Can We Talk? : Speech: Author Deborah Tannen has her own theories on why men and women talk but don't always communicate.


It probably comes as no surprise to anyone on earth that girls and boys, chicks and dudes, ladies and gents talk a different game.

No news there.

But author-linguist Deborah Tannen has descended from the Ivory Tower with a new book about frustrated couples that makes you grab your mate and gasp: "Ooohhhh yeah! Listen to this!"

In a conversation about the verbal rub between the sexes, Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, begins by plopping herself in a comfy chair in her living room and slipping off her shoes.

"You know," she says, twisting her body toward her listener, "women tend to face each other when they talk, whereas men catch each other with side glances sitting at angles."

And from there--shortly after they assume physical positions--the battle lines are drawn, says Tannen. What she has done is catalogue the differences from that point on.

In "You Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (William Morrow) Tannen explains that women bond through blab and men connect by sharing activities like sports and work. Men talk to assert their independence and status. The book has received enthusiastic reviews and been on bestseller lists since the beginning of August.

These conversational habits activate at an early age: Little girls learn to cement relationships by sharing secrets so by the time they're big girls intimate chats are the staff of life and--they wish--of love.

But little boys go about it differently. They play in bigger, hierarchical groups with a specific pecking order that ensures whoever goes last is a nerd. When they grow up the last thing they want is to be pinned down in a conversation that leaves them on the bottom rung.

The result of this is that when big boys and big girls get together there is general, well, misunderstanding, according to Tannen.

Women expect their men to be like a girlfriend, to listen to every thing that whizzes through their brains. They use talk to connect. Men, although they are prepared to talk for recreation, prefer to use it to negotiate or solve problems or raise their status.

Such insights as well as many witticisms come streaming out of the 45-year-old academic in an interview that she conducts like a session with a new best friend. And her book reads like more of the same: a patchwork of anecdotes and analyses that seems to emanate from a private phone line.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at UC Berkeley, Tannen began her research into conversational styles by recording a 2 1/2-hour Thanksgiving dinner between three New York Jews, two Angelenos and a Briton. If this sounds like the start of a Borscht Belt routine, it wasn't. Rather, in the back-and-forth over turkey, Tannen detected barely perceptible differences in the styles of talk that she traced to their their ethnic, class, regional, age and gender differences.

It was during this study, as an eager graduate student, that Tannen developed "this passion for everyday conversation among ordinary people," she says. And she hasn't turned her tape recorder off since.

The idea for this latest book came after readers of "That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships," her previous book published in 1986, became fixated on Chapter 10, the one about male/female conflict.

"Of course, generalizing is dangerous," she warns, "but it's more dangerous not to recognize and describe patterns that are really there because then you're left with thinking, 'There's something wrong with me or there's something wrong with my partner.'

"You're thinking, 'Gee, I have friends. He doesn't have friends. Oh he's woefully inadequate. I've married a man who is an emotional cripple.' I think when we examine patterns we're all comforted to know that 'he' or 'she' are not unusual."

What follows are scenarios taken from Tannen's book, her life and her thoughts:

Scene 1:

A woman, knowing her boyfriend had seen his friend, asked "What's new with Oliver?" He replied, "Nothing." But later in the conversation it came out that Oliver and his girlfriend had decided to get married. "That's nothing,?" she gasped in frustration and disbelief.

"For women, detailed conversation is our lifeblood while for men it's just not as critical," says Tannen, by now so engrossed in conversation that she turns on her answering machine to catch her constantly ringing telephone.

Men and women, she explains, often have different concepts about what's important. A woman complains when a man doesn't act like she does, when he refuses to relate "fleeting thoughts and feelings he experienced throughout the day--the kind of talk she would have with her best friend." Men simply don't find that kind of talk compelling.

In one study she conducted, Tannen found the men switching topics a lot more frequently than the women, who tended to home in on a personal experience and probe it until there was not an angle left unexamined. In the course of hashing it all out, the women punctuated each other's sentences with what Tannen called "listener-noises" such as "uhuh" and "yeah." When the women made these noises while the men talked, it drove the men crazy as they listened silently, evaluating the information.

Scene 2:

A man is stunned when he goes to a woman's house at night and finds her morning newspaper still in front of the door. If many women are incredulous that many men do not exchange personal information with their friends, this man is incredulous that many women do not bother to read the morning paper. To keep a man from his ritual reading of the newspaper is a violation of his independence.

Not only did the professor gather research from conversations she and her graduate students recorded but she also used exchanges she has had with her friends.

"I have a lot of friends," Tannen says, "and I talk to them constantly."

She also drew from other linguists' studies, folklorists' observations, Ann Landers' columns and on a wide selection of literature, mostly written by women. And a couple of times she quoted a person whom she would never call her best friend but who is definitely close--her husband, Michael Macovski, a literary criticism professor at Fordham University in New York.

"He wasn't 100% happy about being a what-not-to-do in the beginning of the book," she says. "But he's been a real good sport." The couple have a commuting relationship spending four days a week together in one city or the other.

"It's a particularly modern myth," continues Tannen, "that married people are best friends. The best-friend concept is a uniquely female phenomena.

"This idea that we should be best friends with our partner of the opposite gender leads toward tremendous frustration," she says. "Did you ever notice that while men often refer to their wives as best friends, women usually refer to another women in that way?"

Scene 3.

One day the author said to her husband, "I'm thirsty." At first he responded by offering to solve her problem: "I'll get you a glass of water," he said. But then he realized he had fallen into what her life work has shown to be a typically male trap: Instead of giving her sympathy he tried to solve her problem. "Oooooh I'm sorry," he quickly added. "You know, I was thirsty once. I know what that feels like."

If Tannen sounded somewhat "anti-male" during the 100 or so radio interviews she has given over the last few months since her book was published, it was because, she said, a lot of men out there weren't, well, weren't quite listening.

"You wouldn't believe the kinds of calls I've gotten," she says, leaning forward the way women do when they're telling another woman something really important. "There are a lot of angry men out there."

Because she felt vulnerable to her publisher's concern that her book shouldn't contain "male bashing," she had five male colleagues read the manuscript to scour it for unfair or sexist conclusions. "I really didn't want to sound one-sided," she says. She made a few changes based on their suggestions.

In fact, Tannen does not blame men or women for the breakdown in communications. She simply delineates the differences and says she hopes by examing them, men and women can come to a better, well, understanding.

"If you understand gender differences in what I call conversational style," she writes in her final chapter, "you may not be able to prevent disagreements from arising, but you stand a better chance of preventing them from spiraling out of control."

Scene 4.

A college student was frustrated because whenever she told her boyfriend she wanted to talk he would lie down on the floor, close his eyes and put his arm over his face. To her , this not-so-subtle sign meant he wasn't listening. But he insisted he was listening, even harder than he would if he was looking directly at her. Lying down simply kept him from looking around the room so he could concentrate.

The student was in one of Tannen's classes. She showed the woman and her boyfriend videotapes of children playing in their peer groups with the girls face to face and the boys unaligned.

"Once the boyfriend understood why he annoyed his girlfriend, he voluntarily changed because now it was a small thing that he could do to make her happy," Tannen says. "Once she understood that he wasn't ignoring her, she didn't care how he sat."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World