How does the way that you communicate affect your ability to connect, and be understood? Can you change your communication style to become a more effective communicator? We don’t all use language the same way, and in today’s episode, we’re going to see exactly how those differences play out in our interactions with the people we care about most. And by the end of the conversation, you’ll have some strategies for bridging the communication gap in any situation when things aren’t going quite as you had planned. Our guest is Deborah Tannen, Georgetown Professor and author of You Just Don’t Understand, the classic book on gender differences in communication. Her latest book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell, is about the language of friendships between women. Deborah Tannen’s specialty is how we use language – and identifying exactly where differences in the way that we communicate connect us, and get in our way.
And, as always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you.
Join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
During the course of my conversation with Deborah Tannen, we also mention a few other Relationship Alive episodes that will help you with your communication:
Check out Deborah Tannen’s website
You can also visit Deborah Tannen’s author page on Amazon
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: The Railsplitters – Check them Out
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. We’ve spoken a lot about communication on this show – and in today’s episode we’re going to cover how the specific language that you use affects your relationships. The words that you choose matter – and today you’re going to find out why.
Neil Sattin: This podcast was actually born, in some ways, more than 20 years ago, when I was in a class in college called the Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships. In this class, I gathered with a bunch of students there, in a circle, and we basically dealt with the shit that came up between us, right then and there. If you’ve ever heard of an encounter group – well, that’s what it was. One of the books that was on the required reading list was called “You Just Don’t Understand” by Deborah Tannen – about the different ways that Men and Women communicate. This book, after it came out, spent 4 YEARS on the NYT bestseller list. So you can imagine the effect that it’s had on our culture, and what we’ve come to know about language, and gender, how we create meaning and understanding with each other. When I started Relationship Alive, one of the people I knew I had to interview was Deborah Tannen, and it took us two years to coordinate this time together. She’s here on the heels of releasing her new book, “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships” – and I’m so excited to have her here with us today to discuss how language impacts our connections – and what you can do to improve the way you communicate with the people who matter to you most.
Neil Sattin: If you’d like to download a complete transcript for today’s episode, please visit neilsattin.com/language, or you can always text the word “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions. Deborah Tannen, thank you so much for joining us today on Relationship Alive.
Deborah Tannen: Hi. What a pleasure and privilege to speak with you.
Neil Sattin: Thank you so much. The feeling, as you can tell, is mutual. Let’s start with You Just Don’t Understand. We were talking for a few moments before we officially got started, and, as you mentioned, it’s a classic. It’s something that has defined how we look at gender dynamics in communication. I’m wondering for you what you’ve noticed about how that book as impacted people in the world around you, and also how you’ve seen it affect culture?
Neil Sattin: I know that for me, personally, not only did it give me a much deeper understanding of what was happening and how I communicated, but it made me want to change. It made me want to shift so that I could find more common ground, whether I was talking to men in my life, women in my life, and at this point, people all over the spectrum of gender. So, how have you seen that book shift what is actually happening in our culture?
Deborah Tannen: It has been overwhelming to notice how much of what I wrote about in that book has become part of the landscape, I would say, of how people think about relationships and conversation. I guess the most striking one is, “Why don’t men ask directions?” When I put that in the book, I don’t think anyone had talked about it, but a number of the interviews that I had very early on had picked up on that. Then it became so much a part of the culture people were sending me cocktail napkins, “Real men don’t ask directions”; jokes going around, “Why did Moses wander in the desert for 40 years?”; maybe one of my favorites, “Why does it take so many sperm to find just one egg?”
Deborah Tannen: You hear a little bit less about that now that we all have GPS devices, but it really doesn’t change things that much. Just recently, this is really funny … My research method is asking people about their own lives, listening to people. More and more for the current book I actually interviewed people, but in the beginning I didn’t do what. The idea of them not asking directions, which is one example that a friend of mine gave me, I just asked her, “What do you and your husband argue about?”
Deborah Tannen: She mentioned, “He won’t stop and ask directions. We get lost and it frustrates me.”
Deborah Tannen: I was talking to just that friend not long ago and asked her, “Well, now there’s a GPS that doesn’t happen, right?”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “It still happens. He doesn’t want to use the GPS. He says, ‘I don’t need her to tell me where to go. I know how to go.'”
Deborah Tannen: So, that’s a long answer. I think just the idea that women and men might have different ways of speaking has become almost like it’s just accepted for many people, clearly not everybody. Several of the scenarios I talked about are now very much a part of the public knowledge-base, or something like that.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Do you want to touch for a moment on … Because there, of course, have been critiques of your work. What have you seen in terms of when people stand up and say, “Nah, this isn’t really how it is?” Where are they typically coming from?
Deborah Tannen: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I should say, I guess for maybe about a year after the book came out, my book was very frequently criticized, especially in the academic world. It was criticized for generalizing, for saying all women and men are alike, for downplaying, or some people thought I was ignoring power differences.
Deborah Tannen: By the way, that led me to write the book The Argument Culture, because it was so surprising and shocking to me that people in the world of academia … which had been my intellectual home for so many years at that point and really my oasis, you might say, in this wild world. I loved my academic job, my academic colleagues. So, it was shocking to me that what I saw a search for truth was leading people to accuse me of saying things I had never said. Led me to ask, “Why would they do that?”
