The speech writer

June 9, 1995

Lucy Hodges meets Deborah Tannen, the sociolinguist whose studies of how people talk to one another have made her an American household name. Sellotaped to the door of Deborah Tannen's office at Georgetown University is a photocopy of a cartoon from The New Yorker magazine. Portrayed is a couple exchanging wedding vows, and standing between them is Professor Tannen. The priest intones: "And do you, Deborah Tannen, think they know what they're talking about."

Mildly funny. For Tannen the point is not the humour but that the cartoon appeared in The New Yorker, that venerable American cultural icon now edited by Tina Brown. "That they would assume that their readers would all recognise my name," says Tannen, "that was what was so amazing to me."

Today Deborah Tannen is a household name, a sociolinguist of international renown, whose book You Just Don't Understand was an unexpected success and catapulted her into the New York Times bestseller list for almost four years. Also a bestseller in the United Kingdom and six other countries, it struck an immediate chord with the public for its explanations of how men and women talk differently, and end up misunderstanding one another.

This month her latest book, Talking from Nine to Five, is published in Britain. It picks up where You Just Don't Understand left off and analyses, as she puts it in the subheading, how men's and women's conversational styles affect who gets heard, who gets credit and what gets done at work.

In this book, Tannen shows how girls teach one another not to appear bossy, to avoid standing out, and to find ways of saving the other person's face. Girls have conversational rituals, she explains, which mean the speaker takes what she calls "a one-down position", and relies on the other person to bring her back up.

Women, for example, often say "I'm sorry" when they don't mean it literally. What they are doing is showing sympathy. To men, who are taught not to say "sorry" all the time, who are more likely to boast and try to avoid "one-down positions", it looks as though women are taking the blame. Similarly women's ritual self-deprecation can be seen as lack of confidence or even competence, and men's ritual self-protection can be misinterpreted as arrogance.

All of which may explain partly why women hit a "glass ceiling" and fail to climb to the top of the managerial greasy pole. Women in positions of authority are in a double bind, she says. If they talk in ways expected of women, they may not be respected. But if they talk in ways expected of men, they may not be liked.

Tannen's books for popular audiences are a great read. She is writing about things that fascinate, and does so well. Her prose may feel a bit padded at times but it is rich in anecdotes, replete with stories about people, quotations and literary references. It comes as no surprise to discover she majored in English.

One of her best illustrations of the differences between men and women is the way women are happy to ask for directions when en route to an unfamiliar place, but men will not. Sometimes this can be downright dangerous. "A Hollywood talk-show producer told me that she had been flying with her father in his private airplane when he was running out of gas and uncertain about the precise location of the local landing strip he was heading for," she writes in Talking from Nine to Five. "Beginning to panic, the woman said, 'Daddy! Why don't you radio the control tower and ask them where to land?' He answered, 'I don't want them to think I'm lost.' Thankfully, the story had a happy ending."

The moral of such stories, according to Tannen, is flexibility. "Sticking to habit in the face of all challenges is not so smart if it ends up getting you killed. If we all understood our own styles and knew their limits and their alternatives, we would be better off - especially at work, where the results of what we do have repercussions for co-workers and the company, as well as for our own futures."

She is careful not to say one style is superior to the other. Although she generalises about the behaviour of men and women, she does not do so crudely. There are always exceptions to the conversational styles, she reminds us, and there are always cultural differences.

What one must remember about Tannen is that she is first and foremost an academic. She may write fluently, but there are no easy solutions, no self-help manuals for those who want to change their conversational styles.

Tannen's work is based on research, years of listening to people talk into her tape recorder, or, in the case of the new book, three years of observing and interviewing people at work. Her only advice is that people should become better aware of their own and others' conversational styles and how the two interact. Self-knowledge might help us to improve, but it is up to us to find the way.

Tannen is 50 this month, and shows no sign of letting up. She has the grand title of "university professor" at Georgetown, awarded because of her success, and her own secretary, but she is still driving herself to write - at the moment plays about her family which are being performed in the Washington area.

A tall, blonde figure, without make-up, she exudes a wry, no-nonsense friendliness, and bursts into cackles of laughter as she tells her life story.

Her roots are New York Jewish. Both parents came to America as children, her father from Poland and her mother from Russia. Tannen thinks it important that she was one of three daughters. Girls with brothers often have to watch while the boys of the family do things the girls are not allowed to do, she says. Not so the Tannen girls. She attended an all-girls high school in New York run by Hunter College. It was an elite public school with a competitive entrance exam and it was for intellectually gifted girls. "I think that had a strong effect on me as well," she says.

In the 1960s Tannen attended what was then Harpur College, and is now the State University of New York at Binghamton, on a scholarship. At Binghamton she overlapped with Camille Paglia and had the distinction of rejecting one of Paglia's poems submitted to the literary magazine of which Tannen was editor. Tannen agrees with Paglia that Binghamton was an exceptional place, with good teachers, and students with a hunger for knowledge. In short, a superior place to the Ivy League universities.

"The time we were at Harpur was an amazing time," says Tannen. "It was the 1960s, a time of political ferment. Also, schools like Harvard and Yale are very full of themselves. Harpur wasn't. We were all working-class kids who went there because we were smart. It was at that time the only small liberal arts college in the state system, and I think most of us were in the same position."

After her degree, Tannen followed the route taken by many other bold, young Americans of the time. She worked feverishly for a few months, saving money, and headed for Europe. Her goal was to go round the world and never come back. This was 1966.

