Communicating With Style

Deborah Tannen holds the esteemed rank of University Professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. A respected linguistics scholar who has written extensively within the scholarly community, she is also author of six books for popular audiences, two of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list—You Just Don’t Understand for nearly four years, and her most recent, You’re Wearing That? for 10 weeks. Tannen earned a doctorate at the University of California–Berkeley in 1979 and has received five honorary doctorates. Her research, including meticulous analysis of actual conversations, has led to significant contributions to linguistics theory, especially in the area of conversational strategy and style.

Vision’s Gina Stepp talked with Tannen about some common misperceptions that can get in the way of effective communication.


GS You’ve written successful books that discuss communication in a variety of relationship contexts: public discourse, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, workplace relationships—and I understand your next book is on sisters?

DT Yes, most of my books are about personal relationships in different contexts. The Argument Culture is about public discourse. My first book for general readers was That’s Not What I Meant! It’s about the role of language in relationships. I’m still working on the one about sisters.

GS Is there a common thread that underlies communication problems in all of these relationships—an approach that may be common across all contexts but that just doesn’t work?

DT Well, yes, but I guess I would put it in an affirmative way. The underlying point that runs through everything I’ve done is the notion of conversational style. Our inclination, when talking to somebody, is to assume that they must mean or feel what we would mean or feel if we spoke in that way in that context. And furthermore, they must have intended whatever our reaction is. If we feel hurt, they must have set out to hurt us. If we feel insulted, they must have set out to insult us. If we can’t get a word in edgewise, they must have set out to block us out of the conversation. But if you’re talking to someone whose conversational style differs from yours, those assumptions may be wrong.

If you talk to somebody who has a different sense of timing (pacing and pausing), then whoever is expecting the longer pause will find that they can’t get the floor. And whoever is expecting the shorter pause will find themselves doing all the talking. This could be solely a matter of conversational style. When you’re talking to somebody, you try to sense when they’re done and that it’s your turn, or that they’re not going to take their turn.

If I were not a linguist, I might advise, “Don’t interrupt.” But as a linguist, I have to say that’s completely useless advice. If the interruption is being created by a difference in conversational rhythm, then you can’t tell someone, “Don’t interrupt.” In their mind, they’re not interrupting. But if you tell someone, “Be aware of conversational style differences,” then you stand to solve the problem.

If you’re doing more talking than you want to, and you get the sense that the other person is not doing their part, you can try counting to seven before you start to speak (to make sure it’s not that you started to speak before they got the amount of time they needed). If you find that you’re not getting a word in edgewise, you might push yourself to start speaking more quickly than feels comfortable, and you might be astounded that the other person is quite happy to stop.

To me, the key is to understand that there is such a thing as different conversational styles. So it’s about stopping and asking yourself: Am I coming to a justified conclusion, or perhaps an unjustified conclusion about the person’s abilities and intentions toward me? Could what’s going on be a matter of different conversational styles rather than whatever I have been attributing it to?

Am I coming to a justified conclusion, or perhaps an unjustified conclusion about the person’s abilities and intentions toward me?”

Deborah Tannen

GS Some people might wonder whose style is better—women’s or men’s? You’re not saying either is better, are you?

DT No. I get asked that question a lot, and people get quite frustrated with me for not saying one is better than the other. A good style is the one that works in the context you’re using it in, and a bad style is one that doesn’t work in that context. Now, some styles tend to be typical of women and men, but we also have these other influences that I’ve written about: region, culture, ethnic background, class, age and many others; so you have to take all of those into account too. I might go so far as to suggest that there are benefits to learning something of the other’s conversational style. For example, many women are uncomfortable with outright conflict and opposition. In some situations, especially in some workplace situations, you can actually benefit from getting used to and learning to engage in dynamic opposition so you don’t collapse in the face of it.

GS Along the lines of women in the workplace, your book mentions that women may be perceived as more cooperative in communication style. It would be easy to view that as superior to the way men communicate.