Deborah Tannen: I ended up writing the book The Argument Culture in which I just dissected a bit our tendency to approach everything as a fight, a debate, an argument. Then, you’re motivated to look for arguments to make the other person look bad, ignore things the other person actually wrote or said that would make them look good. So that’s the background.
Deborah Tannen: To answer those complaints, obviously I know that there are power differentials in our culture between women and men. In fact, I do write about how the style differences that we often have — and I never say all women all men; I always say tend to, many, often, most — how these very style differences can lead to reinforcing the power of those who use the styles that I associate with men. I actually wrote a whole book about the workplace, that was the next book after You Just Don’t Understand. That book was called Talking From 9 to 5, and I showed there how styles that are common among women when used in the workplace lead them to be underestimated, to be seen as less confident than they often are, to be overlooked, to not receive credit that they deserve. Clearly, there’s also just sexism, so I would never say that all discrimination is simply based on style, obviously; that’s not the case, just that this is one thing that has a role to play there.
Deborah Tannen: As for generalizing, there’s almost an irony there. I did not start out as an expert on gender; my field was cross-cultural difference. My dissertation and my first book were about New York as compared to California conversational style. I grew up in New York City, Eastern European Jewish background — I think that’s relevant — and was getting my PhD at Berkeley in California, and my dissertation was an analysis of a conversation involving three New York Jewish speakers and I was one of them, and two Californians who are not Jewish, and one British woman, who actually was half-Jewish but I don’t think that affected her style much.
Deborah Tannen: I had so much to say about how cultural influence had an effect on the ways people were using language in conversation, and therefore the effects of their ways of speaking on the conversation. I had written much about Greek compared to American conversational styles. I had lived in Greece and I speak Greek. So, clearly I knew that gender was only one of many influence on our styles.
Deborah Tannen: The first book that I wrote for general audiences, and, maybe kind of interestingly, the one I really had ambitions for, the one that I thought, “This is going to change the world; people are going to see they’re thinking psychology and sometimes it’s linguistics, it’s use of language,” that book was called That’s Not What I Meant. It was about all of the ways that our conversational styles, our ways of speaking, our ways of using language, are influenced by ethnic background, regional background, class background, age. How all these influences on style affected our ways of speaking, having conversations, and of course the way people see us, the way we see them. Clearly I knew that gender was not the whole story.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I think why we’re here is to get more of the meat around the ways that we use language, how that has an impact. When I read You Just Don’t Understand, I identified a lot with some of the more feminine speaking styles. Probably had to do with how I was raised and interacting with my mom. I don’t know exactly, my dad was a psychologist so he encouraged me to talk about my feelings. There you have it. It probably doesn’t take much more than that.
Deborah Tannen: Yes-
Neil Sattin: And-
Deborah Tannen: Sorry.
Neil Sattin: Go ahead.
Deborah Tannen: Absolutely, yeah. I never actually would say feminine style, masculine style. I tend to say, “Ways of speaking associated with women, ways of speaking common among women, or men.” As I said, although I would say something like, “Tend to, maybe, may, most.” But, I think it seems to be the way our minds work, that people walk away thinking, “Women do this, men do that. This is feminine, that’s masculine.” But I would never put it that way, and you are so right, no two women and men are alike. Think of all the people you know. We’ve all got so many other influences on our style.
Deborah Tannen: I’ll give you an example right up front. One of the things that I wrote about in that book, and it traces back to my work in That’s Not What I Meant, when I wasn’t focusing only on gender, was the use of indirectness. So there was a conversation I discussed there, a couple are riding in a car and the woman turns to the man and says, “Are you thirsty dear? Would you like to stop for a drink?”
Deborah Tannen: He’s not, so he says, “No.” Then later, when they get home, it turns out she’s kind of frustrated. She had wanted to stop. It was the man who told me this anecdote and he said, “Why does she play games with me? Why didn’t she just tell me she wanted to stop?”
Deborah Tannen: My response was, “Well she probably didn’t expect a yes/no answer. So if she said, ‘Are you thirsty? Would you like to stop for a drink?’ She probably expected you to say something like, ‘I don’t know, how do you feel about it?’ Then she could say, ‘I don’t know, how do you feel about it?'” Then they could talk about how they both feel about it. If he ended up saying, “I’m kind of tired, do you mind if we don’t?” that would have been fine. Or if he said, “Well, I’m not thirsty, but if you want to we could,” that would have been fine, that would have been great.
Deborah Tannen: That’s where I began talking about message and meta-message. The meaning of the words, the message, was an information question, “Do you want to stop for a drink?” But the meta-message, what it means that she asks him in that way is, “I don’t want to make a demand. I want to know how you feel about it before we make a decision.” It’s starting a negotiation, and then after you find out how everybody feels about it, you make a decision taking everybody’s preferences into account.
Deborah Tannen: When she gets an answer, “No,” she hears a meta-message, “I don’t care what you want, we’re only going to do what I want.” Of course, he didn’t mean it that way; he had a different idea about how a conversation could go. He assumed he could say no and if she wants to she could say, “Yeah, well I’m thirsty. Do you mind if we stop?” That would have been fine with him too. It was these different ways of going about that.
