Deborah Tannen

Language, Sex, and Power, Part II

VTR Date: October 30, 1996

Guest: Tannen, Deborah


Guest: Deborah Tannen
Title: “Language, Sex and Power”, Part II
VTR: 10/30/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs on language, sex and power with Dr. Deborah Tannen, the widely read linguistics scholar at Georgetown, where she now holds the distinguished rank of university Professor. Her most recent bestseller is Talking From Nine to Five: Women and Men in the Workplace. When Dr. Tannen joined me here five years ago, of course, we discussed her earlier books: You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, and That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.

But let’s go on now with her sage advice to just about everyone: Keep Talking: But Saying What? Or Does it Matter? Now, it matters to the extent that last time we were talking about cultural differences relating to Talking Nine to Five, and you promised me you’d pick up on this program with it.

TANNEN: Yes, let’s pick up where we left off. I was talking about conversational rituals, the idea that women and men, as well as people from different cultural backgrounds, different parts of the country, different ethnic backgrounds, we have different ways of saying what we mean, so that we think we’re just saying what we mean, having a conversation, but if we have different ideas about how to do that, we can often either misinterpret, misunderstand what somebody’s saying, or misevaluate the person. So one example I was giving was, very often men, more likely than women, will play devil’s advocate, so you explore an idea by arguing about it, trying to poke holes in the idea. And that’s the way you both explore the idea. And also it can be a sign of respect to the person, that you really think they can take it. Sometimes not questioning somebody’s idea can be a sign of disrespect; you don’t take them seriously, just ignore it. This is something that men are more likely to do than women in our culture, and often women will take it either literally and think it’s a terrible idea and drop it, or personally and think, “He’s against me. He’s attacking me.” I pointed out that though this tends to be, in our culture, something that men do somewhat more than women, there are also very important cultural patterns. So, for example, a man of Japanese-American background who worked in a company, and in meetings he would never argue or fight or openly disagree with other people, and an expert that came in said that he had to suppress his feminine side, by which she meant his resistance to open argument. And I told him I thought this was not his feminine side; it was his Japanese side. There are many
cultures – Japanese, Chinese would be an example; there are many others – where women as well as men, men as well as women, are told, “It’s best not to openly disagree. It’s better to find a more toned down way of expressing that.” At the same time, there are cultures where women as well as men will engage in what you might call “dynamic opposition.” So it’s fun to have an argument in which you throw the ideas back and forth and maybe insult each other, and it’s all part of the fun. So German Americans, or people of German background or French background, Israelis are very well known for this. They can seem very argumentative to Americans. And this would be women as well as men. So all the things that I talk about as being more common among women or more common among men, there are cultures in which all women or all men would do just the opposite.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I asked you five years ago a question somewhat akin to that. I asked you about your work in terms of what you discovered about the differences in communications between men and women. And as you developed a pattern, I asked you about homosexual couples as opposed to heterosexual couples. And you said then very little work had been done at that time. And I wonder whether any more has been done since that time.

TANNEN: Yes, you know, a little bit more has been done. There are just starting now to be people who study the gay and lesbian style or use of language among gay and lesbian speakers, but it hasn’t gone very far. Now, most of the research that’s been done is on people who identify themselves with the gay or lesbian community. So we don’t know anything about people who may be gay or lesbian but don’t, are not open about it. And much of what that has focused on has been language about being gay or lesbian. So that doesn’t help you understand too much, you know, whether or not they ask for directions or other kids of differences. So we haven’t really done research to compare gay, lesbian, straight, male, female in a systematic way.

HEFFNER: Of course, what I was curious about was whether the male position versus the female position, so called, whether you found a dominance in homosexual relationships and a kind of communication pattern on the part of the person who plays the submissive person and the person who plays the aggressive person sexually.

TANNEN: Yeah … Well, no, I haven’t done anything like that. I don’t think anyone has done that. So …

HEFFNER: Okay, I won’t ask you anything further on that. But I do want to go back to the workplace and ask you about the differences again between your sense of the nature of communication in the home, man and wife, and in the workplace. Any other patterns?