DT Correct. In fact, people often ask me what I would change in the book You Just Don’t Understand! I wrote it more than 25 years ago, and it’s shocking how true it still is. But I do blanch now when I hear the description that women are cooperative and men are competitive, because I believe we’re all cooperative and we’re all competitive—in different ways. In fact, women can be quite competitive about who comes off as the most cooperative, and men can be very cooperative about how they compete.

GS Is it a similar oversimplification to say that men are more straightforward and put aside their differences more easily than women?

DT Yes, it is. First of all, “more straightforward” makes directness sound better, but it isn’t always. And in some contexts, men tend to be more indirect than women. It’s true that I have heard from women’s groups who tell me that it’s very hard sometimes to come to a decision, because people are so committed to consensus that they can never move on and say, “Okay, we’re not all going to agree on this point, but we’re going to have to do something, so let’s do this.”

At the same time, though, I would certainly say that there are things men could benefit from by adapting styles more common among women. One is apologizing. It became very apparent to me, as people described family conflicts, that often conflicts worsened because somebody wanted an apology from someone who wouldn’t give one and was offended that the other person wanted one. There were definite gender patterns. It’s not at all unusual for women also to resist apologizing, so it’s obviously not across the board, but the pattern tended to be a woman being upset that a man wouldn’t apologize.

In the workplace, however (and also at home), many men think that if they apologize, their position is going to be weakened and the other person may take advantage of it in the future. But while that may be the case with other men, with women it’s often just astonishing how effective an apology can be. People will be mollified so much more quickly than you’d think possible, and they may see you not as weak but as even stronger.

GS So that approach would work for both men and women?

DT Yes. Again, I’ll never say anything is across the board, and certainly there are contexts in which it’s not a good idea to apologize because you’ll be seen as weak or as more blameworthy than you really are. There are times that would be the case, but in general apologies can be very powerful, and people often don’t think of using one when it would be very effective.

In general apologies can be very powerful, and people often don’t think of using one when it would be very effective.”

Deborah Tannen

GS If women find it easier to apologize, does this help them in the workplace? Phyllis Chesler’s book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman quotes you as saying that authoritarianism doesn’t work for women in leadership roles at work. If criticism and authoritarian leadership don’t work for women either at home or in the workplace—what does work? What are the positive communication styles women can substitute for the ones that don’t work?

DT Well, the first question would be “What’s the workplace?” Is it all women, is it all men, or is it a mixture? Authoritarian styles work well in some settings. But in mixed gender settings an authoritarian style might work for a guy, whereas a woman who uses the same style is disliked; she’s seen as too aggressive. And when women are disliked, people don’t think to themselves, “I don’t like her because she’s authoritarian. I wouldn’t mind if it was a guy, but I don’t like it from her.” Rather, they just think, “I don’t like her; she’s a dragon lady.” In a setting where it’s all women, a collaborative style—where you make it clear what you want but leave it to others to volunteer to do it—might work very well.

GS Along the same lines, you’ve written that it’s too easy for both men and women to look at each others’ habitual styles of communicating and conclude that men are more independent and powerful in style and women are more dependent and powerless. Or men get their problems out in the open and women address them in a more passive-aggressive style. But instead of characterizing it that way, you suggest viewing the styles of men and women as “interdependent” and “complementary.” Would you explain this?

DT For a lot of men—and it may be more American men than men in other cultures—there’s a sense that you’re either dependent or independent. But in many cultures there’s a sense of interdependence, where you’re not dependent, but you’re not independent either. You realize that people’s lives are intertwined. The example that comes to mind is a woman who was frustrated because her husband came home and announced his plans for Friday night. She would have preferred him to say, “My friend is in town and I’d like to have dinner with him. Is that okay?” But he says, “I can’t tell my friend I have to ask my wife for permission.” Of course, it had nothing to do with permission. But if you think the only choice is between being dependent or independent, then not being free to do anything you want must mean that you’re dependent on your wife’s permission. On the other hand, if you have a concept of interdependence, you’re simply acknowledging that your lives are intertwined and you need to take into account the effect your actions will have on your spouse. It really has nothing to do with permission.