Deborah Tannen: Now, it’s kind of interesting, I included that example in the book That’s Not What I Meant. I repeated it in the introduction to You Just Don’t Understand, in the context of saying, I think it was in the introduction, I had said, “Here’s an example I had given. Both styles are equally valid.” It had been included in a review of the book, it was actually a Canadian newspaper, I think, where they said, “So women have to understand how men mean it,” and they didn’t put the second part, “Men have to understand how women mean it.” I use that to say it’s very easy for people to hear my examples as one is right and the other’s wrong, and I never take that position. I always take the position: Styles work well when they’re shared and don’t work well when they’re not.
Deborah Tannen: This is the long way of leading up to what I was going to say in answer to your question about generalizing. The conclusion of that whole discussion is that women tend to be more indirect when it comes to getting their way. That is, you have something you want, but you don’t want to impose it so you open a negotiation. I have lots more examples of that in this new book about women friends, You’re the Only One I Can Tell. I have lots of examples of how that creates problems between women and men, and just among women friends. So we can give examples of that if you’re interested.
Deborah Tannen: But, the very first paper I ever wrote and ever published in linguistics was based on conversations that I had been part of where I was the one who was direct, talking to a man who was indirect. My explanation was cultural differences. I thought of it at the time as American versus Greek, Greeks tend to be more indirect than Americans. Looking back, I would say the fact that it’s a New York Jewish style, probably partially explaining my tendency to be more direct. All of this is by way of saying that not only are these generalizations not applying to everybody, but that even in my own experience something that is associated with women and is more typical of women in this country when it comes to getting your way … I know because even the first paper I ever wrote, I instantiated the opposite style.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I’m just struck in this moment by how I think it would be common to assume that that means just kind of like what you were saying, that the direct style is more effective. So, when you’re having communication issues in your marriage, let’s say, try to be more direct. What I’m hearing in this moment is this question of how do we develop an appreciation for different styles of communication so that we’re able to bridge the gap in styles more effectively.
Deborah Tannen: I think the most important thing is to be aware of style differences. Being more direct might help, but being more indirect or attuned to indirectness might also help. I’ll give you this example that came up in a class I was teaching at Georgetown, it was a graduate seminar and it was about workplace communication.
Deborah Tannen: It came up that papers had been written — Charlotte Linde is someone who wrote one — analyzing interaction that is conversation in the cockpit of airplanes that led to accidents. These were studied in order to find out whether there were ways that the pilot and co-pilot were using language that could improve to prevent future accidents. There was one in which this was real. The pilot had not suspected a problem, the co-pilot had suspected the problem; he called attention to it but didn’t say it in a direct way. He said it in a kind of indirect way, and so the pilot overlooked it and the plane crashed. This is the most extreme example of a negative result from indirectness.
Deborah Tannen: In the class we were discussing that co-pilots were now being trained to be more direct. There was a Japanese grad student in the class and he said, “Well, why don’t they just train the pilots to be more attuned to listen for indirect meaning?” It was not surprising to me that this came from a Japanese speaker. Much has been written about how indirectness plays a very significant role in Japanese communication, and there is lots written about the purpose that it serves, that people feel that they understand each other. You could say, maybe, a meta-message of understanding, of closeness, comes from the indirect communication. We understand each other so well, we can get meaning without having to say it outright.
Deborah Tannen: In fact, someone named Haru Yamada, she was a student of mine who’s written a book about Japanese compared to American communication, she says that the most highly valued communication would be translated into English as belly talk. That is silent communication, where you get your meaning across without having to put it into words at all.
Deborah Tannen: So, I’m suspecting the people listening, depending on their own styles, and how they’ve been raised, and how they’ve come to view language, some are going to be thinking, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Indirectness is great.” Others are thinking, “No, no, no! This is would be a better world if everybody just said what they mean.”
Deborah Tannen: I think it’s really tricky because the ways we tend to communicate are self-evident. Can I give you an example of this?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, please.
Deborah Tannen: So, I showed up for a conference where I was going to be a primary speaker. Another friend of mine, her name was Judy, was also going to be a primary speaker. That conference organizer, when I arrived, said, “Judy is not going to give her paper. She called me this morning and she said, ‘I’m coming down with something. I feel horrible. If you really need me I’ll come, but I’m feeling very bad today.'”
Deborah Tannen: The organizer said to me, “I told her, ‘I need you to stay home and take care of yourself.'” Now, that’s indirect, right?
Deborah Tannen: I thought, “This is terrific. What a great example of indirect communication and how well it worked.” I said to the organizer, “Hey, can I use that in my talk today?”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “Yes. Yes, you should. It was excellent, perfect, direct communication.”
Deborah Tannen: Now, why did she think it was direct? Because the meaning was clear, and it worked. Judy felt better that she didn’t have to make a demand, didn’t have to let her friend down. The organizer felt better because she could feel that she made the choice to accommodate her friend. I have so many examples like that, where it just works so well.
Deborah Tannen: But then, I also have examples (again, in my book about women friends) where it can lead to confusion if you have different styles. So here’s an example. This was two women, they had gone to college together so they knew each other. A third person who had gone to college with them was in town visiting the one. When he was with her he said, “Hey, are you in touch with so-and-so? I understand that she lives here.”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “Yeah, I’m in touch with her.”
Deborah Tannen: “Hey, I’d like to see her, too.”
