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Can We Talk? : Speech: Author Deborah Tannen has her own theories on why men and women talk but don't always communicate.

September 23, 1990|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It probably comes as no surprise to anyone on earth that girls and boys, chicks and dudes, ladies and gents talk a different game.

No news there.

But author-linguist Deborah Tannen has descended from the Ivory Tower with a new book about frustrated couples that makes you grab your mate and gasp: "Ooohhhh yeah! Listen to this!"

In a conversation about the verbal rub between the sexes, Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, begins by plopping herself in a comfy chair in her living room and slipping off her shoes.

"You know," she says, twisting her body toward her listener, "women tend to face each other when they talk, whereas men catch each other with side glances sitting at angles."

And from there--shortly after they assume physical positions--the battle lines are drawn, says Tannen. What she has done is catalogue the differences from that point on.

In "You Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (William Morrow) Tannen explains that women bond through blab and men connect by sharing activities like sports and work. Men talk to assert their independence and status. The book has received enthusiastic reviews and been on bestseller lists since the beginning of August.

These conversational habits activate at an early age: Little girls learn to cement relationships by sharing secrets so by the time they're big girls intimate chats are the staff of life and--they wish--of love.

But little boys go about it differently. They play in bigger, hierarchical groups with a specific pecking order that ensures whoever goes last is a nerd. When they grow up the last thing they want is to be pinned down in a conversation that leaves them on the bottom rung.

The result of this is that when big boys and big girls get together there is general, well, misunderstanding, according to Tannen.

Women expect their men to be like a girlfriend, to listen to every thing that whizzes through their brains. They use talk to connect. Men, although they are prepared to talk for recreation, prefer to use it to negotiate or solve problems or raise their status.

Such insights as well as many witticisms come streaming out of the 45-year-old academic in an interview that she conducts like a session with a new best friend. And her book reads like more of the same: a patchwork of anecdotes and analyses that seems to emanate from a private phone line.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at UC Berkeley, Tannen began her research into conversational styles by recording a 2 1/2-hour Thanksgiving dinner between three New York Jews, two Angelenos and a Briton. If this sounds like the start of a Borscht Belt routine, it wasn't. Rather, in the back-and-forth over turkey, Tannen detected barely perceptible differences in the styles of talk that she traced to their their ethnic, class, regional, age and gender differences.

It was during this study, as an eager graduate student, that Tannen developed "this passion for everyday conversation among ordinary people," she says. And she hasn't turned her tape recorder off since.

The idea for this latest book came after readers of "That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships," her previous book published in 1986, became fixated on Chapter 10, the one about male/female conflict.

"Of course, generalizing is dangerous," she warns, "but it's more dangerous not to recognize and describe patterns that are really there because then you're left with thinking, 'There's something wrong with me or there's something wrong with my partner.'

"You're thinking, 'Gee, I have friends. He doesn't have friends. Oh he's woefully inadequate. I've married a man who is an emotional cripple.' I think when we examine patterns we're all comforted to know that 'he' or 'she' are not unusual."

What follows are scenarios taken from Tannen's book, her life and her thoughts:

Scene 1:

A woman, knowing her boyfriend had seen his friend, asked "What's new with Oliver?" He replied, "Nothing." But later in the conversation it came out that Oliver and his girlfriend had decided to get married. "That's nothing,?" she gasped in frustration and disbelief.

"For women, detailed conversation is our lifeblood while for men it's just not as critical," says Tannen, by now so engrossed in conversation that she turns on her answering machine to catch her constantly ringing telephone.

Men and women, she explains, often have different concepts about what's important. A woman complains when a man doesn't act like she does, when he refuses to relate "fleeting thoughts and feelings he experienced throughout the day--the kind of talk she would have with her best friend." Men simply don't find that kind of talk compelling.

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