Wesley N. Shellen
University of Montana-Missoula
Gender & Discourse is Deborah Tannen's fifteenth book published during a prolific career as Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. It is also her fourth book about communication between men and women. In 1990 she published a book for general readers titled You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. It hit the New York Times best seller list for nonfiction works and remained there for four years. Acceptance among general audiences catapulted her to national prominence, complete with appearances on "Oprah" and other forums. Her success led to another popular book, Talking from 9 to 5 (1994), in which she examined gender and communication in the workplace. Now, for scholarly readers, Tannen has gathered five previously published research papers to provide the theoretical framework of "interpretive sociolinguistics" that underlies her previous works on gender and discourse.
What may surprise many readers is that this is not really a book about differences in the ways men and women talk. Tannen's methodology, discourse analysis, allows her to make analytic and critical claims about the form and function of utterances in men's and women's natural conversations. As is typical of most discourse analysts, Tannen works with small sample sizes and selects data purposively rather than randomly because it illustrates her analysis. Occasionally she reminds the reader that her descriptions of the men and women she has studied may not necessarily generalize beyond her own small samples. At other times she seems to write, at least as I read her, as though she really believes she is describing women (in general) and men (in general). Her descriptions are compelling and so often seem to offer an explanation for problems of communication between the genders that it is easy to ignore the important limitations inherent in her research methodology and small samples. These limitations are particularly important to remember in reading the final three essays in the book.
Her first two chapters are excellent examples of Deborah Tannen's style and sociolinguistic philosophy. Taken together, these two chapters, in my opinion, represent the very best of her works. The opening essay, "The relativity of linguistic strategies," was first published in 1990. This essay criticizes the assumption that differences reported in language and gender research are simply a product of masculine dominance and feminine sociability. Tannen's analysis shows that attempts to understand what goes on between women and men in conversation are muddled by what she calls the ambiguity and polysemy of power and solidarity. By this she means that the same language can be used to accomplish both functions, so utterances by men and women cannot be sorted into distinct categories of dominance or sociability. She illustrates the problem by reviewing and showing ambiguities in studies of gender and various discourse strategies including indirectness, interruptions, silence versus volubility, topic raising, and conflict styles.
The next essay, "Interpreting Interruption in Conversation," extends the relativity theme in a detailed analysis of the research on interruptions between men and women. In traditional sociolinguistic theory any overlapping talk was classified as an interruption. Interruptions were regarded as hostile acts designed to attain control of the floor and dominate one's conversational partner. Empirical studies from the 1970's showed that men interrupt women significantly more often than the reverse, hence the conclusion that men use interruptions as a discourse strategy to dominate women. Tannen objects to this line of reasoning. Her own research shows that overlapping talk is characteristic of what she calls "high involvement" style. Listeners who are highly involved in conversation often use "cooperative overlaps," not to gain the floor, but to show enthusiasm and participation in the topic. Compared with men, conversations among women tend to show more involvement through cooperative overlaps or collaborative floor holding. By contrast, men more often talk in singly developed floors which Tannen calls "high considerateness" style.
Tannen's third essay is a developmental study of gender differences in physical alignment and topic coherence. Here she relies on data and the reader should be reminded again to be on guard for generalizations from extremely small samples of men and women. She analyzed 20-minute videotapes of same-sex conversations among pairs of male and female best friends at four age levels (the total sample included eight males and eight females!). According to Tannen, the results showed that women's talk is more indirect than men's. Interesting though they may be, the conclusions in this essay are marred by the fact that Tannen has strayed from her home ground of interpretive sociolinguistics into a risky realm of empirical gender comparisons based on extremely small samples. These are not analytic claims about how language works but empirical claims about how males and females behave. At best, this essay is simply a good pilot study for a much larger investigation.
The fourth essay was coauthored with Tannen's mentor, U.C. Berkeley Professor Robin T. Lakoff, one of the pioneer researchers on gender and language. Together they analyzed gender differences in marital conversations as portrayed in Ingmar Bergman's play, Scenes from a Marriage. The analysis illustrated differences in communicative styles between the spouses, Marianne and Johan, manifested by discourse features such as distance, deference, camaraderie, and clarity. Sociolinguistic analysis of fictional dialogue is a controversial technique, especially since the language analyzed here was a translation from the original Swedish. The problem of whether a scripted dialogue represents real husband and wife interaction is not ignored by the authors, however. They argue that the audience's identification with the dialogue justifies its use in analysis to represent at least a general schema or theory of communicative competence in marriage.
This is a weak argument for validity for several reasons. First, prior studies have shown that other forms of discourse, such as cartoon captions, can also be identified as typical of masculine or feminine language. All this proves is that audiences can identify stereotypical gender talk. In fact, studies in which the topics of writings were controlled show that readers could not identify whether the writers were male or female at all. Therefore, Tannen and Lakoff's notion that we have a schema of marital talk is irrelevant to the claim that fictional dialogue may be a valid source of data to study how husbands and wives talk. In their defense, however, it isn't easy to get authentic recordings of intimate conversations between husbands and wives to use in making this sort of analysis. The essay is fun to read but who knows if it describes anything about marital discourse in real life?
The final essay, "Ethnic Style in Male-Female Discourse," examines a recurrent theme in much of Tannen's research. She examines gender differences in the context of cultural variation, primarily by contrasting interpretations of male-female speech made by Greeks, Greek-Americans, and Americans. Cross-cultural variations in style and understanding were slightly more apparent in her data than variations between genders. Sample sizes in this study were too small to allow for meaningful statistical comparisons, but the qualitative findings show that ethnicity may be a confounding as well as neglected variable in research on gender and language.
Taken collectively, Deborah Tannen's writings bring sense and coherence to the study of gender and language. To those who have followed her work since the early 1980's, however, this book evokes the metaphor of old wine in new bottles. The five essays included here have all been published previously between 1982 and 1990. I would recommend ordering a copy for the library and a personal copy for yourself if you teach gender courses. As a text, it would be a worthy addition to an advanced course. However, for undergraduates, I would not recommend it. Tannen's popular 1990 book, You Just Don't Understand, covers most of the same topics and is actually more up to date, broader in scope, and available at half the price in paperback.
Deborah Tannen's work deserves to be read. In my opinion she has earned her position as a leading scholar and spokesperson for the study of gender in language and communication. Her insights into the relativity of linguistic strategies used by men and women have overturned simplistic thinking that the discourse styles of men and women can be explained as dominance versus submissiveness. While not denying that these stereotypes are sometimes accurate, she reminds us that gender differences are embedded within a more complex framework of culture, polysemy, and pragmatics. Also to her credit, unlike other contemporary writers, she does not segregate men and women into two distinct linguistic camps, nor depict the genders as creatures from different planets. She simply helps us understand why we females and males sometimes just don't understand one another.