Deborah Tannen: “Okay,” she said. “I’ll find out if she’s free.” She called the friend, said, “So-and-so’s in town. He’d like to see you. If you’re free I can bring him over, would you like that?”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “Yeah, sure. Bring him over.” And she did. She thought everything was fine. The next day, she got a call from that friend and the friend was livid, “Why did you bring him over? I hate him. You know I hate him.”
Deborah Tannen: She was so puzzled. She said, “But you said I should bring him.”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “You should have known by the way I said it I didn’t mean it.” Now, that sounds insane for people who don’t share the style, but it would have been self-evident to people who do.
Deborah Tannen: I have one more example that’s a self-example. I was talking to a friend-
Neil Sattin: This is the I don’t know much about that person?
Deborah Tannen: Yes.
Neil Sattin: I love this.
Deborah Tannen: Yes. So, I was talking to a friend from South Carolina. I asked her about a guy that we had some slight dealings with but wasn’t a close friend, and I asked her what she thought of him. She said, “I don’t really know him.”
Deborah Tannen: I said, “I think he’s a jerk.”
Deborah Tannen: She said, “That’s what I just said.”
Deborah Tannen: I said, “Huh?”
Deborah Tannen: So she explained, “In South Carolina, you cannot say someone is a jerk. You have to proceed on the assumption that if you knew him long enough you would find something to like. So, ‘I don’t really know him,’ means, ‘I haven’t found anything to like about him.'”
Deborah Tannen: Now, this made sense to me, and I believed her, but I was a little bit incredulous. But, luckily, before too long I had met someone who at a gathering for a first time, and he said he was from South Carolina. So I asked him, this is research opportunity now, I asked him, “What would it mean if you asked someone what they thought of someone, and the person said, ‘I don’t really know him’?”
Deborah Tannen: He said, “That means he’s a no good, no account.”
Deborah Tannen: The meaning was completely clear to him, would have been to someone else from South Carolina, was opaque to me. So I could complain, “That’s no way to communicate, she should have been more direct.” But think about it for a moment, being more direct would have made her come across to other people in South Carolina as an unacceptable person. I cringe to think what she would have thought of me if she didn’t know me. When I say about somebody, “I think he’s a jerk,” I’m saying something that you simply cannot say in that culture.
Deborah Tannen: There are ramifications of saying things directly and outright. The thought that you can reduce meaning to the message level and ignore the meta-message level, it’s a fantasy. That’s not how language works. We’re judging people as people by the way they use language.
Neil Sattin: That brings me to, I think, a really important question. Though, I have to, just as an aside, say that I’m not sure that there was anything more traumatizing to me as a three-year-old than coming to Maine, where I grew up but I was born in Tennessee. I learned how to talk in Tennessee and when I got to Maine there was a lot about how I communicated that people didn’t seem to understand.
Neil Sattin: I have very vivid memories of having to shift my language patterns, and also hearing things that people said, particularly the word “wicked” which people from New England will maybe laugh about. But, the first time I heard someone saying something was wicked something-or-other, I got freaked out because my only association with wicked was some horrible witch. It turns out that in Maine, anyway, wicked means more or less like “very”. So if something’s wicked awesome, then it’s really, really awesome. So, just kind of a funny cross-cultural experience that I had.
Neil Sattin: Anyway, so the important question, apart from my silly anecdote is: How do we tune in more to the meta-message, particularly in the moment when it’s crucial to be understood?
Deborah Tannen: It’s a great question. I believe awareness of style differences is probably the best thing and the only thing that we can hope for. We are going to respond automatically, “You must mean what I would mean if I spoke in that way in this context.” Now when styles are relatively similar, that’s going to be okay, and probably most of the time. We’re doing it every minute, every time we talk to someone and they say something, we have some automatic way that we think we know what they mean and draw conclusion about their intentions.
Deborah Tannen: But, when something goes awry, when you have a negative response when you think they’re reacting in a way that’s kind of weird, the hope is that you could step back and ask yourself, “What’s going on?” But it’s tough to do, and then sometimes you can do what I call meta-communication, talk about the communication.
Deborah Tannen: An example where I had to do this myself, and again, it’s almost embarrassing because it’s something I had written about for decades. But I had this op-ed in the New York Times about a month ago where I had a friend over for dinner and she kept offering to help, and then kept getting up and helping. I really didn’t want her to and I kept telling her not to, and she kept doing it anyway. I was really frustrated. I was really rattled by it.
Deborah Tannen: Normally, I wouldn’t had said anything, but since I was writing this book about friends I felt like I needed to know her perspective. So, I meta-communicated; I talked to her about it. I told her how I had responded, how it bothered me that she was ignoring my telling her that I really didn’t want her to help. She was astonished and explained to me that in her family were expected to help, and when people say, “I don’t want you to help,” they don’t mean it. They mean something like, “You’re a guest and you shouldn’t help, therefore I appreciate it all the more when you do.”
Deborah Tannen: Now, I’d written extensively about indirectness, it still never crossed my mind that she thought I was being indirect, that she thought I didn’t mean it. And, it never crossed her mind that I did mean it. But we solved it by meta-communicating, by talking about it.
