Deborah Tannen

You Just Don’t Understand

VTR Date: April 14, 1992

Guest: Tannen, Deborah


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Deborah Tannen
Title: “You Just Don’t Understand”
VTR: 4/14/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … which I began in 1956, a long, long time ago. So that I’ve listened now with profound interest and respect to a great many distinguished guests. And I’ve heard them, too. I think most of them will testify to that.

On the other hand, my wife and I were married in 1950, an even longer time ago. And she maintains that while I’ve listened in that relationship, too … I haven’t really heard all that much of what’s going on there. Which makes me … despite being a Professor of Communications and supposedly an expert in the field … a perfectly lousy communicator, just like most women and men in conversation, according to the subtitle of my Open Mind guest’s most recent bestseller: You Just Don’t Understand.

Dr. Deborah Tannen is a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author also of the widely acclaimed That’s Not What I Meant! … How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. And what I want first to ask my guest today is whether women and men in conversation are there essentially by nature or nurture. Is that a fair question?

TANNEN: It’s a fair question, but I don’t think it’s an easy answer. Everybody wants to know the answer, as I do myself. It’s probably the most frequently asked question that I encounter. But in order to know how much is nature, how much is nurture, you would want to do an experiment where you raise children without culture to see how they turn out. And, as we know, they would turn out aphasic … you can’t do that. It’s very difficult to know the, the balance. The people who will argue for nature will tell you that studies as early as two, two and a half, actually, as early as we have, find differences in how boys and girls are using language. The boys will have more
conflict … if they have conflicts, they will last longer … they’re more likely to give each other direct orders when … as soon as they’re able to speak. They seem to be jockeying for position, they seem to be using language to have a kind of competition, seize center stage, challenge others, deflect the challenges of others. From the very earliest studies, girls seem to be using language very differently. They prefer to talk one on one, or in small groups, and they seem to be using language to create a kind of rapport. I sometimes use the word “rapport talk.” They spend more time agreeing than disagreeing. They try to smooth over conflicts; the conflicts are settled more quickly. So, these patterns start so early, and that makes people say perhaps there’s, there’s something biological going on. On the other hand, people that argue for culture will, will point out, quite rightly, that the peer group has a very compelling effect on the child, so there are little boys and little girls who behave differently. The little girl who puts herself forward in the way that boys do, but she’s quickly put down by the group. A girl who, who gives orders is, is told that she’s pushy, she’s bossy, and the girls won’t play with her. If she puts … brags or boasts or puts herself forward, they’ll say that she, she really thinks she’s somebody, she thinks she’s cute. And, and so the children, the peer group, operate very decisively on children in the group. So, the culture argument would be that it’s the peer group that has the, the most effect. What intrigues me about this question more than anything else … when I’m asked is it biological or cultural … I, I’ve noticed that it’s usually the men who ask me that want to believe that it’s mostly biological. And the women who ask me are the ones who want to believe that it’s mostly cultural.

HEFFNER: You know the point is that I feel just exactly the opposite way.


HEFFNER: Because you’ve almost in this, really, truly, wonderful book You Just Don’t Understand, and its predecessor That’s Not What I Meant, there’s almost a feeling on my part of depression about it, because there’s almost a sense of inevitability. Andrew Hacker was here the other week and we talked about Black and White, and there’s a sense of inevitability about him. And I note that you quote him in your earlier book.

TANNEN: I admire his writing very much. Yes.

HEFFNER: But now, what about the level of inevitability here? What’s Tannen’s Rule? I know you, you on the one hand and on the other, but what’s your own bet as to nature and nurture?

TANNEN: I, I am inclined to believe that the cultural side is the more, the more influential. If you look across anthropological evidence of different groups, many of the kinds of differences we’re talking about are found across cultures. For example, males being more aggressive and engaging in more conflict seems to be found in all cultures. But many of them are not. For example, I write about women’s greater inclination to be indirect, and to avoid confrontation at all costs, and many men respond to that by saying, “Well, that’s not honest, that’s not sincere, why don’t they just say what they mean?” An example that I often give is the woman who’s riding home with her, her husband, and she says, “Honey, are you thirsty? Would you like to stop for a drink?” And he’s not, so he says “no,” and then she’s annoyed, and he feels, “Well, you didn’t tell me the truth, you weren’t honest, why do you play games with me if you didn’t … if you wanted to stop, why didn’t you say so?” And my reading is, “No, she was just trying to start a discussion,” because women prefer to make decisions by consensus. So when she said, “would you like to stop for a drink,” she expected a certain kind of conversation. He would say, “Well, I don’t know, how do you feel about it?”