TANNEN: Yes. There are many patterns that are quite similar at home and at work. So, for example, a very common complaint at home: a woman comes home from work, or maybe she’s been home all day, and she wants to talk about her day, what happened, what that made her think, what that made her feel, who she talked to, and, if she had a problem, she would like to talk about it. Now, this often is the source of frustration between couples because she may then turn to her husband and say, “How was your day?” And he says, “Fine,” or he might say, “Terrible,” and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He may feel, “I suffered at work. I don’t want to suffer again at home.” Or if she talks about a problem of hers, he may try to solve the problem. In other words, thinks that she’s asking him for advice. And then he gives her the advice. And if she seems annoyed and doesn’t want to take it, that can annoy him. “Why do you ask my advice if you don’t want to take it?” Well, and I explain this difference as again going back to the way boys and girls grow up with their friends, that for girls, sitting and talking to your friend about your problems is one of the main things you do with your friends that makes you friends. Your friend is the person you tell everything to, the person you talk about your problems with. For many boys, your friend is the boy you do everything with. And maybe it has to do with being loyal to each other. “If there’s a fight, he’ll stand up for me.” But it doesn’t mean you have to sit and talk all the time. You may be out playing and not talking.

This also can affect the workplace where many women may feel that it’s appropriate to talk about a problem at work for a slightly longer time than some of her male colleagues think. And then women can get frustrated with men they work with because they feel the men move too quickly to the solution without talking about it enough, without doing enough research. I talk about something called the “White Knight Method” that people have told me rings true: that often women will expend a great deal of effort to avoid problems occurring. And then that really isn’t noticed because nobody notices a problem that doesn’t occur. Whereas some men may allow the problem to occur and then come in like the white knight and solve the problem to a great deal of fanfare; something that can be very frustrating to someone who sees that he’s getting credit where she’s not.

HEFFNER: You see, I thought, after our discussion five years ago and after reading the books, I thought that the male approach would work so much better, by definition in the workplace. There’s a problem, you solve it. Don’t you need always to solve problems in the workplace?

TANNEN: Yes, of course. Everything is balance. You need to solve problems, but you need to understand the problem fully before you start solving it. So you can go overboard in either direction. You can go overboard by talking about it too much, or you can go overboard by moving in too quickly to begin acting before you have learned everything there is to know about it.

HEFFNER: But in the workplace certainly …

TANNEN: So everything is going to have to be a balance.

HEFFNER: But in the workplace certainly you can’t put a premium on feelings, can you?

TANNEN: I didn’t mention the word “feelings.” (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But isn’t that what you’re talking about?

TANNEN: No. No, I’m not. When I say you have to think about it and learn everything you can before you move in to solve the problem, it could mean you have to take other people’s feelings into account, but it also could simply mean understanding what the impact of all the options are on various people. You can imagine how difficult it might be for someone who simply moves in and doesn’t take into account “How’s the boss going to feel about this?” or, you know, “If we sell our company in Djakarta and we haven’t found out how the Indonesians are going to feel about that.” And talking about work with international companies is very appropriate here because many of the styles that I discussed as being more common among women than among men are also very common among non American businessmen. So, for example, often women doing business might begin by talking about personal things, create a relationship, and then do the business. And having talked about personal relationships is a way that you firm up your relationship so that it’s strong to do the business. For many men, this seems like a waste of time. Get in there, do the business. “If there’s time left over, we’ll talk about family. If there isn’t, we won’t.” And many of these men find when they try to do business with Europeans, Mediterraneans, Japanese, they don’t get the deal. Because in those cultures everybody – businessmen at the head of the line – feel that you have to first talk about personal relationships, make sure that you have a personal relationship that can become the foundation for business.

HEFFNER: And sex (if I may mention that word) in the workplace? How is that affected by your concern about communication?

TANNEN: Yeah. Now, this is very interesting. I do have a chapter called “What’s Sex Got to Do With It?”

HEFFNER: That’s what I’m asking.

TANNEN: Yes, right. And it mentions sexual harassment. But it isn’t only about that. But I will mention one difference: that women and men often have polar opposite responses to the issue of sexual harassment. And it’s a little bit like the different legs of the elephant. You’re just holding onto a different part and have a whole different view of it. For many women, the issue of sexual harassment calls into play their awareness for their entire lives of how vulnerable they are to sexual attack by a man. So if they’re alone in a room with a man who has power over them – although not necessarily; it could be someone who is subordinate to them – he may start talking about sex in a way that makes her feel he’s threatening her even though he hasn’t made any kind of a physical threat. It’s this very deep awareness that women have from the time they’re very little that they are vulnerable to physical or sexual assault by a man. This often makes men very angry. They feel you’re calling all men rapists, “I would never hurt anyone. How can you say such a thing to me?” The point is not that all men are rapists; the point is that you’re aware that it could happen. It’s the awareness of the possibility, not the awareness of probability.

