Mind Reading 2.0: Why Conversations Go Wrong

Do you ever struggle to communicate with your mom? Or feel like you and your spouse sometimes speak different languages? In the final episode of our “Mind Reading 2.0” series, we bring back one of our favorite conversations, with linguist Deborah Tannen. She shows how our conversational styles can cause unintended conflicts, and what we can do to communicate more effectively with the people in our lives.

Additional Resources


You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Deborah Tannen, HarperCollins, 1990 and 2007 (updated)

That’s Not What I Meant! : How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, Deborah Tannen, HarperCollins, 1987 and 2011 (updated)

Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,  Deborah Tannen, William Morrow & Company, 1994

You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, Deborah Tannen, Ballantine Books, 2006

The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, Deborah Tannen, Ballantine Books, 1998

Finding My Father: His Century Long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow, Deborah Tannen, Ballantine Books, 2020

Research Studies:

“Indirectness at Work.” Language in Action: New Studies of Language in Society, Festschrift for Roger Shuy, ed. by Joy Peyton, Peg Griffin, Walt Wolfram and Ralph Fasold, 189-212.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000.

“The Display of (Gendered) Identities in Talk at Work.” Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, ed. by Mary Bucholtz, A. C. Liang, and Laurel A. Sutton, 221- 240. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

“The Display of (Gendered) Identities in Talk at Work.” Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, ed. by Mary Bucholtz, A. C. Liang, and Laurel A. Sutton, 221- 240. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Interpreting Interruption in Conversation.” Papers from the 25th Annual Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Part Two: Parasession on Language in Context, ed. by Bradley Music, Randolph Graczyk, and Caroline Wiltshire, 266-87. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 1989.

“When is an Overlap not an Interruption? One Component of Conversational Style.” The First Delaware Symposium on Language Studies, ed. Robert J. Di Pietro, William Frawley, and Alfred Wedel, 119-129. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

“Ethnic Style in Male/Female Conversation.” Language and Social Identity, ed. John Gumperz, 217-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 

“Indirectness in Discourse: Ethnicity as Conversational Style.” Discourse Processes 4:3 (1981): 221-238. Earlier draft appeared as Sociolinguistic Working Paper #55 (January 1979), reprinted in Language and Speech in American Society. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1980.

“New York Jewish Conversational Style.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30 (1981): 133-149. Reprinted in Intercultural Discourse and Communication, ed. by Scott F. Kiesling and Christina Bratt Paulston, 135-149. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 

“The Machine-gun Question: An Example of Conversational Style.” Journal of Pragmatics 5:5 (1981): 383-397. Earlier draft appeared as “Toward a Theory of Conversational Style: The Machine Gun Question.” Sociolinguistic Working Paper #73. Austin: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1980.

 “Children Socializing Children: Practices for Negotiating the Social Order among Peers.” Marjorie Harness Goodwin (with Amy Kyratzis) Introduction to Research on Language and Social Interaction 40(4). Special Issue edited by Marjorie H. Goodwin and Amy Kyratzis, 2007 

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. One of the most famous comedy sketches of the 20th century is built on a simple misunderstanding.

Bud Abbott: We'll just pretend that we're organizing a baseball team here at the Retired Actors Home and I am the manager.

Shankar Vedantam: It's the routine from Abbott and Costello, Who's on First.

Bud Abbott: Well, let's see now we have on our team we have who's on first, what's on second, I don't know who's on third.

Lou Costello: That's what I want to find out, the guys' names.

Bud Abbott: And then... Uh-huh?

Lou Costello: That's what I want to find out, the guys' names.

Bud Abbott: I'm telling you, who's on first, what's on second, I don't know who's on third.

Shankar Vedantam: The duo first performed the sketch in the 1930s and continued to refine it over the next two decades. They rarely did it the same way twice.

Lou Costello: You know the guys' names in the baseball team?

Bud Abbott: Yes.

Lou Costello: Well, go ahead, who's on first?

Bud Abbott: Yes.