Deborah Tannen: I think many of us, maybe women especially, but probably all of us, don’t like to introduce a contentious note into a relationship or a conversation. So, my impulse was not to tell her that what she was doing was bugging me, but I think it served both of us really well to have that conversation. I feel like my consciousness was raised. Any resentment I might have felt because I thought she was behaving in a way that made no sense, that dissipated. She tells me that it’s a huge relief to her to know she doesn’t have to do all the work when she goes to somebody’s house for dinner.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah. I feel like there’s this frame of reminding yourself not to take everything personally, especially when it’s perplexing. To recognize, “Oh, this might not mean what I think it means. This person might not mean what I think they mean when they’re making this request, or when they’re saying something that I’m finding to be incredibly offensive, or hurtful, or scary even.”
Deborah Tannen: Well, realizing what the parameters are is helpful. For example, are you a good person by asking questions to show interest? Or are you a good person by not asking questions because they would be intrusive? So, again, coming from my book about women friends, a woman told her friend that her mother was in the hospital and then was hurt that the friend never asked. But they did meta-communicate and the friend said, “Well in my family that would be considered intrusive. People will tell you if they want to talk about something personal, but you shouldn’t ask.”
Deborah Tannen: Or friends that were taking a walk, one was telling the other about a problem. She was listening, but when they passed something really pretty like a gorgeous flower, she said, “Oh, look at that.” To her, that didn’t mean, “I’m not listening. I’m not interrupting the story.” It’s kind of like you’re at the dinner table and you’re telling a story, and somebody needs the salt. They can murmur, “Pass the salt,” they’re not interrupting your story.
Deborah Tannen: But the friend was hurt. She thought, “You’re not listening to me.” But the other friend was hurt because she so clearly was. If they could talk about that, realize for some people you can throw in interjections and it doesn’t mean you’re not listening; for other people you really can’t, the listener should be quiet. So just knowing that these differences are common makes it possible to give a friend a benefit of the doubt, whereas beforehand it would be self-evident to you that your way of thinking about it is the only way to think about it.
Neil Sattin: I have to say, in reading your latest book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell, I had several moments where I was confused, actually. I think it was that I would read something and I’d be like, “Okay, that’s the way it is.” Then in the very next paragraph I’d be like, “Oh! Now this is how that thing completely malfunctions.” It’s interesting that there are really no hard, fast rules around how to communicate. What seems to be a hard and fast rule is “assume that there’s more than meets the eyes”.
Neil Sattin: I’m curious about having those meta-conversations. Do you have hints about ways to invite people into it, particularly as, as so often happens when you’re having that conversation, you’re almost undoubtedly having it with someone who couldn’t imagine how anything could be other than how they see the world? So, do you have hints on how to invite people into that level of conversation?
Deborah Tannen: It’s a good question. I guess I feel like the first thing is be aware that there are these differences, so that you can talk about it as a style and not as right and wrong. Then you have to be open to a compromise that might not be the one you would have chosen. People often ask me, this goes way back to You Just Don’t Understand and the book before that, “Can people change their conversational styles?” Usually what they have in mind is sending their partner in for repair. They’re not thinking, “How can I change my style?” Of course, they could if they wanted to. But they’re thinking, “Can I get the other one to change their style?”
Neil Sattin: Right.
Deborah Tannen: So I think really, you can start by saying, “I want to talk to you about this because I think I might not completely understand your perspective.” So, if you frame it as trying to listen and understand, I think that will be better. But you do have to realize, and this came up in my book about mothers and daughters called You’re Wearing That?, and my book about sisters, which is called You Were Always Mom’s Favorite, as well as friends. There were some women who felt you’ve got to talk about any kind of a problem or point of contention and work it out. There were others who felt talking about it is a problem in itself, “A friend who wants to constantly process is oppressive, and I don’t want to be that person’s friend.”
Deborah Tannen: Now, of course with sisters you can’t say, “I don’t want to be your sister,” but you might distance yourself. But I definitely, in both contexts, talked to people who were frustrated because the friend or the sister didn’t want to process, to talk about it. They felt you have to or you can’t get past it. So in that context, I would try to raise awareness that it’s quite legitimate. Other people feel talking about it only makes it worse, it brings up all the conflict that I felt in the first place, we’re both going to end up stating our perspectives that makes the other one angry. Let’s just let it lie, move on, and once the emotions have receded in some way, they may never go away, but receded into the background, then we’ll just pretend it never happened. I think it often comes down to respecting others differences, and respecting that there could be more than one way of approaching both a problem or the interaction about it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah. A classic relationship problem is one person being conflict avoidant and the other person being someone who engages. That’s a set-up for so many problems that people have in relationship. I could see that both people getting to a point where they feel understood and feel resolution, how it would help to have acknowledgement that either one is okay, in both directions. We talked about this in an episode with Sheila Heen, who wrote the book Difficult Conversations as part of the Harvard Negotiation Project. We talked about how so much of getting past any sort of disagreement is really about the other person, so if you put yourself in your own shoes, it’s your ability to help the other person feel like you understand them and like you want to understand them.
Deborah Tannen: Yes, absolutely. I guess it’s kind of like what I said earlier. I know many others are saying something similar, that often our idea of working something out is to convince the other person of our perspective. We want to talk, get them to understand us; but they want to talk and get us to understand them. So I think if we both come in with, “I want to understand your perspective. I want to listen to your perspective,” the chances of coming out more happy on the other end are increased.
