Tannen, Deborah

Deborah Tannen is University Professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. An internationally recognized scholar who has lectured all over the world, she has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. She has made her scholarly research available to the general public through articles in the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Vogue, and many other magazines and newspapers. Her work has been featured in numerous periodicals, among them USA Today, Newsweek, People magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. Her television appearances include 48 Hours, The Today Show, Donahue, Oprah, Sally Jesse Raphael, CBS This Morning, The McLaughlin Show, and CNN.

tompeters.com asks Deborah Tannen …

Deborah, why did you write this book?

DT: My field is sociolinguistics. I’ve always been trying to figure out how ways of talking affect people’s relationships. Before I wrote You Just Don’t Understand, I didn’t focus on the male/female aspect, although I was aware of it. I focused on cross-cultural differences, differences that result from people being of different ethnic background, coming from different parts of the country, different class backgrounds. And I always included gender as one influence on people’s conversational style. But my life work had always been understanding conversational style, and the effect on conversation and on relationships.

My first book, trying to bring this to a wider audience was called That’s Not What I Meant! I wanted to take this insight beyond academia into the real world, because I knew how helpful it was to people to think about their relationships in terms of differences in conversational style.

In that book I had one chapter on gender, and that chapter got such disproportionate interest that it really made me think about the need to focus more on that aspect of conversational style.

Now what was there in your childhood that moved you in this direction into sociolinguistics? Can you look back and point to any source for that?

DT: I always had a love of language. My B.A. and M.A. are in English. When I graduated from college, I lived in Greece for two years. And my interest in cross-cultural communication certainly was very influenced by that. I taught English to speakers of other languages, both in Greece, and then back in this country.

I got a Master’s degree in English and I taught writing at the college level, and when I was approaching the age of 30, I was restless. I wanted to do something different; something more. I knew it had to be language. I thought about a Ph.D. in English, but that just seemed a bit ivory tower. Plus I was always interested in psychology and anthropology, but because my first love always was language, it was just natural that I would go in that direction.

When I discovered the field of linguistics as a way to understand relationships by looking at language, I just fell in love with the field and knew that’s what I had to do.

In this book, you use many examples of short stories as evidence for points you’re making. Is that an anthropologist’s take on it? Literature as just another source or that was just a personal interest of yours, with short stories, and you just happened to see all this support in them?

DT: I would say that I take examples from everything around me. I also have quite a few examples from movies and plays. The examples I give are not proof, they’re illustrations. So when I see an example in a short story or a movie or a play, I seize on it, just as I do when I overhear a conversation or take part in a conversation or someone relates a conversation to me, that I see capturing something that I know is important to other people. Fiction writers, playwrights, and scriptwriters zero in on key interactions, because these interactions [or “these moments” or “these scenarios”] have a reality. If they didn’t have a reality in people’s lives, they wouldn’t be effective in the movie and in the story.

So it’s a distilled form of what goes on in our everyday lives.

Who did you write You Just Don’t Understand for? Who was your imagined audience?

DT: I sometimes answer that by saying I wanted to write books that my mother could read. Many of my academic books, in which I discuss the same issues, wouldn’t be read by someone who is not an academic. Although I have to say my academic books are pretty readable. My mother would not have found them easy to read.

But I think when I say that, my mother is a stand-in for the average person, the non-academic, the person out there in the world just trying to live their life, and being curious and being helped by understanding how language works.

In this book, you lay out basic conversational differences between men and women, and give a lot of examples. Do you find yourself misinterpreted? Do you find people quoting you, but really getting the point wrong, and are there any terrifically awful examples of that?

DT: Constantly. It’s like the game of telephone. You whisper something in someone’s ear and it comes out the other end, and it’s totally different. I frequently hear myself being quoted in ways that I don’t think reflect what I really said. I’m quite aware that being male or female is only one aspect of our personalities and our styles. And I’m so aware that cultural differences, ethnic differences, regional differences, all kinds of other things, the kind of work you do, sexual orientation, where you are in your family, whether you are the oldest or the youngest, if you have brothers and sisters, all these things can influence our style. So when I hear it talked about as if I thought gender was the only difference and everything is gender, that’s one source of frustration.

