Thursday, February 1, 1996

Q&A Deborah Tannen: A Writer First

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate)

HB: What got you interested in the subject of communications between genders?

DT: After graduating from college in 1966, I lived in Greece for two years where I became involved in issues of cross-cultural communication. I was teaching English as a foreign language; a lot of the people who do that are trained in linguistics. That’s how I first discovered that there was such a thing.

Back in the States, I got a Master’s Degree in English, taught remedial writing and English for foreign students, then decided to get a Ph.D. in linguistics. I attended a linguistics institute in 1973. Luckily the institute was devoted to language in social context that summer. Had I gone another summer it’s quite likely I would have concluded linguistics was not for me.

HB: How were you affected by the politics of the sixties and seventies, particularly feminist politics? 

DT: I was affected personally but have always kept my research separate. I don’t think of my research as having a political agenda; in fact, quite the opposite. My Masters was in English when new criticism was the thing, and I was indoctrinated in the belief that art and politics should be completely separate. I remember my favorite professor saying James Baldwin was a great writer — until he became political.

The fact that I don’t have a political agenda about the topic of men and women communicating is quite irritating to many writers on the subject who do. Many writers about language and gender who focus on how men dominate women are quite annoyed I don’t perceive things that way.

HB: Where, then, do most of the criticisms come from?

DT: Mostly, I have not been very criticized. A literary critic friend comments that I lead a charmed life; she can’t open her mouth without being attacked from all sides.

I have gotten almost exclusively positive notices from the popular press. Within the field of socio-linguistics the criticism, usually friendly, is that I leave out power. Some socio-linguists would prefer that I start from the premise that men dominate women, and that women are oppressed.

HB: That’s also the feminist criticism, is it not?

DT: The feminist criticism is a little different. I think the criticism from feminist theory arises from a misunderstanding — quite common across academic disciplines — of what my field is. The criticism comes down to essentialism: because I describe how women and men talk in this society at this time, some feminists hear me saying it’s biological, it’s inherent, it’s essential — women are essentially superior or women are essentially inferior, and, in any case, nobody will change.

HB: It’s possible — more from You Just Don’t Understand than from Talking From 9 to 5 to get the impression that women have evolved a very admirable form of cooperation with each other, as reflected in their language. But what is it about men? Men seem like evolutionary mistakes. But how could such a serious mistake survive so long?

Or are we at some sort of watershed where the gender styles that once made sense no longer do? Is the next step in the evolution of American democracy a greater egalitarianism in which men and women become more like each other? You say men should not try to be like women, women should not try to be like men; at most we should learn to understand each other. But if you learn another person’s language, don’t you become a little more like that person?

DT: I want to be clear: if I’m not telling people to change, I’m also not telling them not to change. This is the dilemma of being a researcher writing for a popular audience. Most social scientists who spend their lives describing a phenomenon — and linguistics is a descriptive science or humanity — do not write for a popular audience. And most writers for the popular audience try to answer a market need. The market says give us tips, tell us what to do, make a value judgment, come down on one side.

Interestingly enough, it’s not readers — the response from readers is enthusiastic — but academics and journalists who have a very hard time accepting that I’m a scientist, I describe. I act out of the belief that the unexamined life is not worth living, and it would be great to understand.

HB: Does the greater need and opportunity for men and women to communicate arise because they are thrown together much more in the workplace than in the past?

DT: And at home, too. In the past men and women moved in separate spheres.

HB: It seems to me your books are essentially American. Can you imagine works that foster communication between genders being so popular in Europe at this time?

DT: For me, the framework for gender communication starts with cross-cultural communication, people of different regional and ethnic backgrounds who have different conversational styles. Such variation is more common here; Americans have such diverse ethnic backgrounds. I’m sure if I lived in France I’d know of variation there too, but it’s possible there’s something particularly American about it.

People have also remarked that it’s not surprising it’s a woman who’s saying, let’s understand each other. One of the points I make in my work is that there’s an axis ranging from status to connection, and it’s more common for men to be focused on the status dimension, more common for women to be focused on connection. So saying let’s understand each other, we’re not as different as you think, let’s not hate each other — that would make sense for a woman.

HB: Reading your book made me think about my interviewing style. Often, when listening to the tapes, I wish could reach back and throttle myself. I hear myself interrupting and opposing, trying to push people who I often have tremendous respect for out of boilerplate responses, even very good boilerplate responses.

DT: It’s very rare I find a woman interviewer who tries to make it interesting by being oppositional.

HB: Don’t you think Terry Gross could stand to be a little more provocative?

DT: To me, she’s the ideal interviewer. What’s interesting is probably if she were more provocative she’d get something she doesn’t get now, but she’s probably getting something now she wouldn’t get if she were more provocative.

HB: Can you switch styles? Can you go from talking female to talking male?

DT: Anyone can change styles if they want to but there are limits to how much I would want to change. I certainly have changed with respect to interrupting. If I find myself interrupting, I know how to back off, wait longer. But I don’t think I could be oppositional or belligerent if my life depended on it. And, of course, I wouldn’t want to be.

I talk in terms of conversational style but people think in terms of being a good person. If people think changing styles a certain way means no longer being a good person, they are not going to want to do it.

HB: Is it correct to think of conversational style as falling on two axes, vertical, which has to do with status and hierarchy, and horizontal, which has to do with connection?

DT: No. Hierarchy, or status, and connection are poles on the same axis. The other axis ranges from closeness to distance.

