1998 Matrix Awardee
What Are We Fighting For? Linguist Deborah Tannen’s New Battle by Minna Morse
From the AWC-DC Archives:
Before “Defending the Caveman,” before Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, she was there, confirming in a best-selling book what many of us had sensed for years: that men and women are, in many respects, speaking different languages. Now Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the 1990 classic You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, is giving credence to another recent truism: that, as a society, we seem to be growing increasingly partisan, and increasingly combative in our positions.
In her new book, The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue, Tannen takes a hard look at three Washington mainstays—politics, the media and the law—and how they are falling victim to, and perpetuating, a “war” mentality in public debate. On May 21, Professor Tannen will be the keynote speaker at our annual MATRIX Luncheon. She will also be the recipient of our chapter’s MATRIX award—for all that she has done to shed light on the unique concerns of women in communication, in the broadest sense, and, by extension, on the concerns of all of us who work in the fields of communications. With her new book hot off the press, Professor Tannen will have much to say about women’s and men’s communication styles, the effects each have in the workplace, and the ways in which they are played out in the larger arena of public debate.
“There’s only one chapter on gender in my new book,” Tannen told me in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to dwell on that aspect of the problem. But it’s certainly the case that the kind of oppositional style, the battle metaphors, that I address in this book, are more typical for men than for women.” Citing others’ research on boys and girls at play, she points out, “Boys and girls both fight. But boys are more likely to fight for fun.” Though Tannen began her academic career at the height of the women’s movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she did not originally intend to study gender differences. “I was trained as a linguist, and was most interested in studying the communication styles of different cultures, and how they can clash when they come into contact.” After writing 70 or 80 academic articles and a number of books, she published her first book for a popular audience, an introduction to the concept of conversational style called That’s Not What I Meant! “There was just one chapter on gender. But that was the section that received the most attention.”
Intrigued by the subject, she went on to write You Just Don’t Understand, in which she interpreted women’s and men’s difficulties in communication as the result of clashing cultures, not necessarily conflicting interests. Men, for example, are used to one-upmanship; they expect it, defend against it, and don’t take it personally. Women, on the other hand, tend to be conciliatory, valuing keeping peace over confrontation. They tend not to challenge others directly, and-unless they’ve learned otherwise-can be caught off guard when they are challenged directly themselves. Not surprisingly, Tannen found herself next looking specifically at issues of cross-gender communication in the workplace. In her follow up to You Just Don’t Understand, called Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace-Language, Sex and Power, Tannen once again simply described behavior as she saw it. In her previous book she took pains to make no value judgements about the different styles of the genders; in this book, it was hard to escape their impact on the work environment. While promoting these first two books, Tannen began thinking about the theme of her latest.
“Some interviewers wanted to know what the most controversial aspect of my book was. They were looking for what was most provocative-rather than what was most thought-provoking. They’re not always the same thing. In fact, they’re often quite different.” She began noticing a trend, growing over the last five or ten years, “of using battle as the framework and metaphor in public discourse. To show you are smart, you criticize, even demonize the opposition.” Rather than exposing public personalities “warts and all,” she says, politicians and the media have been giving us “warts and nothing but the warts.” The two-party system, she admits, “is bipolar by definition and by design. But it’s gotten much worse.” Public debate, she says, “has become ritualized knee-jerk opposition,” noting that in the past few years some of the most respected, moderate senators have opted not to seek reelection, often attributing their decision to the fact that partisan rancor has lately gotten out of control.
“Henry Clay, Speaker of the House in the early 1800s, was known as the Great Compromiser,” she reminds me. “My guess is he’d be ridiculed today.”
“These days,” she says, “public discourse is more about having an argument than making an argument.” And of that, her book argues, more’s the pity.