Another is that patterns are stated in too absolute a way; “All women do this. All men do that,” when I always try to attenuate that. We’re only talking about tendencies and percentages.

Some specific things I’ve been quoted as saying that make me nervous: I’m frequently quoted as saying, “Women are interested in interaction and men are interested in information.” Now I do say that in certain contexts, but it comes out sounding as if women have no interest in information, and men have no interest in interaction, and obviously that isn’t true.

There are some contexts in which men are more likely to focus on information and women on interaction. For example, I use the terms “rapport talk” versus “report talk.” Rapport talk refers to casual conversations, where a woman’s idea of a way to make conversation when you just want to talk to somebody you’re close to might be to talk about people, and their lives and what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. And many men find that pointless, and would rather talk about something interesting they read in the newspaper or give out information that they have on some topic they’re expert on.

But that doesn’t mean that if you go to a business meeting, the woman is not going to be interested in information. In fact, quite the opposite, I’ve heard many women comment to me that when you go into a business meeting, the men seem to spend an awful lot of time talking about irrelevant things before they get down to business. And sometimes what that is a certain amount of jockeying for position.

Many men feel they have to establish their authority, their position in the hierarchy. Like rapport-talk, it’s a certain amount of time spent just laying the groundwork for the relationships. And women often react, “Hey, let’s get down to business. We want to focus on information here.”

So that was one generalization that makes me nervous, and I’ll mention one other. I frequently am quoted as saying: “Women are indirect and men are direct.” I gave that as an example when it comes to getting other people to do what you want. And I think that is fairly accurate for many women in this culture, when it comes to getting your way. There is that example I give that people really like where a woman might begin a conversation, if you’re driving in a car: “Are you thirsty? Would you like to stop for a drink?” And then it comes out that she would like to, and that was an indirect way to start a negotiation by which each person could say how they feel about it, and then you could make a decision that takes everybody’s preferences into account.

This is a point that I make very strongly in my book, Talking from 9 to 5, which is about women and men at work. That it’s very common in a workplace setting that women—even women in positions of authority: managers, bosses—will tell subordinates what to do in a way that you could describe as indirect. So she might say, “You know what I would do? I wouldn’t handle it that way,” or “You know what you might do?” Or, “Could you do me a favor and type this?”

There are a lot of reasons why women prefer strategies like that. I trace it back to the way girls are socialized, and how other girls are very tough on peers who seem to be acting as if they’re better than the others. Now it’s not that all girls are equal, but you have to downplay your superiority and talk as if you were equals. And that’s what I see women in the workplace doing.

But there are many other situations where men are more indirect than women. One might be admitting fault, admitting you don’t know, or talking about a personal problem or something that you feel bad about. These might all be things where men might be more indirect than women. So it’s the generalization that takes something that I observed in one context, and generalizing it beyond that context.

Since you brought up your book, Talking from 9 to 5, which is about the workplace, I have a question about that realm. A number of articles have appeared in the last few months stating that women are better managers than men. First of all, is this news to you, and what does this portend for the workplace from your point of view?

DT: Well I do refer to that finding in the book, Talking from 9 to 5, and I discuss some of the reasons that I think that might be so. There are several habits of managers that subordinates like that women as managers do more often than men. One of those is giving praise. Everybody seems to like being praised.

A pattern that I observed in the research that led to that book, Talking from 9 to 5, is that many men that I interviewed felt that being a good manager means you hire good people and get out of their way. Getting out of their way means you don’t praise them because you’re not that involved in what they’re doing.

On the other hand, many women feel that being a good manager means you bring out the best in the people who work for you by making them feel appreciated, and being available when they need you. And by acting like an equal, even though you’re not.

That gets back to my other point. Many, many women managers said to me, about their subordinates, “You know, I treat them as my equals.” Now you know she’s not equal. She knows she’s not equal. They know she’s not an equal, but it’s this idea that a good person doesn’t throw her weight around, doesn’t rub people’s noses in the fact that they’re subordinates.

