.

There we sit, you and I, eating Big H's at Hires. You're talking about the new software you bought for your Mac, and I want to know how it makes you feel. Or, better yet, how you feel about me.

Back to Tannen. She says females sit closer to their friends and gaze directly at each other. The males sit farther apart and don't look at each other. "Comparing the boys and girls of the same age, I had the feeling I was looking at two different species."

"So," you're asking, "is there a point to all this? Can I get back to watching the second quarter now?"

Stick with me here, for one more sec. Tannen wraps it all up by saying that knowing about style differences takes the bite out of them. "Believing that `you're not interested in me,' `you don't care about me as much as I care about you' or `you want to take away my freedom' feels awful," she writes.

"Believing that `you have a different way of showing you're listening' or `showing you care' allows for no-fault negotiation: You can ask for or make adjustments without casting or taking blame."

I think you should read this book. You can borrow my copy at half-time.

So. What's the score now? And how do you feel about that?