One On One

Deborah Tannen

The influential linguistics expert and author of 'You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation' discusses the good and bad of electronic communication, the growth of ‘argument culture,’ and the importance of downtime in conference scheduling.

Linguistics expert Deborah Tannen, author of several influential books on how language affects relationships — including You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, a New York Times best-seller for nearly four years — is one of very few faculty in Georgetown University’s College of Arts and Sciences to hold the rank of University Professor, reserved for those who have made extraordinary achievements. She is also the recipient of five honorary doctorates. Not bad for a Brooklyn native who had no interest in going on to graduate school after earning a B.A. in English literature.

“When I graduated from college,” Tannen told Convene in a recent in-person interview, “I traveled to Europe and ended up in Greece, where I taught English. That experience created the seeds of my interest in cross-cultural communication.” After she returned to the United States, she earned a master’s degree in English literature.

At 30, Tannen said, she “became bored and decided to do something different,” so she got a Ph.D. in linguistics — “a compromise between my interest in English and literature. English was too rarified, and I actually became very interested in using linguistics to understand face-to-face communication — language in context. That’s how I got the idea to focus on linguistics: to understand people in the real world.” Tannen spoke with me about how communication styles differ among the sexes and across cultures and generations, and what that means for face-to-face meetings.

How do you define linguistics?

I specialize in the study of everyday conversation. I try to have people think about how they speak, to be aware of issues such as the physical distance between them and the other people with whom they are engaging in conversation, are they direct or indirect when they speak, how do they get to the point of a story, is it different than my approach. Understanding these kinds of linguistic differences can avoid frustrating conversations.

How is electronic communication and social media affecting interpersonal communication?

Social media has good and bad effects. This tool puts us in communication with so many more people, which is positive. When I was in college, we called home once a week. Many of our students today, especially the young women, talk to their mothers and friends five times a day. They are constantly texting, or making quick phone calls, or sending emails between classes or during them.

Some think this is great, as there is a lot more connection. Others believe this isn’t positive, as people aren’t learning to be independent thinkers when they check in with others on a personal and professional level all the time.

Communication via social media presents a danger in that it is much easier to misunderstand what is being communicated. You don’t have the cues of tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language. Email or text communication has risks — it’s very efficient, you get it off right away, but it can create the wrong impression.

I value making decisions by bringing great minds together and kicking ideas around face-to-face. It is harder to make good decisions electronically. …The benefits of talking face-to-face are huge.

What are the elements of effective communication?

The most important thing I have learned over the years is the awareness and importance of under- standing conversation styles. If you talk to someone who has a conversation style similar to yours, you most likely will have effective communication. On the other hand, if you talk to someone whose conversation style is different, you need to understand those differences. For example, when do you stop speaking and let the other person start? When is it your turn and when is it theirs? If you have a different sense of when a pause is normal, you are going to constantly interrupt, talk over each other, or the other person won’t get their time to talk.

Many people expect you to come out and say exactly what you mean. Some prefer indirect communication and find direct communication unacceptable. They may find it impossible to tell you what they think, especially if it is negative.

The meetings industry hasn’t figured out the best way to connect likeminded people, so we often hold receptions and hope for the best.  What advice can you offer to make these networking opportunities as effective as possible? 

It is almost as if these networking events should have three separate locations – one for introverts, one for extroverts, and one for a combination of both. I am not joking about this. Dividing your groups into smaller divisions of people who have an affinity of some type would be helpful. It is also useful to have activities planned that help people connect.

If you think of some of the most exciting conversations you have ever had, can you extract principles from them?

If your question is what kinds of gatherings are conducive to productive conversations, it strikes me that the smaller, the better. If there is a commonality of interest, it is also better. Some people believe that asking questions is best; for others it is necessary to learn to be quiet and listen. For other people, getting started and hoping others will chime in is their style.

For some, talking about controversial topics is a great way to connect. For others, politics is off the table. In Germany, for example, politics and religion are the best subjects to start a conversation about. If you think about Americans, it often is not.

What, if anything, has changed over the 20 years since You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was published?

It is absolutely astonishing to me how very little has changed. My students sometimes start this conversation by saying that was 20 years ago and the findings are not relevant. Then they go out and study/record conversations and find exactly the same styles and issues as 20 years ago.