And that seems to be something again that both women and men like. There are a lot of other things too that I think are probably playing a role. When I asked people what frustrates them about their bosses, one of the biggest complaints I got was, “My boss doesn’t admit when he made a mistake.” Or, “He doesn’t admit what he doesn’t know.” And, “He’ll tell me something and send me on a wild goose chase, and it turns out that all along he really wasn’t sure; it was just a hunch. And if he had just told me that, that would have been great. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.”

A lot of these things trace back to patterns that I first described in the book, You Just Don’t Understand. And then I explore how it plays out in the workplace in Talking from 9 to 5. But, if you’re aware at every moment, as many men are, that you should talk in a way that exudes confidence, that makes sure that you don’t get put in a one-down position, then it follows that you don’t want to admit ignorance—or fault.

And sometimes it’s very smart to do that in a work setting. You don’t want to apologize, because that makes you appear weak. But, in fact, when you are wrong, just saying so, apologizing, admitting that you didn’t know can be appreciated by the people you work with.

One man I interviewed, who had quite a few people under him, said that he discovered that apologizing was really powerful. He was amazed at the loyalty shown by his subordinates when he just apologized because he had done something wrong.

Now, it was women who worked for this man. I don’t know if it would have had the same effect with men working for him.

You have to evaluate the people that you’re dealing with. If it’s a bunch of guys working with guys then, perhaps you think, “Well if I apologize or admit I was wrong they are going to go for the throat.”

DT: That’s right. Exactly.

So what do you see in the future for the workplace? We’re recognizing now that this women’s style works for a lot of people. We’re getting a lot more women in the workplace. What does this all mean?

DT: Even though many of these studies show that women as managers are quite well-liked, and this is in general, obviously not individual ones necessarily, it doesn’t mean that women necessarily are promoted. And that’s a paradox that I address directly again in the book, Talking 9 to 5. It’s one of my main points there, that women are in a double bind. By which I mean if they talk in ways associated with women and expected of women, they are well-liked, but they are also undervalued, not promoted, not respected. If they talk in ways that you expect of a boss, a person in authority, they may be respected, but not liked, so then they don’t get promoted. Women frequently were evaluated as lacking confidence for talking in ways that in their minds did not show lack of confidence, but simply showed that they were trying to be a good person, based on their idea of what a good person should be.

And some of these were strategies that make them liked and effective as managers, but don’t always give them the recognition from above that leads to promotion and other forms of recognition. So there’s still a big challenge, both for the women themselves and for the men and women who are making decisions about hiring and about promotions.

But when these women managers that you say are in the double bind—is part of the problem the fact that their higher-ups are still males?

DT: Yes. Yes. And I saw this in very specific situations that I observed. There was one that was just so striking. This is in a company where I got to know everybody very well. I spent a long time observing, interviewing everybody, recording conversations, and studying them.

There was one group that I knew quite well. When I asked each person in the group, privately, who was the best, everyone named a particular woman. When I asked her boss, who was a woman, she also named the same woman as the best person.

During the period I was observing that woman got ranked at the bottom. And indeed when I talked to the boss’s boss—and he told me what he thought of everybody in the group, he mentioned that he did not have a high opinion of that woman.

Something wasn’t getting up to the person at the top. The people in the group knew she was good. Her boss knew she was good. The boss’s boss, who was actually responsible for the rankings and promotions, didn’t know. And when I observed this woman, her way of talking, she did tend to say, “I’m sorry,” when other people didn’t. This could have been one factor influencing the impression she made on the boss’s boss. And this was something that was very widespread.

Women frequently said, “I’m sorry,” when it was not an apology. It meant, “I’m sorry that happened.” Or it was just an automatic preamble to start what you’re saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah.” It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a way to get into it.

So this could have been one thing. There were various things that she did. There was a presentation she was making to the boss’s boss, and she spoke in a way that did not put forth what she really knew, because she thought loyalty to her colleagues meant she shouldn’t say it all. I don’t remember the details now, but she was clearly not monitoring her performance to always make sure that she came across as competent and showing what she knew, demonstrating what she knew, demonstrating what she could do.