Lou Costello: I mean the guy's name.

Bud Abbott: Who?

Lou Costello: The guy playing first.

Bud Abbott: Who?

Lou Costello: The guy playing first base.

Bud Abbott: Who?

Lou Costello: The guy on first base.

Bud Abbott: Who is on first?

Lou Costello: What are you asking me for? I don't know.

Shankar Vedantam: Part of what makes the skit funny is that we are in on the joke. But what happens when the joke's on us? When real life conversations go off the rails because of miscommunication or a misunderstanding, it's no laughing matter.

Deborah Tannen: There are so many things that could misfire. The pace at which you speak, how you get to the point, the rhythms, the intonation patterns. Humor, that is a minefield, how do you let people know that you're joking and that you're teasing?

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, how the unthinking patterns in the way we express ourselves can cause unneeded pain and conflict, and how we can learn to talk and listen better.

Shankar Vedantam: You say to-MAH-to, I say to-MAY-to. If you travel abroad, you instinctively know that the customs in other countries are different. People have different ways of saying hello and goodbye, different rules for conversations with friends. In recent decades, the linguist Deborah Tannen has discovered that many of us don't need to travel to exotic lands to experience the bewilderment and confusion of cross-cultural communication. We can experience those very same feelings when we talk to our own siblings, parents, partners, children, friends, and colleagues. She studies why this happens and how we can all have better conversations with the people in our lives.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah Tannen, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Deborah Tannen: Such a pleasure to be here, thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: You were born in Brooklyn, New York, your parents were immigrants, one from Poland, one from Russia. They were both very alert to the ways people use language, but also alert to subtleties in human relationships. Can you tell me a little bit about the conversations you had at home and also the conversations you sometimes had about those conversations?

Deborah Tannen: Yes, both told stories about people and also how people... things people had said and how people use language. My father in particular was really attuned to subtleties of language, and I remember one time he was telling me about an aunt that he had particularly liked and he said, "Now, there was this expression: (foreign language)]," something like "Heaven forbid," and he said, "But she said, (foreign language)." And he said, "I remember because nobody else said it that way." So he had that attunement to subtleties of language. And my mother was very interested in relationships. She was an electrologist, that's removal of unwanted hair, and she would always be telling us about the stories her patients had told her that day. And so that combination of attunement to language and to relationships kind of came together for me.

Shankar Vedantam: So years later, you grew up, you got married, your husband was Greek and you were living in Greece, you've written that your conversation styles were very different, especially when it came to being direct with one another. Can you give me an example or two of how this worked Deborah?

Deborah Tannen: Yes. I would ask him a question, "John's having a party, do you want to go," and he would say something like, "Okay." Now, to me okay is not an answer, "I want to go," or "I don't want to go." So I would say, "Are you sure you would want to go?" And he would say, "Why don't you make up your mind?" "Where did that come from?" And this, this is one that I actually went on and tested and sure enough the Greeks that I interviewed and gave them this example were most likely to say the wife wouldn't ask unless she wanted to go and she wouldn't double check unless she wasn't happy with the decision.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah was intrigued by the many ways people understood and misunderstood each other. Eventually, she returned to the United States and began a PhD in Linguistics. One Thanksgiving, she decided to do some research by recording a conversation with friends.

Deborah Tannen: I wonder how our grandparents...

Speaker 5: Cranberry sauce.

Deborah Tannen: and parents felt about about Thanksgiving.

Speaker 5: Cranberry sauce.

Shankar Vedantam: Two were from California, one was from the UK. Deborah and two others were New Yorkers.

Deborah Tannen: It was simply my best friend, his brother, his former wife and two of his friends who were in town.

Speaker 5: Remember where WYNS used to be?

Speaker 6: No.

Speaker 5: When they built the new skyscraper there?

Speaker 6: No, where was that?

Speaker 5: Right where Central Park West met Broadway.

Speaker 7: Did I give you too much?

Speaker 6: Is that Columbus Circle?