HEFFNER: Now, is that your Rx? Your prescription, that he should say, “I don’t know, how do you feel about it?” He should really say something that’s not true?

TANNEN: I … well, first of all, not true is not the issue … we all say things that are not true … as soon as I meet you sand say, “How are you,” and you say, “Fine, “ you’ve said something that is not true. Possibly something that’s not true. Conversation is a ritual, and I have no Rx in the sense of specific instructions about what to say. My Rx is understanding. The frustration is her accusation, “you don’t care what I want, we always do what you want,” and his frustration, “but I’m trying to give you what you want, how can I give you what you want if you don’t tell me what it is, am I a mind reader?” It’s the frustration of each one trying to do what they think is required, or is asked by the other and really not understanding why the other person is speaking in the way they are. People tell me that just reading the book … and some people, especially men, have said, “It’s very frustrating, you don’t give me tips. I turned to the last chapter and you didn’t tell me what to do. What kind of a book is this?” But most people say that once they actually read the book and they understand why the other person is speaking the way they are, a great burden is lifted. It’s that burden of confusion, of not understanding why someone is saying these bizarre things, someone that you basically respect and, and possibly like or love.

HEFFNER: Now, may I ask … it may seem an inappropriate question … you say “someone you love and respect saying these bizarre things.” Mostly are you referring to the need for men to understand that the woman in the relationship is saying something bizarre?

TANNEN: No. My approach is always balanced, it’s a no fault approach. I, I’m saying that women’s and men’s styles both make sense, so something, for example, the woman might think that it’s bizarre … she comes home and she starts telling her, her boyfriend, her husband if we’re talking about a heterosexual relationship, about something that happened at work, and he says, “Well, if you hate your job so much, why don’t you quit?” This is bizarre. “I like my job; who said I didn’t like my job?” And he’s assuming that because she’s complaining about the job, about her colleagues, that she’s really deeply dissatisfied with it. So, to her, that’s bizarre. Now, to him, it’s bizarre that she’s complaining if she does like her job. And I’ve heard things from men like, “She complains, but she doesn’t want to do anything about it.” Or, “she asks my advice and then she gets angry at me when I give it to her.”

HEFFNER: Well, this matter of doing something about it. Isn’t that a fundamental different … culturally determined, perhaps. But I want to do something about it, my wife wants to talk about it, she wants to inform me about it. And my love for her leads me very much to want to do something to relieve her of this misery that she’s describing.

TANNEN: Yes. I’m so glad you put it that way, because I think men do experience it as an act of love to try to help her solve the problem. I think the misunderstanding starts with your saying “her misery.” (Laughter)


TANNEN: Because you’re assuming she wouldn’t be talking about this unless it were a very serious problem that’s really bothering her.

HEFFNER: Because mostly men wouldn’t.

TANNEN: Because they wouldn’t, right. So you can only assume she must mean what you would mean if you spoke in the same way. But when conversational styles differ, that’s not true. And this is an example of where women’s and men’s conversational styles differ. Often women talk about troubles as a kind of conversational ritual. I keep getting back to this, conversation is basically a ritual. So a ritual that women often engage in is something I call “troubles talk.” You talk about troubles as a way of feeling connected to the person that you’re talking to. It’s a way of saying, “I’m in this … we’re in this together … I’m not alone as I go through the lone path of my day.” And during the day women kind of save up these stories to go and tell someone. And then the other person will say, “Oh, isn’t that something. And then what did you say? Gee, well, how did you feel? Yeah, I know, that’s like I had the same thing happen to me.” And so this makes you feel a kind of rapport. It’s that ritual troubles talk that she’s probably engaging in. It’s not that she really feels this is such a terrible problem. It, it’s amusing, women have a need … I don’t mean a psychological need … it’s often a requirement of women’s conversations that you have troubles to tell. And if you don’t have any, you have to make some up, or maybe you talk about somebody else’s troubles.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute, why, why do you backtrack and take back … I don’t mean psychological need … what, what does that mean?