But is a factor here one where women feel they shouldn’t boast or brag about themselves?

DT: Yes. And that’s socialized.

Would that come into play in a situation like that where you might become uncomfortable leading—

DT: Yes. That very much plays a role. Not boasting, not bragging is one of a whole range of things that girls learn. Anything that puts yourself forward, anything that tries to attract attention, rather than keeping a low profile. Anything that builds yourself up.

But a woman has to make a choice; if she decides to put herself forward in that way, she is coming closer to our expectations for how a person in authority should behave, but she is departing from our image of how a woman should behave. So that’s the double bind. It’s not that all men do it. It’s not that all men can or want to, and there are other cultural groups too that find that equally offensive. Asians would be an example: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, many cultures of the Asian world, Malaysian, Indonesian. There would be a feeling that that would be very unacceptable, but within the American context, it’s expected of a person in authority, and it’s highly valued for men as well. But for women, there’s that choice you’ve got to make.

And it’s not just a personal choice; it’s the way others are going to react to you. So if a woman decided, “Okay. I’m going to talk in a way that plays up my accomplishments,” others will react more negatively to her than they would to a man doing the same thing.

You mention a term, complementary schismogenesis. Which I understand as—let’s say a man and a woman are speaking to each other, and they are talking at odds in such a way that they are frustrating each other even as they think that they’re trying to get the conversation to an even keel. Can you talk about this?

DT: Yes. This concept, complementary schismogenesis, is very key, because often when we have different styles, we keep trying to do more and more of the same, and it just drives us further apart. There’s an example of this in a training video I made, also called Talking 9 to 5. It actually took place at Money magazine, and the woman and man, they’re equals, hierarchically equal. They’re editors. And they’re kicking around ideas for a column. She throws out ideas, and he begins questioning them and poking holes in them. And she backs off and gets more and more hesitant and more and more inarticulate and you can see that she feels her ideas are being put down. She gets defensive. And that gives him more and more leeway to pile on his hole-poking.

My belief is that he was trying to get something going. He was using an oppositional or warlike format to do things that are not literally oppositional. A term I use for this is agonism. And men often do that; they’ll explore an idea by playing Devil’s Advocate. He even said that, “I’m playing Devil’s Advocate.”

Among men who react favorably to this, that gets their adrenaline going, and it makes your mind even sharper, and you get even more enthusiastic. “Yeah, but this and that and that.” “No. But this and that and that.” When you do it with someone who doesn’t understand that this Devil’s Advocate is a way of exploring the idea and instead takes it literally, she’ll think, “You don’t like me,” which is quite typical with women, that they do react that way. Then, what you’re seeing is complementary schismogenesis.

So he ends up doing all the attacking and criticizing, and she gets more and more defensive and backs off more and more, rather than rising to the occasion and matching his oppositional stance. That’s complementary schismogenesis—because he is more aggressive she is more tentative in reaction to each other.

I do that myself. My thought after reading this was, “Well of course you would do this, because otherwise why have a conversation unless you’re really going to explore it from every angle, and get wrought up about it?” Is it not clear, let’s say, to the woman in this example that that’s what the guy is doing, and that this is a form of brainstorming? It’s like one-on-one brainstorming.

DT: Often it’s not clear. And here this key idea comes in, a term I use, “conversational ritual.” Conversations are rituals and we perform the ritual as we learn to perform it. If you walk into a church that’s not familiar to you, you don’t recognize the rituals. It’s just a big mishmash.

And so you don’t know where to fit in, and you don’t know when to stand and when to sit, and when to speak and when to be silent. And that’s what it is with conversational rituals. When it’s a ritual you recognize, you’ve learned how to do it. You’ve been doing it all your life; it’s second nature. Obviously, that’s what’s going on. Obviously, this is the way to respond. Obviously, this is how it’s meant. But when it’s a ritual you don’t share, it’s all a big surprise to you. And you don’t know where to come in, and you don’t know how it’s intended.