The fundamental patterns I observed about girls and women are that “talk is the glue that holds their relationships together.” Women are more likely to talk about personal things – that’s what makes them close. Boys and men are more likely to do things together and that is what makes them connect. The lengths of responses are different as well. Women often say, “I am sick and tired of communicating long messages to men and getting back one-word responses.”

I observe changes, of course, but not relating to talk so much. Women see more options for them- selves today than they did 20 years ago. However, women still want to talk about problems; men still want to talk about how to fix the problems.

Your book Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work explores how ways of speaking affect who gets heard, who gets credit, who gets ahead, and what gets done in the workplace. Why are women often seen as less confident and competent than they really are?

One way to handle situations in meetings is for women to watch out for each other. If a woman says something and it is ignored, it is hard for her to say, “Hey, I just said that, it was my idea.” It is better for someone else at the meeting to say, “Ashley just said that.” Women can team up with a woman or a man in advance to help make sure they are heard.

In a work relationship, a man may say, “Have this project ready by three today.” And a woman may say, “Do you think you could have this ready by three?” Instead, a woman can say, “I need to have this by three. Will you be able to do that?”

Women apologize often – more frequently than men. However, what women mean is that they are sorry that something happened, but they are not really apologizing for the situation. Monitor your own style. Pay attention to intonation patterns. For example, women’s voices often go up in tone at the end of a statement. They can remind themselves not to do that and keep intonations level at the end of a sentence. Stop saying disclaimers such as, “I don’t know if this is a very good idea, but….” That’s why it is so important to monitor and get feedback on your own style.

In your book The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, you say that everywhere we turn, there is evidence that in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation. Associations operate based on consensus, and, for the most part, dislike debate and confrontation. So how does the argument culture of today fit into association communication and deliberations?

Compromise has been compromised! There was a time when you could refer to someone as a great compromiser, and now we don’t think it is great to compromise. Associations will need to adapt, or maybe they already are getting more comfortable with the argument culture.

Our society has come to value aggression. We are a 24-hour society – we compete for audience. So you take our Western culture approach to value aggression and combine it with the 24/7 world, and all this makes you believe that aggression is what will get the ears/the attention.

Delegates from many countries, cultures, and generations attend meetings. What is most important for meeting professionals to plan for?

There are so many differences at every turn. Do sessions start on time or not? Does a nine o’clock meeting mean that we start getting seated at nine and we start the meeting at 9:30? You can clarify understandings in your communication. For example, you can say, “Meetings will begin at the stated time, so please be in your seats at nine sharp.” You must over-communicate.

Also, think about how questions are handled. I was at a meeting in Sweden where the moderator took six questions (in a row) and said, “Now answer all six questions”! Consider how argumentative do you expect the questions to be. In some cultures, extreme opposition and argument is valued, and in other cultures it is extremely unacceptable to say something that is disagreeable. You may disagree subtly but not in an obvious way. These issues are best addressed upfront rather than being swept under the rug and ignored.

Badges are very American — we like to know people’s names. The British, for example, think it is ridiculous and don’t understand why we always want to know names. Be responsive to differences.

Do you have any other thoughts on how to make meetings maximum communication channels?

Attendees value a lot of open space between scheduled events, so allow for that. Once they have heard ideas worth discussing, that’s when they want to have a conversation. Don’t be afraid to schedule downtime between events for relaxation and effective communication.

As a master of communication, what are some of the things you do when you deliver a speech?

Use words that everyone understands. Provide context and background. Avoid technical language. Refer only to concepts that you explain. Ask something about the audience to encourage them to think about their own lives.

There is an approach now in the meetings industry to offer short TED-style sessions — say, 18 minutes in length. Can you effectively communicate ideas in such short time segments?

I certainly see the advantage. If you aren’t interested in the topic or approach, you don’t need to invest long periods of time. Short sessions also may be unavoidable because everyone is so rushed and attention spans are getting shorter. That’s a scientific fact.

You can compensate by banning electronic communication in sessions and try to require people to give their full attention. This may not be practical, but multitasking minimizes effective communication. I do not allow the use of electronics in my classes. Many students are frustrated, because they want to take notes electronically. However, some would be surfing the web, checking their messages, tweeting. It’s a temptation you can’t resist — I probably would do it myself. As much as possible, if you can make a rule or develop a culture that values total focus, it will enhance the degree of effective dialogue.

To learn more about Deborah Tannen and her work, visit

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.