Speaker 5: Right on Columbus Circle. Here's Columbus Circle [crosstalk 00:05:46].

Speaker 6: Now it's the Huntington Hartford Museum there.

Speaker 7: That's the Huntington Hartford, right?

Speaker 5: I don't know.

Deborah Tannen: And what I found, first of all, was that I could not study the conversational styles of each of the people who was there because it was difficult for the Californians to get the floor.

Carl: What is he? What is he?

Speaker 6: He's a sociologist, he's so brilliant.

Speaker 5: He's incredible. He's just a...

Speaker 6: You have to read him.

Speaker 7: And he's witty.

Speaker 6: And it goes like... pleasure reading, yes.

Speaker 7: Which ones? Half... A Silence?

Speaker 5: All of them.

Speaker 6: Read A Silence...

Deborah Tannen: And I had to conclude that I was getting a chance to observe the conversational styles of the three New Yorkers but not of the others because they were not able to exercise their natural conversational styles. It's not that they never spoke, but they couldn't be part of the back and forth give and take because anytime anyone talks to anyone, we need a sense of how long a pause we think is normal between turns. And the New Yorkers' sense of how long a pause was normal was shorter and so while the Californians and even more the British woman, while they were just waiting for a normal pause so that they could come in, one of the New Yorkers would get the sense, "Uh-oh, they have nothing to say, we might as well fill this pause."

Speaker 5: What's to analyze, there hasn't been one misunderstanding, we've all understood each other perfectly?

Speaker 7: What do you mean by that?

Shankar Vedantam: I want to pause for a moment and just look at what you actually did as you were analyzing the conversation, because once you had this recording in hand, it took you two and a half months to transcribe this three hour conversation. How much detail were you trying to capture?

Deborah Tannen: I wanted to capture everything that I was aware of, that I had perceived, so I made notes in the transcription whether a person said the or the. But I had a stopwatch and measured the number of seconds between words when it was a perceptible pause. And I had it checked by the people who had been a part of the conversation. They listened to it and checked it for me.

Shankar Vedantam: What I find really insightful and remarkable here is it actually took that level of care and precision and detail for you to actually realize that there was something happening beneath the surface of the conversation, the way people said certain things. What was the insight that you took away, Deborah, about the ways in which conversational styles affected how conversations unfolded and how people perceived one another?

Deborah Tannen: Well, one of the insights is that you have to look more deeply to see what the intentions were and how the way one person speaks is actually influenced by how another person speaks. Some people might have concluded the New Yorkers are interrupting because they're starting to talk when someone else is speaking. Well, sometimes we talk along as a way of showing enthusiasm. We're so interested we don't wait for you to stop, we talk along.

Speaker 5: That was my fault. I don't know.

Speaker 6: I shook hands with Rubinstein once.

Speaker 7: Yeah, we did together.

Speaker 6: That's right, we did together. Wasn't it incredible?

Speaker 7: Oh, it was.

Speaker 6: It was like [crosstalk 00:09:01].

Speaker 5: What's this?

Speaker 6: I...

Speaker 7: Rubinstein's hand.

Speaker 6: We shook... We shook hands with Rubinstein...

Speaker 9: And he had short stubby hands?

Speaker 6: His hands, they were like jelly.

Speaker 7: Famous concert pianist.

Speaker 6: They were like putty.

Speaker 9: Really?

Speaker 6: Just completely soft and limp.

Deborah Tannen: If we do that with someone who thinks one voice goes at a time, if you begin speaking while I'm speaking, that means you're interrupting and I'll stop, well, who created that interruption? It took two people, someone to start and someone to stop. Another aspect of the style of the New Yorkers, it isn't the job of a speaker to make sure that other people get the floor. Kind of you might say, it's a sign of respect. You trust other people to get the floor if they want, and so if someone tried to bring up a topic and others were speaking and they didn't stop for them, they would try again. And if still wasn't picked up, they would try again.