Before I move on to the next question, I just wanted to throw in a personal moment about men telling stories and then women pitching in with their own stories, and then the guys misinterpreting this. Because I thought, “My God! This is me.” I come home and something has happened to me, and I start telling my wife, and then she jumps in with a similar story that’s happened to her. And I’m thinking, “Why are you competing with me?”

DT: Women react to that example, too. But they say, “What a goofy example. No one could think that’s competing. Obviously, she’s matching. She’s showing she understands.”

Is there any hope for people really understanding each other and communicating with each other? Or what can a man do to begin to understand a woman, and likewise for a woman? What’s the next step that a person can take?

DT: Well, once you’ve read the book you’ve gone very far in the right direction. The most important first step is to realize that there are different conversational styles and not one right way, and that when somebody you’re close to or somebody you work with is behaving in a way that seems bizarre or seems offensive, it could be they’re a jerk. But it could also be that they’re a well-intentioned person with a different conversational style, so just realizing that is the first step.

Once you have that, then you can talk about it. The term I use for this is “metacommunicate,” talk about communication. And then you have a basis to actually listen to the other person’s explanation, because if you don’t know and respect the idea of conversational style difference, then you dismiss what they’re saying as just making excuses. So you really listen to what the other person is claiming is their motivation and their intention and how they meant what they said.

And then in many cases you can come up with concrete compromises or adjustments. I can think of dozens, based on what people have told me. I’ll just give one or two.

One source of frequent frustration among couples is the “How was your day” impasse. She wants him to ask, “How was your day?” And then she’ll answer with a 20-minute report on everything that she said and did and thought. But because this is not a ritual common among men, he might be bored and wonder why she is telling him, and try to give her his solutions, because he thinks, “Well you must want a solution to the problem.” And then she’s annoyed, because she didn’t want a solution.

And then she says, “How was your day,” and he says, “Okay,” or “Busy,” or “Same old rat race.” So she’s frustrated, because for her, telling your day—and listening—shows you’re close. So there are a lot of possible ways out of this; one is they decide that she’ll talk about her day, and then they can separate, and then he can watch television, unwind, whatever, and then later on he might come around to telling her what happened during his day.

Or they might decide that first he’s going to get 20 minutes or a half hour to do what he wants. Then they’ll come together and talk about their day. One man said to me, “Now I understand why she is doing it, I started to listen.” He never had listened before. And then he discovered that he liked to tell everything that happened, too. He just never really thought about it.

With other couples, he may never want to do it, and she may just have to accept this. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me. It doesn’t mean we have a lousy relationship. It’s just that he doesn’t do this kind of talk. I’m going to get it somewhere else. There’s a whole range of ways you can work it out. Once you know what the differences are, and you stop blaming each other for not talking in the way that you think is right. That’s the most important point.

I met somebody not long ago who told me that a friend of hers had heard me talk way way back when You Just Don’t Understand first came out. And it was a small group. It was actually a synagogue where I was addressing the audience, and she stood up in the question period, and she said, “When I tell about a problem, my husband always wants to fix it.” And she was sure I was going to say, “Your husband’s a jerk. He shouldn’t try to fix it. He should just listen to you.”

And I said, “Well, there’s a very good reason your husband is reacting that way.” And it really blew her mind, that I wasn’t saying, “You’re right; he’s wrong.” It really made her stop and think, “Maybe I’m not always right. Maybe there is some logic to his talk.”

So to me fixes don’t work unless you have that first level of understanding why the other person behaves the way they do. I know my husband once said to me, “I know you don’t want the solution, but it’s too frustrating to have to listen to you go on and on, when I know the solution. So let me tell you the solution, and then if you want to keep talking, you can.” Why does it all have to be his adjustment? If he has to sit and listen to me go on and on about a problem, why shouldn’t I have to sit and listen to the solution?

Thank you.

Books by Deborah Tannen:

Her newest: I Only Say This Because I Love You : How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power

That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships

The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words

Go to her website DeborahTannen.com to see more book titles.