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Author Examines Communications 'Voices' of Gender, Region, Class : Linguistics: Deborah Tannen merges skills of novelist and scientist to write about why communication sometimes fails at work and at home.


NEW YORK — Deborah Tannen was married to a Greek man who once shouted at her, "I do not give you the right to raise your voice to me because you are a woman and I am a man."

Pronouncements like that helped end the marriage after 4 1/2 years. They also helped lead Tannen to the study of how people talk to each other.

An author and a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, she is considered an authority on why communication fails at work and at home.

Tannen, 49, argues that each of us has a voice influenced by such factors as gender, geographic region, ethnicity, class, religion and age.

Thus, a New Yorker on a job assignment in South Carolina might be seen as overly aggressive, while at home aggression was never an issue. People learn through their experiences how to interpret character, and in turn, to respond to one another, she says.

That may not sound particularly profound, but Tannen's carefully documented accounts of conversations between lovers, colleagues and bosses and subordinates are intriguing. Her books have sold millions of copies.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, describes Tannen as an extraordinary scientist and friendly voice.

"The skills of novelist and scientist are brought together in her work," said Sacks, whose book "Awakenings" recounting his work with sleeping sickness patients in the 1960s was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.


Besides numerous scholarly works, Tannen has written three treatises for the lay person, most recently, "Talking From 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work."

The book isn't the typical self-help tome replete with tips on how to get ahead. Rather, it's a thorough examination of the role of language in the workplace.

Tannen undertook the study after several corporate chiefs asked her to look at why women weren't advancing faster at work. She began observing people on the job, recording and interviewing them. She sent employees into work-related conversations armed with tape recorders and then analyzed the conversations.

In an earlier book, "You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation," Tannen said men and women tend to communicate differently. In general, she said, men's language is used to establish status and preserve independence, while women's is used to establish intimacy.

In her most recent research, Tannen found some of those same patterns can create frustrations at work and hold women back professionally.


Women, for example, often are much less direct than men, partly because they're often uneasy with giving direct orders and prefer to reach a consensus. The indirect approach, however, often makes men feel manipulated, she says.

Saying "I'm sorry" is common among women, even when they don't mean to apologize. To the extent it means anything, it means "I'm sorry that happened." It's sympathy rather than an apology, Tannen says.

Men, meanwhile, often use a combative approach to get things done, perhaps in the form of tearing apart ideas, she said.

"He's trying to be helpful by telling you everything that's wrong with the idea, playing the devil's advocate," says Tannen, who emphasizes that she speaks only of tendencies and not absolutes.

Women, whose style is different, may feel personally attacked rather than helped, become defensive and then drop the idea, thinking it wasn't any good.

Although Tannen does not take sides in the gender battle, she does say that when there are style differences in the workplace, the person whose style is the norm in that situation has the advantage--usually the white male.

Some women's advocates have accused Tannen of reinforcing stereotypes, but other linguists defend her.

"She is reporting on things that exist," said Robin Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley and Tannen's mentor. "To say you don't like (the fact) that people are different is to put your head in the sand."

Indeed, Tannen hopes addressing differences will help people communicate.

"I feel I'm giving people more control over their lives by helping them understand how language really works," Tannen says.

Tannen herself listens carefully, partly the result of a slight hearing loss that developed from a case of childhood mumps.

But she downplays its significance in her interest in language, pointing instead to her childhood as the main influence.

Tannen was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the youngest of three sisters and the daughter of a Polish father and Russian mother.

She said she was influenced in her work by the strong oral tradition among Eastern European Jews that was very much a part of her upbringing. Growing up, she said, she heard endless stories--from her lawyer father about his childhood, and from her mother, an electrologist, about her clients.

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