Speaker 5: I don't know. [crosstalk 00:09:54] What should we do then? Shall we start with-

Carl: Forget about the lady who was asked...

Speaker 6: I'm going to give it to them, right?

Speaker 5: Okay.

Carl: Did you hear...

Speaker 5: Yup, he said, boy, girl, boy.

Speaker 7: Boy, girl, boy?

Carl: Did you hear about the lady who was asked...

Speaker 6: What?

Carl: Did you hear about the lady who was asked...

Deborah Tannen: And there was one example where one of the New Yorkers, it wasn't me, tried seven times before he got his turn to say what he wanted to say. The Californians wouldn't do that. If they tried to say something and it wasn't picked up, they gave up.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you notice things about your own conversational style in that recording? Because for the first time probably, you were actually slowing down and listening to yourself speak?

Deborah Tannen: Right. Yes, yes, I did and in some cases was kind of embarrassed when I saw the effect of my ways of speaking. An example of that is what I ended up calling machine gun questions. So I was talking to my friend Carl, he's my best friend, but one of the guests was a friend of his who was visiting from Los Angeles, his name was Chuck. So I was trying to be friendly to Chuck and make him feel welcome here. So the truth is I knew the answers to these questions because Carl had told me, but I was trying to be nice to Chuck and give him the floor. And the conversation went something like this, I said, "Are you from LA?"

Deborah Tannen: Do you live in LA?

Carl: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: Are you visiting here? You visiting here?

Carl: Yes.

Deborah Tannen: What do you do there? What do you do there?

Carl: I work at Disney. Walt Disney.

Deborah Tannen: Are you a writer? Artist?

Deborah Tannen: Artist?

Carl: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: Writer?

Carl: Yeah, I write, advertising copy.

Deborah Tannen: And it was one after another and this high pitched, clipped syntax, and when I listened to the tape, I realized it was having the opposite effect of what I expected. He wasn't taking the floor and he wasn't talking... and I talked to him about it afterwards. I'm still in touch with all these people who were there. He was just caught off guard by the rapidity of my questions.

Deborah Tannen: So that's a permanent full-time thing you have, so you eat?

Carl: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: That's good.

Deborah Tannen: It seemed like he was being assaulted by machine gun fire and instead of backing off...

Deborah Tannen: Did you go there for that purpose?

Carl: Yeah, I went...

Deborah Tannen: And downshifting, I was putting on more and more these questions.

Deborah Tannen: How'd you get that job?

Carl: My dad's worked there since 1937.

Shankar Vedantam: Right, so the interesting thing there is that if you share a conversational style with someone, you essentially can play this game where in other words, you can interrupt the flow of a conversation with sort of very quick machine gun exchanges and neither party thinks of it as being obnoxious or rude. But if you don't share the same conversational styles, the very same interruption can come across as being completely different and clearly over the Thanksgiving dinner, some of that was happening.

Deborah Tannen: Absolutely, and by the way, these mutual negative impressions go both ways. It isn't only the ones who are talking along to show enthusiasm run the risk of being seen as rude, but people who sit there and don't do their part in the conversation, that also comes across as rude. And this is really a universal about human relations and about conversational style. If you talk to someone who shares a conversational style with you, you're just talking away that to you makes sense, it makes sense to them. And it isn't only that they don't think you're rude, it's that they appreciate the way you are appreciating them. It is like a sign of, "We get each other." This is a great conversation. A perfectly tuned conversation is a vision of sanity, a reassurance that you're a right sort of person and all is right with the world.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah realized that underneath the conversations we think we're having, there are other conversations unfolding beneath the surface. Lots of us are not aware of these hidden conversations.

Deborah Tannen: These things are so automatic that when things start to go wrong we don't look at that level. You don't walk away saying, "You know, that was kind of awkward because I think you expect a millisecond shorter of pause than I do." You walk away saying, "The kind of person you are, you didn't want to give me a chance to talk," or "You only want to hear yourself talk." Or the other side, "Why is the conversation with you like pulling teeth?"