On the other side, for many men, the issue of sexual harassment, first and foremost, makes them think about a false accusation. Any woman with an axe to grind can destroy a man by accusing him of sexual harassment. And because it’s something that takes place in private, it’s very hard to disprove. This enrages women. They say, “You’re calling women liars. You’re saying all women are liars.” And, in a parallel way to what I said about women being aware of the possibility of physical attack, for men it’s not the probability that all women are liars; it’s the possibility that one woman could do this. And this is what the play Pollyanna was about, that, you know, one woman destroyed a man’s career with a false accusation. So it’s very different vulnerabilities, and, therefore, different buzzers that are set off by this.

HEFFNER: What is the corporate world doing about those buzzers?

TANNEN: Well, the corporate world, I think, is trying very hard to balance both needs. They realize that it is essential for women to feel that if they make a complaint it will be taken seriously. And this is women’s response often to the accusation that there is a danger of false accusations. It is usually very, very damaging to the woman who brings the complaint. And corporations are trying to eliminate that danger and make sure that complaints are taken seriously, but, at the same time, if a complaint really is a false complaint, then it’s necessary to have some punishment in place for the person who brought a false complaint.

HEFFNER: Of course, there’s a different kind of sexual harassment that you refer here and talk to in Talking From Nine to Five, and that has to do with seduction. That has to do with a different aspect of the sexual equation. Is that a conversational problem too?

TANNEN: Well, everything is a conversational problem because it’s played out in talk. But it is very interesting that – and I use the example of the novel, and then the movie, Disclosure – that the description of a woman sexually harassing a man is very different from the one of a man sexually harassing a woman. So, in Disclosure it’s a woman who’s younger, who’s beautiful, and she’s seductive. She asks him to give her a back rub, she lets her pant leg ride up, and she waves her ankle in his face. If you imagine a man behaving that way to a woman, it becomes laughable, not scary. If he asked her for a back rub, if he pulled his pants leg up and waved his ankle in her face, she wouldn’t be frightened, she would think this is strange, and start laughing.

So, with sexual harassment of women by men, there’s usually the element of physical threat. The image of sexual harassment of a man by a woman, it’s usually one of seduction. And that’s because the roles that we play in the sexual constellation historically have been these different roles.

HEFFNER: In your studies of the corporation, are sexual matters, aside from harassment, looming larger in our times?

TANNEN: Yes and no. One thing we have to be very realistic about is that many couples, happily married couples, meet a work. Many romantic relationships do begin at work. That’s where people meet each other. And so it does complicate things. You can’t simply say, “You must never have a romantic interest in anybody at work.” On the other hand, it can be very dangerous, scary and threatening if the person is the object of interest, if a woman is the object of interest especially, because, again, that element of physical threat is greater, and she doesn’t reciprocate it but she doesn’t feel free to deny the advance because the person is her boss, or a situation like that. So it does become quite complicated.

HEFFNER: But, of course, seduction is two sided there, or there are two edges to that sword. And one hears more and more about seduction of the male by the female for purposes of corporate advancement. Now, when I say, “Hears more and more,” that doesn’t even ring true as I say it, because that was the old picture. It was the flirtation in the office in the old movies.

TANNEN: It certainly can happen. And there’s no question in my mind that a man who felt that a woman had seduced him simply to forward her career would feel very used. But the element of physical fear and threat tends not to be there. He’s not afraid that this woman is going to pin him against the wall and attack him that a woman would have with a man who is usually physically larger and capable of a kind of assault that a man … And even if an individual woman were capable of physically attacking a man, it doesn’t tap into his entire life’s training of always being aware that you have to watch, you have to be careful, because a man might attack you.

HEFFNER: Verbal aggression, though, I gather, looms very large, too, in terms of sexual talk. Now, I know what you say about the assumption on some women’s part that sexual talk may become actual aggression. But I gather just the level of sexual conversation is of great disturbance.

TANNEN: Yes. This is very interesting. In my own observations, people didn’t talk about sex a whole lot when I was around. That’s not too surprising; I was an outside observer. I did hear it a little bit, and I tended to hear it, the higher up the level at which I was observing, the more likely I was to hear people making jokes about sex. Now, that’s kind of interesting. In terms of what people reported to me, and in terms of other research, the findings are that you hear a lot more talk and joking about sex from men than from women, and you tend to hear it more in blue collar settings than in white collar settings. But, that you might hear it at all levels, but more from men than women.