GS Many principles of communication also apply directly to certain fields of work. Journalism comes to mind as an obvious example.

DT I commented quite a bit on journalism in my book The Argument Culture. The thesis I tried to develop was that both print and broadcast journalism have fallen into a bit of a trap, and it’s clear why: it all has to do with competition. Print journalists are afraid of losing their jobs because of the Internet and TV, and TV journalists are worried because people can switch channels so quickly now, and there are so many channels to switch to. But we’ve gotten into a situation where there’s an assumption that controversy is fun to watch. So journalists often try to get the most extreme opposing views and then think they’ve done their job. They get two opposite views and get them to fight it out instead of doing the hard work of exploring the ideas and asking, not “What are both sides?” but “What are all sides?”

We’ve gotten into a situation where there’s an assumption that controversy is fun to watch. So journalists often try to get the most extreme opposing views and then think they’ve done their job.” 

Deborah Tannen

With print journalists you get the idea of balance, but that can be a distortion too, because often they don’t bother investigating or testing or looking into the claims. They just say, “Here’s what the Right says, here’s what the Left says. I’ve done my job; now we’ll talk about something else.” But the journalist actually has some ability to look into these claims and tell you something about them.

GS You mentioned the way the Internet has alarmed print journalists. Do you see the new media, in the form of blogs, social networking sites, etc., as changing communication very much?

DT I think it’s utterly transforming communication and relationships.

GS In a positive way or a negative way?

DT Both; some positive, some negative. Any change will be both. For instance, young people today—and it’s going to be like this for the rest of their lives—are never alone in the sense that anyone was alone before all this technology. You’re always reachable by telephone, by texting, by instant messaging. If you’re sitting at your computer writing a paper, IM and e-mail are going to come in. I was astounded that—as I understand from my own students—the default case is that you’re available for people to contact you. If you’re not, you’ve got to tell them. If you go away and don’t put up an “away” message, your friends are offended, and that’s just astonishing.

So that’s a hugely different way of being in the world. You’re not alone in the sense that we would have been alone. And clearly a lot is good about that: you find each other more easily—you spend less time on one street corner while the person you’re looking for is on the other corner. It’s safer in some ways. But you also don’t have the privacy or continuity of thought that you would get if you were writing a paper and the phone wasn’t ringing and no one could get to you. You could focus better. But now nobody gets to think a thought without interruption, and it’s really compromising productivity and the quality of work.

I think people also express more vehement hostility when they feel it’s anonymous. They let fly these venomous electronic communications that they wouldn’t if it were face-to-face.

GS Do you see a future backlash to that kind of behavior—more of an emphasis on etiquette, more rules coming into play to address these negative aspects?

DT Every new system quickly develops etiquette. But even now you have companies specifically trying to find ways of limiting these intrusions. I understand you can set up your computer so that for 15 minutes you won’t get e-mail. Fifteen minutes! I sometimes turn mine off for days, and then people are outraged that I wasn’t there.

GS Yes, it can be bad enough with the normal daily interruptions, but adding all the electronic ones can’t be good for the brain. Can you tell me a little bit about your new book?

DT It’s similar to the one I wrote about mothers and daughters, which grew out of a previous book, I Only Say This Because I Love You (about adult family relationships). People were asking me why the mother-daughter relationship in particular is so fraught, and I realized it’s because they’re both women. Everything I had observed between women as compared to men was coming to bear on this relationship, because it’s such an intense one. They talk more, and they talk about more personal things; so there’s more opportunity to say the wrong thing. Sisters are the other all-female relationship in the family, so it was natural to go there next.