TANNEN: Well, I truly believe that this is a, a conversational ritual and you, you bring it up because it’s the kind of thing that seems to you appropriate to say. I don’t think it’s a deep seated psychological need to talk about troubles. I think it’s a way of talking that we’ve learned. And it feels to us like the kind of … appropriate thing to say. You know, you sit down with someone … you feel that there should be talk, and women more than men, I think, take a … the way I sometimes put it is, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together. So, there’s a feeling that if we’re close and if this is a good relationship, we’re going to be talking. It’s talk that creates that closeness. For men, often, it’s the activity, and this goes back to the little boys that have been studied, not by myself, but by anthropologists and sociologists, they find that for the little boys it’s, it’s the activity, it’s doing things together that makes them close. But for the little girls, and then later for women, it’s the talk that makes us close. So you just kind of sit down and you … and something comes to you to say.

HEFFNER: So the key for a man is to fine tune his capacity to listen.

TANNEN: I think women and men both can adjust, and it’s not clear which one will adjust in a given relationship. So, you have a choice. She may accept “this kind of talk frustrates him, I’m not going to expect him to do it; it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me.” Or he may decide, “now that I understand why this means something to her, I’m going to try to do it.” One man told me that after … I’d love to say after reading the book, but he had only seen me on television, and he said, “Suddenly a light went on.” For 23 years, his wife had come home, talked about work, and he had thought, “This is gossip, it’s bad; I want no part of it,” and he didn’t listen.

HEFFNER: Well, you say his wife had come home.


HEFFNER: Now, what is the impact upon this, this need to develop parallel listening and understanding devices? What’s the impact upon that of the fact that increasingly, women are in the marketplace, or in the world of work?

TANNEN: What’s fascinating is that this pattern of the end of the day talk seems to be the same whether the woman has been at home with the children or the executive board room … whatever she does, she seems to want to talk about it, and I’ve been told by … one man who actually was a talk show host, and he said he always assumed that the reason he didn’t want to talk at the end of the day was because he talked all day at work; that was his job. Until he got together with a fellow talk show host who was a woman, and still she wanted to come home at the end of the day and talk about what had happened.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

TANNEN: So I think we often look for these concrete explanations, but usually it’s, it’s not that.

HEFFNER: Well, you use this nice phrase … chapter title “Living with Asymmetry,” meaning living with a difference … living with somebody who’s different from yourself, has a different style from yourself.

TANNEN: Yes, but asymmetry is even more significant than that, I think. In some of the later chapters I discuss this, that the roles that women and men are traditionally assigned are asymmetrical. Much of what motivates men in their dealings with women has to do with a kind of chivalrous stance of protection. And I was quite surprised by how many explanations I was given by men for their ways of talking that had to do with protection. For example, one woman who complained, and this is a common complaint: “You don’t tell me anything,” her, her husband … she noticed that he was holding his arm funny, and she said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, well, his arm hurt. And she said, “How long has it been hurting you?” And he said, “Oh, a few weeks.” And she was hurt. “A few weeks and you didn’t tell me?” And she said something like, “Go ahead, treat me like a stranger.” And I asked him why did …

HEFFNER: I can hear that escalating.

TANNEN: Yeah, right. And I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell her?” And he said, “Well, I guess I always was brought up to protect women.” Now, to me this was a non sequitur. What did telling about your arm have to do with protection? So I asked him to explain, and he said, “Well, why worry her?” Perhaps there was nothing wrong with his arm; it would go away, and why worry her? So, I think very often men are motivated in not telling women things … troubles, for example, to not upset her, not worry her. She takes it as distancing … you’re pushing me away; if we were close, you would tell me. So that concern with protecting women … there’s something asymmetrical about that. It, it puts women in a one down position. And unfortunately … at least one way to look at it would be that the person who’s being protected is like a child, is one down.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you said that … one way of looking at it …

TANNEN: One way to look at it.

HEFFNER: … because the asymmetrical aspect of that could be something totally different … her inability or unwillingness or refusal at a certain point to see what it is that he is doing, because he does … she does interpret it something in a way that’s quite different.