Deborah Tannen: I know that psychologists have many methods for this that can be very effective, like actually articulate the other person’s perspective. Because if you keep saying yours they’re going to want to keep saying theirs and so you’re going to want to say yours again. But if you each articulate the other’s perspective, then you’re starting with that mutual understanding and you won’t have to waste your breath, trying to say your perspective over and over again.
Neil Sattin: Right, right. Yes, and we actually, we had a great episode with Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, talking about the Imago approach to that kind of dialogue. Hedy Schleifer was on talking about a different flavor of that. I’m curious, that idea that we could be trapped in this cycle of wanting to be understood, and how that drives people apart reminded me of the topic that you bring up in your book that is called complimentary schismogenesis. I’m not sure if I said that right.
Deborah Tannen: You did.
Neil Sattin: This idea that you can find yourself in a dynamic where you’re driven further and further apart from the other person in the way that you’re communicating.
Deborah Tannen: Yes. That term comes from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, but he used it for a cultures in contact. I’ve adapted it to everyday conversation. The idea is: If something is not going well, your impulse is try harder and do more of whatever you’re doing. That can drive the other person into more and more extreme examples of the other style.
Deborah Tannen: So, very quick examples. To start with, what we were doing with indirectness. Say you asked somebody, “Do you want to have lunch?”
Deborah Tannen: They say, “Oh, I’m really busy this week.” So you ask them again, and they say, “I’m not feeling very well this week.”
Deborah Tannen: You start to wonder, “Are they being indirect?” So you’re going to try to solve it by making them be direct and say, “First you were busy, and then you didn’t feel well, do you just not want to have lunch with me ever?”
Deborah Tannen: Well, a person who started by being indirect probably cannot bring themselves to say, “I don’t want to have lunch with you, ever.” They will probably become more indirect. “Oh, gee, I don’t know. It’s just been a tough time now.”
Deborah Tannen: So you say, “Well, what is it?” They’re going to get even more indirect.
Deborah Tannen: Just a couple of other things that we haven’t brought up before that are very prone to this complimentary schismogenesis. Let’s say you’re talking to someone, you tend to talk a bit more loudly than the other does, and they tend to talk a lot more softly. You might raise your voice to set a good example to let them know they should speak up. Well, you’re now offending them even more so they’re going to talk even lower because they want to set a good example for you. You’re going to end up with one shouting and one whispering. You’re talking more loudly than you normally would, they’re talking more at a lower volume than they normally would in response to what the other is doing.
Deborah Tannen: Something that turned out to be very important in a conversation with regard to cultural differences, not gender differences, is how long a pause is normal between turns? When this normal length of pause, when you’re approaching it, you’ll start to think, “Gee, I guess I should take the floor, the other one has nothing to say.” But if your sense of pause is somewhat shorter, you’re going to be interrupting. You’re going to think the other person is done when they’re not and they’re going to start thinking you don’t want to hear them talk, you only want to hear yourself talk, you’re interrupting.
Deborah Tannen: You’re thinking, “What’s wrong with this person? Do they not have anything to say? Do they not like me?” You’re coming from Maine, speaking to me, who grew up in Brooklyn. I’ve got to be really careful and wait, perhaps, a longer length of time than would normally feel right to me, to make sure that you have nothing to say. You might have to push yourself to start speaking before feels completely comfortable. Otherwise, by complimentary schismogenesis, we end up in a situation where I’m doing all the talking and you never get a word in edgewise.
Neil Sattin: I was going to ask you why you keep interrupting me?
Deborah Tannen: Believe me, I’ve been holding it back.
Neil Sattin: What are some other … I like how we’re flavoring this soup with possibilities in terms of what kind of meta-messages could be operating, what kind of styles could be operating. I’m wondering if there are others, in particular, that come to mind around how people talk to each other. Perhaps, the difference between rapport and reporting, that’s one thing that comes to me. But I’m sure you have lots that have been like, “These are the things that we’ve got to be aware of, because they’re most likely happening in your dynamics.”
Deborah Tannen: Yes, so a difference that I wrote about in You Just Don’t Understand was rapport talk and report talk. So report talk is a conversation where really it’s the message level meaning of the words that’s most important and it’s focused on information, impersonal information. Rapport talk is where a lot of what you’re saying is to create social connection. It really doesn’t matter that much what the specific answer is. I did, there, find that women probably tended to be more likely to do rapport talk in a situation where a man might do report talk. But this can happen between friends of the same sex, even at work.
Deborah Tannen: I’ll give you an example where, because I have a book about the workplace, it’s called Talking From 9 to 5, where one person felt when you have a business meeting you should start with personal talk. The other ones feels, in a business meeting get right down to business that’s report talk. Well, the one who is starting with general talk might give the impression, and I had examples where this happened, “Well, there really isn’t anything important to talk about. There’s nothing I have to pay that much attention to. This is just a social meeting.” So then, when that person, the rapport talk person gets to the report talk, the other one has switched off, figures this isn’t all that important because it’s coming as an afterthought, would be an extreme example from the workplace.
Deborah Tannen: I’ll give you another example, too. It’s kind of like rapport talk and report talk. One of the scenarios from the book You Just Don’t Understand that really got a lot of attention, and I think has kind of become part of the culture, a conversation where a woman tells a man about a problem and he tells her how to fix it, and then she’s frustrated. What I said about it in that book and what is often said about it is, “She didn’t want a solution. She wanted to talk about it.”