I’m frustrated when I hear people representing my work as maintaining that men are hierarchical, women egalitarian. I actually say that men tend to focus on status, women tend to focus on connection. Neither is the same as saying that women are close or men are distant. We’re always balancing status dynamics, on the one hand, and closeness and distance, on the other.

It becomes clearer if you trace it back to kids. It’s not at all that girl groups are egalitarian. There are high status girls and low status girls. But girls don’t tend to monitor status by telling each other what to do or by challenging each other. They do it by means of a network mechanism: are you included or are you excluded? Leaving her out of the birthday party is the worst thing a group of girls can do to another girl. Girls are always monitoring how close they are to each other, rather than who is best at what.

HB: As a boy I had close friends, and the question of who was closest to whom mattered a great deal.

DT: I’m glad you said that. I’m describing tendencies, not absolutes.

HB: I really liked your observation about how young male rebels seem to be against the hierarchy but are protesting only because they haven’t yet assumed their rightful place within it.

DT: It blew my mind to realize that.

HB: Talking about pressures to conform among girls brings up issues Carol Gilligan and others raise, about why girls’ initiative and independence appears to be stifled at a point in their teens. It may have nothing to do with outside pressure. The rules of girls society may explain it; it may arise from the conventions themselves.

DT: It may. Girls impose the constraint against boasting on each other. And I hear from women in work settings that it’s often women who tell them they’ve gotten too big for your britches.

HB: It’s like the kinds of things you hear about how Russian society resists capitalism because there’s a communal ethos built in; if somebody gets ahead he or she will be deeply resented. The American approach is opposite: screw the collective; stand out for yourself.

DT: If so, why was there anger against George Bush because he didn’t do his own grocery shopping? Did we really expect our President to spend time in the supermarket? So we have the leveling attitude, too. Even the President should be a common man.

HB: I was fascinated by a piece you did for Newsweek in May, on the Internet, particularly the story you told of the man in the office next to yours who you hardly knew until he began revealing himself to you by e-mail. The Internet gets criticized for encouraging fantasy and disguise, for encouraging disembodied contact. But you suggest it could be a kind of Braille, an aide to the conversationally impaired.

DT: It’s another kind of conversation. An obvious parallel is to people who can become articulate, even caustic, when writing, but are almost tongue-tied face-to-face. We had a chairman like that, an extremely quiet man in person who would sit down behind a typewriter and shoot out devastating memos.

HB: And we all know people who are more comfortable on the phone than in person. Some people pass judgment on this: if it’s not face to face, it’s not authentic; if it’s not flesh and blood, it’s not real. You don’t.

DT: My impulse is always to understand. This is doing something. Let’s see what it does.

HB: You imply in the same article, though I think it’s somewhat tongue in cheek, that on the internet roles are reversed; women go for information, men go for connection.

DT: I find that interesting. There were some oversimplifications people got from You Just Don’t Understand that I try to correct in Talking From 9 to 5. One is the issue of status and connection, closeness and distance that I’ve talked about.

Another is the issue of indirectness. It’s not the case that women are always indirect, men always direct. In the case of the net, men may be more engaged, and women may just be seeking information.

HB: We all know people, more likely men than women, though it could be the ratio is changing, who lecture you until you’re bored. But it’s also true that men will use information as a mode of connection; they think the material is important and are moved to communicate it.

DT: Absolutely. Or men who write me letters telling me something they think I missed, which is their way of establishing connection. But boredom is completely relative. I find it boring when people force information on me I don’t want, and I am almost never bored by a woman who wants to go on and on about people. But I know men who find that very boring.

HB: Hearing that your background was in new criticism helps me understand why you like to keep things in the frame. You can study the phenomenon of different conversational styles without torturing yourself about how they came into being.

DT: I was quite amazed, after You Just Don’t Understand, by how many people wanted me to tell them whether differences in conversational style were biological or cultural. How in the world am I supposed to know? It surprised me they thought I would have any better idea where it comes from than they do.

HB: What is the difference in style between your scholarly and your popular work?

DT: My style is considered very conversational and informal by academics. You could probably pick up any academic article of mine and read it. But it reads very differently from the popular writing. It’s quite typical, in academic writing, to take a small piece of data and analyze everything you can about it. An academic piece might stay with a transcript of a single conversation, including more of the theoretical background, and making reference to other people’s work.

Publishers advised me in my popular writing to reduce the level of focus and detail, to bring in more sweep and more characters.

HB: What sort of things do you read outside your specialty?

DT: I read novels, poetry. I write poetry. The most recent thing I’ve written is a play, and I’m working on another one now.

HB: How did the transition from academic writing to other forms come about?

DT: Almost from the beginning I assumed I would write about this material in a popular vein. I sent my very first academic article, written even before I got to graduate school, to Glamour Magazine asking if they wanted a popular version. They bought and printed it.

In some sense, I think of myself as a writer first. I really love to write, and always have, from the time I was a kid. I learned early on that what I was studying was of interest to more than academics, and took it for granted that I would write in ways other people could understand. I can’t ever trace the decision to a single point; it was always there.

HB: What direction are you taking in your work?

DT: The next book is about my father. He was born in Poland, and left in 1921 when he was twelve. He lived in Warsaw’s Jewish community, which, of course, was destroyed. Last August I returned to Poland with him.

So it will be about his memories of his childhood, my memories of him from my childhood, and, obviously, an attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust. 

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