TANNEN: Well, there are always … I think there are always many different levels on which any utterance can be interpreted. And I don’t think it’s usually refusal to see. I think we tend to see only one side of it. It’s like that famous picture of the chalice and the faces. And you can only hold one in your consciousness, and then you lose sight of the other. And I … women often are focusing on the connection aspect of what is said, “Does this bring us closer or push us further away?” Their antennae are rolled out for signs that you’re trying to push me away. I think men often focus on the status relationship … are you trying to push me around? This, I think, comes up in the frequent complaint that women nag. And the parallel complaint by women, “I can’t get him to do anything. I tell him to do it. He says he’s going to do it. And then he doesn’t do it.” And I think it comes down to this very different assumption about what it means to be in a close relationship. Where women’s assumption is we’re interdependent, if you’re close to somebody, of course you do things for each other. In fact, maybe you try to figure out what he wants and do it even before he asks you. And yet we hear about the stereotype of a hen pecked husband.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, you said, just a moment ago … “she tells him to do it.” You didn’t say “she asks him to do it.” Now, explain that to me.

TANNEN: I’m probably picking up a little farther down the line … I think this is what happens. I think women will assume, “Gee, if I just let him know I need this done, he’ll do it.” So perhaps she drops a hint, which he doesn’t pick up. And so she asks him, “Would you please do it?” And I think what happens with many men, and nothing is true of all women and men, of course, but I think with many men … he kind of feels the person who gives the orders is the dominant one in the relationship, and getting back again to the children, the people who have studied kids do find … Marjorie Hearnes Goodwin is one … that the boys who give orders and make them stick get high status in the group. And often they don’t really need that done; it’s just a way that you negotiate who’s going to be the leader of the group. So I think many men are inclined to just put off what they’ve been asked to do so that they don’t feel that they’re just “hopping to” and just doing what they’re told the minute somebody tells them to do it. She feels this is odd. I guess he didn’t really realize that I need him to do it. So she tells him again. And each time she tells him again, he feels she’s becoming a nag, and “If I do it she’s
going … I’m going to be a hen pecked husband.” In fact, a young man in college told his parents, “My roommate’s been bugging me about the dishes again … I was going to do them tonight, but he bugged me again, so now I’m going to wait until tomorrow.”

HEFFNER: You know, you say “a young man in college … his roommate” … let’s make the assumption that the roommate is of the same sex …

TANNEN: It was.

HEFFNER: … the question I want to ask you is … you say there’s no laboratory for this nature/nurture question … what about homosexual relationships? How do, how do you find the divisions there in this presumably male/female divisiveness?

TANNEN: Yeah. I have, I haven’t directly studied gay and lesbian relationships, but it’s a fascinating question. That should hold the answer … how much of this is just the nature of a close relationship, and how much of it is, is gender. In my preliminary investigations … that is just talking to gay couples that I’ve known, the impression that I get … and I should say one of my students has done a … a couple of my students have done some preliminary studies on this … it seems that gay men in relationships have the same concern with power balance being … trying to be the dominant one in the relationship, not wanting to be pushed around and being told what to do.

HEFFNER: Both parts of a homosexual couple?

TANNEN: Yes, that’s … this is at least what I … my preliminary
observation …

HEFFNER: So there’s symmetry?

TANNEN: So there’s symmetry there … yes. Ways that gay men seem to be somewhat more, as I’ve found women to be, is that there is a lot of talk about other people and talk about relationships and feelings more than you would find among straight men … but I think that’s not across the board. I haven’t … and my students who have looked at it haven’t found any, any differences in, in patterns among lesbians, as compared to straight women.

HEFFNER: Where are …

TANNEN: But this is very preliminary, and I don’t want to emphasize it too much.

HEFFNER: Where are we going in all of this? I mean, you’ve obviously … and You Just Don’t Understand … Women and Men in Conversation and That’s Not What I Meant … How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships … it’s clear that you’ve touched on something here that explodes for a lot of people … I mean, it resonates for so many people… as I told you before, my wife has been after me to read your books, and I made it an assignment because we’re going to do the program … what’s the future, then? Do you … I had a sense of determinism, as I noted to you … which gave me a sense of hopelessness … obviously, you don’t have that sense.

TANNEN: No, I, I’m very hopeful because, first of all, who would have thought that over a million people would be actually reading, reading these books, which is what’s happened with You Just Don’t Understand. And they tell me that once they understand what’s happening, they are able to deal with it. That sense of determinism comes from not knowing what to do and not being able to figure out what’s happening to you. People tell me that once they understand where the other person is … I don’t want to say where they’re coming from … what the world that the other person is, is coming out of … why they talk the way they do, they’re able to find ways to solve the problem. For example, something we haven’t mentioned here, but one thing I talk about is that women tend to look directly at each other when they speak, and men often don’t. They are listening, but they may look around the room, or look up at the ceiling, and, and not look directly … and women often complain about that. “You’re not listening to me because … why don’t you look at me when I talk to you?”