Shankar Vedantam: You write at one point, what makes misunderstandings resulting from conversational style differences so hard to clear up is that we don't have a way of talking about them, we don't think of saying, "When my voice has that quality, it means I'm being friendly." Such cues are sent and perceived automatically and I might add, they're probably sent and perceived unconsciously. If you and I are not using the same code book about what a pause means, what a certain tone means, we might constantly misunderstand one another even though both of us have the best of intentions.

Deborah Tannen: Yes, and astonishingly, I mean this even happens among people who are married to each other or live together or know each other very well. So here's another example of lifelong friends, I think at this point, they're in their 80s and they've been friends since they were teens. They were walking along around a lake, and one was telling about something that was, she was concerned about and then there's a duck coming along the lake with her little ducklings behind her. And the one who notices it, "Oh, look at that duck, isn't that charming?" And her friend said, "You're not listening to me." And she said, "Of course I'm listening to you, why would you think I'm not listening to you?" "Well, why are you talking about the ducks?"

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how these misunderstandings produce deep wounds in relationships and keep people from the happiness that is actually within their reach.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Deborah Tannen is a linguist at Georgetown University. She's the author of nearly a dozen books about how people talk to one another and the ways in which misunderstandings arise in conversation. Early in her career, she discovered that many of these misunderstandings were unintentional. I think you're saying something that you're not saying, because without being aware of it, we have different styles of conversation or different psychological orientations.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah, lots of academics get their work presented at conferences, some of them write books. You've done those things, but also had a TV show inspired by your ideas. For our younger or overseas listeners who are not familiar with this show, can you tell us the premise of Home Improvement?

Deborah Tannen: Yes, Home Improvement was a situation comedy, a man who's kind of a handyman type and he's got a relationship with his wife and then whenever they have arguments, which they have often, the premise of the individual segments is some argument they have, he would go out in the backyard and talk over the fence to his neighbor and the neighbor would shed light on these arguments. And it was actually told to me by the people who produced and created this show, the neighbor's advice came out of my books.

Wilson: Tim, Tim, Tim, the first step for greatness is humbling yourself.

Tim: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah.

Wilson: Maybe you shouldn't try to have all the answers and instead ask more questions. You see, Tim, a truly wise man always has more questions than answers.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah, I want to play you another clip from Home Improvement. Jill, who's the wife, has prepared a surprise romantic dinner. She gets on the phone and asks Tim to come home. He says he'll be back in 15 minutes but he ends up staying the whole evening at a bar with his friends. Here's what happens when he comes home.

Tim: I am really sorry, but the guys and I got in some real serious discussions about relationship things, men and women stuff, sharing feelings. Pretty heavy stuff.

Jill: I spent two days planning this evening. Do you have any idea how long it's been since we had a quiet, romantic evening together?

Tim: I was on the phone, why didn't you say come home?

Jill: I wanted to surprise you. Good night.

Tim: Come on, Jill. I don't go out with these guys every night. What's making you so angry?

Jill: I am angry because you said you were going to be home in 15 minutes and then you weren't, because I'm flirting with you like crazy on the phone and you didn't even notice, and most of all because I went to all this trouble for nothing. I spent the whole evening by myself and now you're stuck with a plate of cold food.

Tim: Oh, don't worry about me, I ate at the bar.

Shankar Vedantam: So unpack what just happened here, Deborah.

Deborah Tannen: I think the trouble could be traced to the conversation where she feels that she communicated in her way of speaking to him that she was flirting, that she was trying to set up a romantic atmosphere and then didn't tell him directly, "Come home, I have a surprise for you," or "It's really important you come home tonight." And he said, he'll be home in 15 minutes, fine. She took him at his word. He... and this is such a common cultural difference between women and men, if you think of women's and men's ways of speaking as cultural differences. He expected that his wife would just tell him directly and so his antennae were not rolled out for picking up those hints. And he feels falsely accused.

