Deborah Tannen:
Men and Women in Conversation is Cross-Cultural Communication

An excerpt from "Men and Women in Conversation: An Analysis of Gender Styles in Language"

Lafayette College
May 1991

     In You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, Deborah Tannen -- a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University -- addresses linguistic differences as they relate to intimate male/female relations. As a student of Robin Lakoff she had been introduced to Lakoff's research on gender and language. Tannen had already written a book on conversational styles, in which she devoted only one chapter to gender differences. After overwhelming popular response she decided to research gender differences more deeply for this, her fourth book on conversational styles.

     Tannen claims that there are gender differences in ways of speaking, and we need to identify and understand them in order to avoid needlessly blaming "others or ourselves -- or the relationship -- for the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles" (Tannen, p. 17). Tannen takes a sociolinguistic approach to these gender differences since she feels that "because boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different between women and men is cross-cultural communication" (Tannen, p. 18).

     For her study Tannen traced patterns of speech in past studies and on videotapes of cross-gender communication (pairs of speakers asked to talk on tape). Tannen states that the most important point to consider in studying and learning about gender specific speech styles is that gender distinctions are built into language. Each person's life is a series of conversations, and simply by understanding and using the words of our language, we all absorb and pass on different, asymmetrical assumptions about men and women (Tannen, p. 243).

     One of these problematic assumptions is males as norm. If, in fact, people believe that men's and women's speech styles are different (as Tannen does), it is usually the women who are told to change. She says, "Denying real differences can only compound the confusion that is already widespread in this era of shifting and re-forming relationships between women and men" (p. 16).

     If we believe that women and men have different styles and that the male is the standard, we are hurting both women and men. The women are treated based on the norms for men, and men with good intentions speak to women as they would other men and are perplexed when their words spark anger and resentment. Finally, apart from her objection to women having to do all the changing, Tannen states that women changing will not work either. As Dale Spender theorized, women who talk like men are judged differently -- and harshly. A woman invading the man's realm of speech is often considered unfeminine, rude or bitchy.

     I have said that Tannen believes that women and men have different speech styles, and she defines them for us as "rapport-talk" and "report-talk," respectively. Women in conversations today use language for Intimacy, hence Tannen's term "rapport-talk." Girls are socialized as children to believe that "talk is the glue that holds relationships together" (Tannen, p. 85), so that as adults conversations for women are "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus" (Tannen, p. 25). Conversation is for Community; the woman is an individual in a network of connections.

     For men, conversations today are for Information, thus "report-talk." Men negotiate to maintain the upper hand in a conversation and protect themselves from others' perceived attempts to put them down. Boys learn in childhood to maintain relationships primarily through their activities, so conversation for adult males becomes a Contest; a man is an individual in a hierarchical social order "in which he [is] either one-up or one-down" (Tannen, p. 24). The following table further differentiates the speech styles of men and women:

          Women                                   Men
          Women talk too much               Men get more air time
          private/small                              public
          build relations                            negotiate status/avoid failure
          English language spoken            English language written
          overlap (see definition below)    one at a time
          symmetry                                  asymmetry

     Because of the different intentions in speech that Tannen proposes, conversational messages result in metamessages or information about the relations and attitudes among the people involved in the conversation. Tannen offers the example of the helping message that says "This is good for you" that sends the metamessage "I [the speaker] am more competent than you" (Tannen, p. 32). The metamessage is the individual's interpretation of how a communication was meant. Conflicting metamessages in a hierarchical linguistic relationship, such as Tannen believes men maintain, have the potential to injure male pride and arouse their need for "one-upmanship" in the contest of conversation.

     A second topic that Tannen raises is interruptions in conversations. She states that an interruption has little to do with beginning to make verbal sounds while someone else is speaking, which she calls Overlap. It has to do with dominance, control, and showing a lack of interest or support. When a person does not offer support to a fellow conversant but makes an effort to wrench control of the topic of conversation, Tannen calls it Uncooperative Overlap. To further explain, interruption is not a mechanical criterion for determining on a tape whether two voices were speaking at once. As linguist Adrian Bennett states, it is "a matter of interpretation regarding individuals' rights and obligations" (Tannen, p. 190). In order to determine whether one speaker is interrupting another, one must be familiar with both speakers and the situation surrounding their conversation. What is their relationship? How long have they been talking? How do they feel about being cut off?

     Perhaps, as Tannen claims, some people (not just women) practice Cooperative Overlapping in speech, while others refuse to participate until given specific time to speak. An overlap can be defined as two conversants speaking simultaneously during their conversation. For Tannen some overlaps are considered cooperative because usually they will include just a few words of encouragement or elaboration on the topic and not a full sentence about a different subject. Tannen defines the two types of people mentioned above as "high involvement" and "high considerateness" speakers. "High involvement" speakers give priority in a conversation to expressing enthusiastic support even if it involves simultaneous speech, while "high considerateness" speakers are more concerned with being considerate of others. They prefer not to impose on the conversation as a whole or on specific comments of another conversant (Tannen, p. 196).

     Tannen believes that high-involvement speakers don't mind being overlapped because they will yield to an intrusion on the conversation if they feel like it and put off responding or ignore it completely if they don't (Tannen, p. 198). In addition, speakers from some cultural groups rarely pause between turns, because for them silence is seen as a sign of lack of rapport in a friendly conversation. "Overlapping is a way to keep conversation going without risking silence" (Tannen, p. 205). The overlaps to which Tannen refers are frequent but brief. High-considerateness speakers won't intrude on a conversation at all; it is understandable, then, that in a conversation full of high-involvement speakers a high-considerateness speaker could become very frustrated.

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