In fact, Tannen never got further than Greece. She met a Greek man on the beach, fell for him, taught English and after two years returned with him to America. He was her first husband, who serves as material for the opening paragraph of You Just Don't Understand.

As she explained in that book: "Many years ago I was married to a man who shouted at me, 'I do not give you the right to raise your voice to me, because you are a woman and I am a man'. This was frustrating, because I knew it was unfair. But I also knew just what was going on. I ascribed his unfairness to his having grown up in a country where few people thought women and men might have equal rights."

Tannen and the first husband went to graduate school in the United States. She worked and supported them, and did most of his academic work for him too, she says, laughing. But she also did her own work and got her own master's.

With that qualification she was able to get work teaching English, and ended up at Leman College, part of the City University of New York system. In the early 1970s her first husband wanted to go back to Greece. For Tannen it was a chance to escape the marriage.

At that point she discovered linguistics. The summer of 1973 was spent luxuriating in her new-found freedom and the thrill of intellectual discovery at the University of Michigan where she took courses in language and context, roughly what we call sociolinguistics. "I got very excited by it, and decided I would apply for a PhD in linguistics," she says. She was accepted at several universities but chose the University of California at Berkeley.

Tannen was 29 at the time. She threw in a safe job at CUNY, against the wishes of her father, and, like so many of her compatriots before her, headed West. That was the beginning of her career as a linguist. She spent four-and-a-half years at Berkeley, with a year off in the middle to write a book on Greek writer Lilika Nakos, and earned a master's and a PhD in linguisitics. Much of the time she supported herself by teaching.

Her dissertation was notorious in the annals of linguistics. It was about a Thanksgiving dinner conversation that she tape recorded. "I wanted to do a dissertation on conversational style," she explains. "That was my big interest and it still is."

At the dinner party were two Californians and a British woman, and three New Yorkers. After listening to the tape for a while she realised that the first three had quite distinct styles from the New Yorkers. They paused more and they did not "talk along" with one another in the same way as the New Yorkers did.

"There was a whole range of features the New Yorkers used which had a positive effect when used among ourselves, in group talk, but a negative effect, seeming to be overbearing or dominating with the Californians," she says.

Tannen was fortunate in landing a job at Georgetown before her dissertation was done. She was sought after because she had published articles as a graduate student and had a book contract in the bag.

Having a facility for writing meant her work was a joy. "To churn stuff out was pure pleasure," she explains. "It was hedonistic."

Tannen began to write for popular magazines, she got herself an agent and embarked on a book for a popular audience about conversational style. But her experience with the publishing firm, Dutton, was a nightmare, a lesson to any aspiring writer in how to be resilient. Four editors came and went as she was told to rewrite proposals, write the book, scrap everything she had written, do it a certain way, scrap that. Until, finally, she switched publishers.

One of the things that kept her going was her sense of mission, she says. "Linguistics had so much to offer society at large and everybody was thinking only of psychology, and subconscious feelings," she explains. "And I really felt I had a message to get out to people that sometimes what you think is psychology or intentions is really conversational style differences."

Her new editor at William Morrow thought the six chapters that editors three and four had found unacceptable were fine. She had to write a few more, and the book was published. Called That's Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Your Relations with Others, it sold reasonably well and was a Book of the Month Club choice.

Writing the book about men and women, You Just Don't Understand, was not as arduous, but there were problems nevertheless. Her editor told her to write it in a more intellectual way than That's Not What I Meant, but when the publishers saw the manuscript they said it was too stodgy. Tannen was given six weeks in which to jazz it up. She rose at 5.30am each morning and worked until 9 or 10am, after which she crammed in the rest of her hectic life.

It was another sign, if one were needed, of her supreme competence. The book came out in May 1990, and as the months passed, it became clear it was a stunning success. In June, Tannen was invited on to the hugely popular TV show hosted by Phil Donahue. By August it had sold out of its first 30,000 print run, and had hit the bestseller list. The publishers could not believe it. Eventually they caught up with demand.

Media interest intensified. Tannen took off the whole of the autumn term to meet publicity demands. The following spring, the pressure had not abated. About once a week a TV camera would follow her to her classes.

For a whole year it took over her life. After the paperback edition came out, she began to say no to publicity. "Now I have it under control," she says. "That first year it just about drove me nuts. But I don't do everything now." You Just Don't Understand completely changed Tannen's life. "I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote that book," she says. Given the choice, she would do it again. "But it's a very mixed blessing, and I would say, all in all, I was happier before. I am not as happy as I was. Yet it's also very thrilling and fulfilling, as well as being a little overwhelming a lot of the time."

But any best-selling academic is bound to receive criticism, and in Tannen's case, it is coming from feminists who accuse her of being an "essentialist" (the theory that differences between men and women are biological, which Tannen says she does not hold), and from others for being recognised by Bill Clinton, who began to quote her after hearing her speak at a Renaissance weekend, a retreat for the chattering classes.

Is the criticism hard to take? "I do get quite upset when I'm criticised for things I didn't say and when I'm criticised by people that I think should see me as an ally," she says.

One also gets the feeling she would rather not go down in history as "the gender lady". It is easy to forget that she had written reams of learned material on the relation between written and spoken language, frames theory and other esoteric subjects before venturing into the minefield of gender. But this is something she can cope with.

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