HEFFNER: Why don’t men complain that women are looking at them and it’s embarrassing, whatever it might be. That … you see, that’s the part of this that I don’t understand.

TANNEN: Well, it depends on the context. If you look directly at a person in a, in a, say, casual situation, a man very well may misinterpret it. Men seem to take direct head on gaze from another man as being a kind of challenge. And from a woman as being kind of flirtatious. So, if they perceive it as flirtatious, they may not find it offensive … that may be why, why they don’t complain. But the experience of one of my students … she was always frustrated with her boyfriend because she’d say, “I want to have a talk with you,” he’d say, “Fine.” He’d lie down on the floor, close his eyes, and put his arm over his eyes. She got upset. “Why don’t … why don’t you look at me?” And he said, “Well, I am listening to you, what’s the problem?” They couldn’t work it out. She saw videotapes that I have showing this pattern that little girls and adult women do this face to face glare from the time they’re very little and boys don’t, and yet they’re still listening. And she decided that she was going from then on not to expect him to look at her. The next time it happened, he started to lie on the floor, and then he sat up and looked at her. And she said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Well, now that I understand why it means something to you, I’m going to try to do it.” And, and I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s always going to be the man who adjusts, because it may just as easily have been the woman who decided, “now I understand … it doesn’t mean that he’s not listening, and I’m going to accept it and not take it personally.” I think each couple will work out for themselves who’s going to make the adjustment and how much of an adjustment to make. But the crucial thing is to understand what’s happening to you and to have a vocabulary and a conceptual framework from which to understand it.

HEFFNER: I’m interested, you say, “The crucial thing is to understand what’s happening to you.” I would have thought that you would have said the crucial thing is to understand what’s happening to your mate … the person with whom you are in conversation.

TANNEN: Well, it’s both, but I think your, your motivation will be the sense of frustration …


TANNEN: … your sense of frustration when you try to do the right thing, and the person gets angry at you. The woman who feels “He’s calling me a nag, and, and I’m just trying to get the day’s business done.” The man who says, “She asks my advice; I’m trying to help her out, and she’s angry at me.” Or “she goes on and on and I don’t know what it’s about.” That’s a frustration for him, too. So I think the motivation comes from that frustration that you feel when you don’t understand why the other person is behaving as they are.

HEFFNER: Well, are we going to find, then, that given psychopharmacology and these two national best sellers, we’re going to resolve so many of our psychiatric problems?

TANNEN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Or interpersonal relations problems? Seriously, I’m …

TANNEN: I laugh because I hope nobody comes up with psychopharmacology to solve the kind of problems I’m dealing with in these books.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I meant the combination … dealing with the deeper, more profound psychological or, a, problems … the biological problems and then obviously, you feel that this is so crucial, your understanding here and the understanding of the people who have dealt with these two books … so crucial, that it … it impinges upon our lives in many more ways than we think.

TANNEN: Yes, absolutely. Our lives are lived as a series of conversations. And the combination of the gender differences that I talk about in the one book, but also the whole range of cultural differences that I discuss in the other, so superimposed on our gender … we have ethnic background, regional background, class background, religious background, personal differences … all of these things mean that we’re living in a diverse world, and we can’t assume that you mean what I would have meant if I had said the same thing.

HEFFNER: Well, when you indicate that it’s a little bit like going to a foreign country and attempting to communicate without understanding the language, without understanding the metaphors and the idioms of another people … you can’t do it.

TANNEN: Yes, and we’re less prepared, too. Because when you go to a foreign country, you expect people to speak in a different way, but at home in your own bedroom, you don’t expect that.

HEFFNER: More and more people, obviously, though, Dr. Tannen, in terms of the audiences for your, for your books … what about … in 30 seconds remaining … is there any indication that people dealing inter culturally are taking lessons from you?

TANNEN: Yes, yes … That’s Not What I Meant has very specific explanations for the kinds of things that go wrong when you talk to somebody from another culture.

HEFFNER: Thank you. I, I’m really very, very grateful to you … I love this title in the Times piece on you: “Men, Women … Talk, Talk, Talk … Hear, No.” Dr Deborah Tannen, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

TANNEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.