Now, that creates a problem for people who don’t want to participate in that kind of small talk. In blue collar situations, a factory line, there seems to be some evidence that, in order to fit in, a woman might learn to joke the same way the guys do. But it seems that in a white collar situation, a woman again has a difficult choice. I was told by an airline pilot that I was interviewing, he said, “The pilots always talk dirty in the cockpit. If there’s a woman pilot there, we try not to do it. Sometimes we slip. But if she does it, we lose respect for her.” So she really doesn’t have the option of fitting in, in the same way that a man might. And so this is a disadvantage. Anytime you can’t fit in with the small talk … small talk tends to be different among women and men. If you can’t fit in with the small talk and you’re left out, that puts you in a difficult position when it comes to getting work done. You don’t have the same easy communication. Even as – this is kind of interesting – when I heard women talking about each other’s clothing, it tended to be a compliment. “Oh, hey, that’s a beautiful blouse. What a great color for you.” If I heard men talking about clothing, it tended to be a playful insult. “Where’d you get that tie? It looks like your breakfast is still on it.” So playfully insulting, playfully teasing, is one way that many men show affection for each other and create a pleasant work environment. Many women can’t take part in that. It seems a little bit insulting to them. And if they’re teased in that way, they sometimes take offense. So the same thing can happen with sexual teasing. Some women may enjoy it and play along, but some women can really be offended by it because, again, it can remind her that she’s vulnerable in a certain way.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you something slightly different. And you may consider it off key. I had the feeling that, when you talk about language in Talking From Nine to Five, you’re being descriptive. In the other books you were being prescriptive. You were saying, “You can do this,” more than you were saying, I mean, “You can change things at home,” more than you were saying that at the office.

TANNEN: I don’t think so. I’m pretty conscious about being mostly descriptive in everything that I do. But I also make a real effort to be a little bit prescriptive because I realize when people read my books, they want me to tell them what to do, at least give them some options. So I do say, “You could try this” and “You could try that.” And I believe you’ll find I do about the same amount here as I do in the other books. But mostly it’s the insight that helps people. In other words, things are happening to you, and you recognize them when you see them in the book – that’s what people tell me – but understanding the process that’s going on helps you see what you can do about it.

HEFFNER: No, I mean the recognition is there. I mean, I kept saying, “There you go, Heffner.”

TANNEN: Right. But I do have about the same proportion of suggestions.

HEFFNER: And the prescription, the value of being prescriptive?

TANNEN: Well, I’m very cautious about being prescriptive because I realize people have different conversational styles. This is the whole thrust of everything that I explain in these books. So I can’t tell you, “This is the way you should speak, and then everything will work out well.” What I can give you are the tools to understand what are the ways that conversation works so that if you’re not getting the response you like, consider that it could be these things: How relatively direct or indirect you are about asking people what to do. This would be an example. So another, here would be an example: Somebody complained to me that she had told her secretary to do something. The secretary wasn’t doing it. And then she realized from reading Talking From Nine to Fivev that she was expressing it as, “Maybe it would be good if you tried this, and didn’t make it explicit: “I’m the boss. I want you to try this.” Well, after thinking about that as a problem, she tried being more direct with this one person and found that it worked.

Now, does that mean I’m going to tell you, any time you want to do something, tell them directly? No. Because there are many other people who would far prefer that you say, “Maybe you should try this.” And, in fact, I recently completed a videotape, a training video made by Chart House International. And they just sent camera crews out, caught people in real life interaction, and this is what we saw over and over. And I have that on the video, these clips of people telling people what to do. And over and over again we had women saying, “you know what I would do, or, “Do you think you
could …” And the answer is, “Okay.” So, most of the time it worked very well. So I don’t want to tell everybody to go out and be direct. But I want to tell everybody to be aware that if you’re not getting the response that you want, you might consider making this adjustment.

HEFFNER: I gather you’re saying, too, that corporate America, and maybe corporate Europe and the Far East, become aware that the bottom line is enhanced by paying attention to the talking that’s going on from nine to five.

TANNEN: Absolutely. And this is why I’m invited very often to speak to corporations. Because they realize that if they can’t retain women, they’ve invested the money in the women, they’re the ones that are losing. They realize that many of their clients that they’re trying to appeal to are women, and so they have to keep women in the corporation. It’s not just women, of course. Other kinds of differences as well. They simply can’t find all the middle class white men to fill all the jobs they need. They’re going to have to diversify. And understand that you can’t just let people in, you have to understand that they may have a different way of communicating to take advantage of the talents that they have. It’s the corporation that benefits. And people find this training tape very useful, even just watching it and talking about it. So that people realize, “These are the kinds of things I have to be aware of.”

HEFFNER: You know, I find this all absolutely fascinating, as I’m sure your readers do and our viewers do. What’s the next project going to be, now that I’ve been told we have no more time?

TANNEN: I’m going to move to the question of talking in public.

HEFFNER: Talking in public. Okay. That’s what we’re doing. Thank you so much for joining me again and talking in public, Deborah Tannen.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”