Shankar Vedantam: Hm.

Deborah Tannen: "You didn't tell me there was a special reason for me to come home, so how could I know. What do you expect me to be? A mind reader?"

Shankar Vedantam: And we talked about this earlier as well, sort of the difference between people who prefer their speech to be direct and people who prefer to use more indirect speech. You have something called the Birthday Present Routine that illustrates this idea. What is it?

Deborah Tannen: People who tend to be direct, don't understand why anyone would be indirect, but sometimes they can understand it if you think of the Birthday Present Routine.

Deborah Tannen: You want the person you love and who loves you to give you a birthday present that you would want, because it's a sign that they care, that they're willing to take the trouble to figure out what to get you, that they know you well enough to pick the right thing. Now you could say, "Well, why don't you just tell them what you want? That would guarantee that you get what you want." You might get what you want, but you don't get all those other things that you want, evidence that they care, evidence that they know you well enough to know what you would want. And so that is how indirectness works in other contexts as well.

Deborah Tannen: And I think it's so important to point out, first of all, it's not always women and men and there are in the conversations with my husband, I was the one who was more likely to be direct, he was the one more likely to be indirect. So there's a lot of cultural differences, regional differences, ethnic differences, all kinds of other influences.

Shankar Vedantam: Yup.

Deborah Tannen: The way we say what we mean seems so obviously the way to do it, that you really have to learn to step back and say, could this person that I love be using a different style? We think that because we speak the same language, and we think because we love each other, or we like each other or we're relatives, we should understand each other.

Shankar Vedantam: When misunderstandings arise in close relationships, as a result of these underlying differences in communication styles, it can sometimes send a big message to both parties, this relationship isn't working. Deborah mentions a real life example she heard of a couple driving in a car.

Deborah Tannen: And she had said to him, "Are you thirsty, dear? Would you like to stop for a drink?" And he wasn't, so he said no, and then later it turned out that she was annoyed because she had wanted to stop. And his feeling, kind of like the Home Improvement example was, "Why didn't she tell me? Why does she play games with me? Why do I have to be a mind reader?" And I said, "You know, I suspect, that when your wife said, 'Are you thirsty? Would you like to stop for a drink,' she probably was not expecting a yes/no answer. She probably expected something like, 'I don't know, how do you feel about it?'"

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: And then she could say, "I don't know, how do you feel about it." She was communicating that she didn't want to make a demand, she wanted to know how it would be with him. Now why would she think she has to do that and why would he not think so? My guess is that his style says you can just throw out an idea and if I don't like it, I'll tell you. So you start specific and you work your way out. Other people, and she seems to be one who does it this way, you start vague and work your way in.

Shankar Vedantam: You cite the anthropologist Gregory Bateson who talks about something called a message and the meta message. Can you explain those terms to me?

Deborah Tannen: Yes, the message is the meaning of the words. The meta message is what it says about the relationship that you say these words in this way in this context. Often we end up arguing about the message when it's the meta message that upset us.

Deborah Tannen: I was walking with a colleague of mine, a woman, on college campus, and one of our older male colleagues crossed our paths and it was one of these brisk fall days in the Northeast and she said to him, "Hi, where's your coat?" And he said, "Thanks, mom." And then as he walked away, she kind of said, "What was that about?" What was the meta message of her asking, "Where's your coat?" For her it was a meta message of friendliness and if you say something about a person's welfare, that shows another level of caring about them. He responded to the meta message that this is a way a mother talks to a child or a person in a position of authority talks to a subordinate.

Deborah Tannen: It points up another dynamic that often comes up with women and men, again, can come up between any two people, any time we talk to each other, we have to balance both who's up, who's down, and are we close or distant. And often women will walk away from a conversation asking did this bring us closer or push us further apart, where men are more likely to respond to the question, did this put one of us in a one up or one down position. And there's so many examples of that. A woman who was hurt that her husband called up and said, of his friend, "My high school friend is in town, I'm going to have dinner with him tonight." And she said, "Gee, maybe I had some plans tonight, why don't you ask how that's going to affect my plans?" And he said, "I can't tell my friend I need to ask my wife for permission."