Deborah Tannen: He’s frustrated because he’s thinking, “Why do you want to talk about it if you don’t want to do anything about it?” Both are frustrated because someone they’re close to, who should understand how they mean what they say, seems to be misjudging them.
Deborah Tannen: I would actually say something somewhat different now, and in the book about women friends I do. I really wish for us to go back and think about that some more. How might the conversation go if it were women friends? Well, I tell you about a problem, you might say, “Gee, why do you think he said that?” And then, “Well, what did you say after he said that? What do you think you might do?” “Yeah, I would probably feel the same thing. I’d probably feel the same way, but what do you think of doing this?”
Deborah Tannen: In the end, you do give advice. So when I say, “She didn’t want a solution,” that’s probably not accurate. It’s just that we don’t want the solution right off the bat, because the very act of talking about it has a meta-message of caring. The fact that you’re willing to spend time talking to me about my problem means you care about me. It’s a kind of rapport talk.
Deborah Tannen: Taking it as, “Here’s a problem, I want a solution,” that’s approaching it as report talk. Perhaps the frustration is not so much that she didn’t want a solution as that she didn’t want it right off the bat, because the solution shuts down the conversation. Starting that kind of conversation was probably her motivation in the first place.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I’m getting the sense, and this comes up with another strategy that we don’t really have time to talk about today called The Ways That We Energize Our Partners. But one element of this strategy, I think gets at helps us clarify meta-messages, which is for you to reflect how what someone is … Let’s see if I can say this well.
Neil Sattin: Let’s say you say something to me, for me to reflect back to you, “You just said this to me, and what that means to me is … blank”. I think it would be so interesting to use that to flavor a conversation, especially when you sense it going awry. So if you were in that typical scenario where let’s say someone just wants to be heard first, before the fixing happens, if you were able to say in that moment, “Wow, you’re offering me these solutions. What that means to me is you don’t actually really want to hear about what’s going on with me, you just want to get past it,” it becomes an opportunity for the other person to say, “Well that’s not what I meant at all.” And at least gives you a window into that dialogue around meaning and how meanings can be misconstrued, and getting at what’s important. Like you were just establishing that what’s important is setting the stage of caring to help frame a conversation where then someone can actually contribute a solution to it.
Deborah Tannen: Yes. That’s why I feel that understanding these parameters, understanding that they can be different and often are different among speakers of the same language, that’s what I see as essential. Then, once you have that understanding, you, and maybe you with a particular friend or partner, can come up with a way to handle it.
Deborah Tannen: A quick example: There are many ways that my husband is not typical and I am not, and there are many ways that we are. For example, he’s the one who likes to ask directions and I’d rather use waze or a map. But, this is one where he and I often get frustrated. He once said to me, “I know you don’t want a solution, but it’s too frustrating for me to listen to you go on and on when I know the solution. So, how about I tell you the solution and you listen. Then if you want to keep talking about it you can.”
Deborah Tannen: I think that’s just as good a compromise as my teaching him to not give me the solution right off the bat. The key is, he and I both understand that this is a difference. Then, we can come up with all different ways of accommodating that difference.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I like that. I really like that. Because your latest book really focuses on friendship, and friendship is such an important part of feeling balance in our lives, feeling fed and supported by the community, I’m wondering if you can touch for a moment on the interplay of how we communicate with our friends versus how we communicate with our spouses, our beloveds?
Deborah Tannen: Many of the patterns that I observed in considering conversations among friends were quite parallel to the kinds of things that happen in family relationships and romantic relationships. Some of the things that were different had to do with the level of choice that goes on with friends. This can be both good and bad.
Deborah Tannen: As I said earlier, you can decide not to be a friend, you can’t decide not to be a sister. You can decide to separate from a romantic partner, but that’s quite a big deal, although cutting off a friendship with a same sex friend or other sex friend is also a very big deal. I have a lot to say about that because so many of the women that I interviewed, I interviewed 80 girls and women from this book, so many of them told me about cut-offs, or what we now call ghosting. A friend suddenly disappears, or they decided, “This friendship is really not good for me, I’m just going to cut it off.”
Deborah Tannen: Somebody pointed out to me, “With a romantic relationship, you kind of have to have that closing conversation, ‘I don’t think we should see each other anymore because …'” Certainly if it’s a marriage, or living together situation like that, you would have to say, “This isn’t working.” You would have to have that conversation. But it’s so common among friends to just cut it off with no closing conversation, no, “I decided this isn’t working for me because …” So I think that’s a huge difference.
Deborah Tannen: I guess there’s two ways to look at it. One is it was so hurtful when people told me that others had cut them off and they didn’t know why. The not knowing why was really, really hurtful. On the other hand, you could say that it’s one of the gifts of friendship that you have more volition, that you can decide, “This is causing me more pain than it’s giving me pleasure and I want out.” I guess you could think of it as a positive or negative thing, but that certainly is a big difference.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and I will say too that some of the more poignant moments in your latest book for me were when the circle did get completed, when people were able to follow up and tell those stories of what they discovered about why cut-offs happen.
