Communication Breakdown

Twenty years back, I read Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand in a gender linguistics class at Yale.  A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the book again.  Paging through the introduction, I decided it might be worth a second read.  After two intervening decades, full of a lot of dates, a failed marriage, and a truly wonderful current long-term relationship, I thought I might get something different out of the book with older, wiser eyes.

Indeed, it turned out to be great, and more than worth the repeat time.  Previously, I remembered it mainly as the origin of the ‘men don’t ask for directions’ trope that has since pervaded cultural common sense.  After this second pass, while I still don’t agree with everything Tannen concludes, and am sometimes not a fan of her methods (she bounces back and forth between citing research-based conclusions, and then riffing broad theories based on anecdotal excerpts from random short stories and plays), I found nearly every page a source of insight or food for thought.

Fundamentally, the book starts from the proposition that men and women have different conversational aims: women are primarily concerned with intimacy and use communication to establish connection; men are primarily concerned with independence and use communication to establish hierarchy.  While generations of subsequent self-help books (like the seemingly endless Men are From Mars series) have been penned using a dumbed-down version of the same argument, they pale painfully in comparison to Tannen’s original.

But the book goes well beyond that simple start, illustrating the myriad other ways that things can get lost in translation between men and women, and between any number of other divergent groups, too.  For example, in a chapter about interruptions, Tannen makes clear that ‘interrupting’ is much more complicated than just the mechanical question of whether two people’s words overlap.  In certain cultures (what she calls “high involvement”) people over-talk as a way to egg each other on with questions, agreement, support, etc.  Whereas in others (“high consideration”) the exact same over-talk might be seen as dismissive and rude.  She analyzes a transcribed conversation between six friends at a dinner party, and concludes:

In my study of dinner table conversation, the three high-involvement speakers were New York City natives of Jewish background.  Of the three high-considerateness speakers, two were Catholics from California and one was from London, England.  Although a sample of three does not prove anything, nearly everyone agrees that many (obviously not all) Jewish New Yorkers, many New Yorkers who are not Jewish, and many Jews who are not from New York have high-involvement styles and are often perceived as interrupting in conversations with speakers from different backgrounds, such as the Californians in my study.  But many Californians expect shorter pauses than many Midwesterners or New Englanders, so in conversations between them, Californians end up interrupting.  Just as I was considered extremely polite when I lived in New York but was sometimes perceived as rude in California, a polite Californian I know was shocked and hurt to find herself accused of rudeness when she moved to Vermont.

The cycle is endless.  Linguists Ron and Suzanne Scollon show that midwestern Americans, who may find themselves interrupted in conversations with Easterners, become aggressive interrupters when they talk to Athabaskan Indians, who expect much longer pauses.  Many Americans find themselves interrupting when they talk to Scandinavians, but Swedes and Norwegians are perceived as interrupting by the longer-pausing Finns, who are themselves divided by regional differences with regard to length of pauses and rate of speaking.  As a result, Finns from certain parts of the country are stereotyped as fast talking and pushy, and those from other parts of the country are stereotyped as slow talking and stupid, according to Finnish linguists Jaakko Lehtonen and Kari Sajavaara.

The whole book is chock full of this kind of stuff, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Indeed, if you’re a man or a woman, and you regularly talk to men or women (and, especially, if you’re in or would like to be in a heterosexual relationship), I’d say it’s an essential read.