Deborah Tannen: Now is checking with your wife, your spouse, the person you live with, is this about permission, who's up, who's down or is it about connection? What we do affects each other, and so we negotiate things like that.

Shankar Vedantam: So you write that the seeds of women's and men's style are sown in the ways they learn to use language while growing up and that we grow up in different worlds, even when we grow up in the same household. What do you mean by that?

Deborah Tannen: Boys and girls tend to play in sex separate groups and the ways that they socialize, the way little girls and little boys use language and play tends to be different. Now this is research by psychologists, anthropologists that have studied kids at play, and they have observed that girls tend to play in smaller groups, often one on one. Their social life often focuses on a best friend. They spend a lot of time sitting and talking. Often it's telling secrets, I collect pictures from again all over the world, two little girls, one is whispering in the other's ear.

Deborah Tannen: I have encountered a few pictures of boys doing that, but not many. Boys tend to play in larger groups, and it's the activity that's central. Your best friend is the one you do everything with. Marjorie Harness Goodwin is an anthropologist at UCLA who has observed this, that boys will often tell the other boys what to do, and that gives them status in the group. The one who tells the others what to do and they listen, he's the leader. If girls tell other girls what to do, she's bossy and they don't want to play with her, and all of this of course has great implications for when you're adults, especially in the world of work.

Shankar Vedantam: The larger thing that I'm taking away from this is that all of us grow up in certain specific cultural worlds and where often those worlds are like the water we swim in if we're fish. I mean, they're worlds we don't even notice, we sort of assume that the entire world must be like the world in which we grew up. And we sort of naively assume that others share our cultural backgrounds and cultural world views, and so much miscommunication happens because of that. You've talked, for example, about how when people get married, they imagine that their partners are going to be better versions of all of the best friends they've had throughout the rest of their lives and of course, that places significant burden on that new relationship.

Deborah Tannen: Yes, yes, I often say that for girls and women talk is the glue that holds a relationship together. And so they expect that when they... If they're heterosexual and they expect he's going to be a new and improved version of a best friend, he's going to tell me everything. And then you get to the end of the day, and he comes home and she tells him what happened and what she did and who she talked to and what they said and what that made her think and what that made her feel and then how was your day? "Same old rat race." "Really? Didn't anything happen?" "No."

Deborah Tannen: And then they go out to dinner and they're having dinner with a number of other couples, and suddenly he's regaling the dinner party with something that happened during the day and she feels hurt. "What am I? Chopped liver? Why didn't you tell me this?" And it seems to really be a different sense of the place of talk in a relationship. So for many, and guys, and I always feel uncomfortable saying women, men, when nothing is true of all women and men, we have so many other influences on our style, but often, men feel like just being together is what matters. So we can be not talking to each other and yet, we're together and that's great.

Deborah Tannen: So it's a kind of public speaking and private speaking. From his point of view, when he's out with a group, he has to do his part, make sure he gets the attention and the respect that he deserves and it's a kind of display and here's when talk comes into its own. For many women, when you're out in public, you kind of have to be careful what you say. If you talk too much, people think you talk too much. You might say the wrong thing, you might offend somebody. Now you're home with someone you're close to, you feel comfortable, you're free to talk.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering as you go through life, I mean, obviously, you notice these things happening with other people. Do you notice this happening in your own life, Deborah? Do you notice moments where you basically stop and say, "Uh-oh, I understand, I missed the meta message of what was being communicated here."

Deborah Tannen: Well, I'll tell you one thing that comes to mind. This is before I was married, so it was a fellow I was dating at the time and we were having an argument. The phone rang, somebody called and said, "Turn on the television, you're on the television right now." So we interrupted our argument, put on the television, and there I was being interviewed about conversational style.