Deborah Tannen: Yes, and since it is such a common thing and the cause of so much hurt, I do have a bit about it. It could be … Maybe this is something, in a way, about the whole book, or maybe about all my books, it’s a great relief to know that something you’ve experienced has also been experienced by many other people. You’re not alone, nobody’s crazy, but these are inherent in human relationships. These cut-offs, yeah, sometimes someone would come back years later and say, “I was just going through a tough time then,” or “I was cutting everybody off at that time.”
Deborah Tannen: I have an example of my own from high school. Very exciting when half a century later I actually found the person who had cut me off, and discovered that it actually wasn’t anything I had done or anything she really was going through. It was her older brother who insisted that she end our friendship.
Neil Sattin: Wow, yeah, I remember that-
Deborah Tannen: I had actually written about that, that yeah, if you’re a young person living at home, older people living with you who have that kind of power over you, sometimes they’re the ones that make the decision. Often they’re right; they may well see that a certain friend is not good for you. But on the other hand, sometimes they’re just jealous.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, plus I think it’s worth highlighting in this moment that I think you might have the title for your next book: You’re Not Alone and Nobody’s Crazy.
Deborah Tannen: Maybe that should be the title of every book.
Neil Sattin: Deborah, before we go I’m wondering if we can just touch for a moment on the influence of digital communication on how we communicate? In particular, how much gets sacrificed through texting and Snapchatting? Maybe if you have some ideas on strategies other than, “Don’t try to have any meaningful communication that way,” which is often what I would just say, but strategies for people to help them sift through the possibility for missing the meta-message when it’s just a few characters on your iMessage that’s doing the communicating.
Deborah Tannen: Yes, I do have a chapter on social media, so I’ll just say a little bit from that chapter. I believe that all these social media ramp up both the positive and the negative of friendships. On the positive side, you can stay in much more constant touch. There’s this sense of absent presence, so that you feel you’re together even though you’re not. You send these pictures, it’s a way of saying, “Hey, look at that,” and you feel as if you’re together.
Deborah Tannen: One of the big risks is fear of being left out. We all can be hurt if we discover that our friends are doing things without us. Women seem particularly sensitive to that kind of hurt. Well, with social media, your chances not only of knowing what they were doing, but of seeing pictures of what they were doing without you goes way up. It could be you missed it because maybe you were invited but you couldn’t make it; maybe you missed it because you didn’t check your phone in time; maybe you weren’t invited. But the changes of being exposed to this and hurt by it are ratcheted up.
Deborah Tannen: As you say, the risks of missing the meta-message, or mistaking the meta-message because you don’t have tone of voice, facial expression, although we’re extremely creative at using emojis, emoticons, memes, and pictures. There’s more and more use of that. My students look at all the creative uses of ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha, lol, all these ways that we say, “Don’t take what I just said literally.” So, I think that people can be very creative about it.
Deborah Tannen: Maybe one of the biggest risks is the sense that … Again, it’s a kind of conversational style difference. One friend thinks texting is a good way to talk about problems, the other thinks it’s not so she gives minimal responses. The one who’s talking about the problem that way thinks, “Where’s my supportive, caring friend?”
Deborah Tannen: Of course, I think you kind of implied this in your question, just the sense of overload. So many different platforms that you have to check, the fragmentation of attention, the temptation to be looking at your phone rather than the person that you’re with. All of these are challenges that we have to be aware and find ways to overcome.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, my hope is that as people become more sensitized to how it’s affecting them, that it actually spawns even more authenticity and integrity. It’s really calling people to the table to be more aligned in terms of how they communicate, because the consequences are so easily seen or experienced, of not being clear.
Deborah Tannen: You know, I often find myself defending the use of social media, because I think it has a lot of positive things that we can lose track of. There are many people who can be more authentic when they’re typing on a screen than if they’re facing a person. Many people find it easier to reveal their real feelings, something personal, some emotion, when they don’t have a person staring them down. Many close friendships have evolved, some who never meet, just by talking on the screen, Facebook or some other such medium, and reveal things they wouldn’t reveal to somebody that’s in the same room with them.
Deborah Tannen: I think it’s just a matter of awareness and finding what works, and tempering if you feel that things are becoming out of hand. But often those people who are looking at their screen rather than talking to you are really, importantly, avoiding being rude to the person who texted them and need that answer right away. So, a bit of it might be being more tolerant of that. But then, I know there are groups of people who when they get together they all put their phones in the middle, and then the first one who grabs his phone pays the bill.
Neil Sattin: I love that. That’s a great solution. I can already imagine the meta-meaning conversations. Like, “So, honey, when you’re texting on your phone and we’re in bed together, what that means to me is … ” Then you get to get more clear about it.
Deborah Tannen: You certainly can have parameters that you agree on for your relationship.
Neil Sattin: That’s what we hope, that’s what we hope. Well, Deborah, thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m just so appreciative of your time and your wisdom. For me it’s just such a treat, considering how much of an impact your work had on me oh so long ago. It was really fun to revisit today, 20 something years later, and just see how your work has permeated the way that I think, the way that I communicate and interact, and the way that I hope to help others, both as a coach and through this podcast. So, just thank you so much for being here with us today, and for such a vast contribution to our knowledge about how we communicate with each other.
Deborah Tannen: Thank you so much, it’s really been a great pleasure to talk to you.
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