Speaker 13: And what did you find out about conversation, after listening to all [crosstalk 00:30:27]...

Deborah Tannen: And I was holding forth on something that was quite similar to what we were arguing about.

Speaker 13: So what's the answer in 10 seconds or less?

Deborah Tannen: Understand that there are conversational style differences and sometimes the adversarial approach is not going to be the best one.

Shankar Vedantam: And did he turn to you and say, "Deborah Tannen, could you listen to Deborah Tannen?"

Deborah Tannen: We just both laughed, it was so funny.

Shankar Vedantam: Much of the time, misunderstandings don't end in laughter. They don't even end in outbursts of anger, especially when it comes to friends or colleagues, we are hesitant to bring up misunderstandings. We let them go or we say we let them go, but they fester. Deborah recalls an incident like this. After she remarried, she and her husband had two friends over for dinner one night.

Deborah Tannen: A friend had come over and another friend of my husband's was there as well. And my friend, her name was Tamara, Tamara kept offering to help. So when we were serving appetizers, she would help out by kind of offering people appetizers and when it came to cleaning up, she was helping to clean up and I kept telling her, "No, you're the guest, you stay here." But she kept doing it anyway and at one point, I was so frustrated I actually grabbed her by the arm and plopped her down. But she was up and trying to help wash the dishes and I was so put off by it, that I actually found myself thinking, "I'm not sure I want to invite her again." And I thought, "Wait a minute, this is a good friend. I'm very fond of her, we can talk about it."

Deborah Tannen: And so we did. And she got this look of astonishment on her face and then, "Oh, my God," she said, "You know, I do that, because that's how my mother does it and that's how I've learned to do it." And she said, "It just happened last night. My mother prepared dinner, I got up and I kept helping, and she said, 'Don't do that, don't do that. You're the guest, stay seated.' And I cleared the table, and I washed the dishes and I cleaned up and when I was done, my mother said, 'Thank you so much for doing that.'" And it was a revelation to both of us.

Deborah Tannen: There are many people for whom the assumption is, "I'm going to offer to help. You're going to tell me you don't want me to, but you really do want me to." And in fact, it was another friend, we were both guests somewhere, and she did that and I said, "Could you do me a favor, ask the host the next day how she felt about that?" And she said, the host thanked her profusely. She said, "I was so tired, there was no way I could have washed all those dishes myself. I was so grateful." And I heard her saying, "No, no, no, don't do it."

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, and the tricky thing there, Deborah, is if you had asked that host, "Should I have helped," she may well have told you, "No, you don't have to help," because she would have felt obliged to say that, when in fact, she did. I mean, so this is what makes it so tricky that sometimes even doing the transparent thing of just asking the person, "Tell me what your conversational style is," even that does not elicit people's real conversational styles.

Deborah Tannen: You are so right. I was a guest at that dinner, and I took the host at her word. When she said she didn't want help, I didn't help, because that's how I prefer it. When I say I don't want help, I mean it, and the term... again, this is from Gregory Bateson, meta communicating, you talk about the communication. Meta communicating often will work, but often it doesn't, because people won't tell you. Think of a classic example of that: someone suggests having lunch and you don't really want to. You don't say, "Are you kidding, I would never have lunch with you?" You say, "Oh, I have a lot of work today. I don't think I'll do it today." So they ask you again, and then you say, "Oh, I'm kind of don't feel that well today, I'm..."

Deborah Tannen: And so finally they say, "Are these excuses real or should I stop asking, because you really don't want to have lunch with me?" You're still not going to say, "No, I never want to have lunch with you."

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: You're probably going to get even more indirect. "Oh, no, no, I really needed a..." You're right, it is extremely difficult, unless, you have the of relationship where you have agreed, we both know there is this thing called conversational style. We both know these are things that can be tricky, so let's agree that we're going to be as upfront about it as we can, when asked.

Shankar Vedantam: The same misunderstandings in professional settings can result in managers feeling disrespected or ignored and employees feeling bullied or confused.

Deborah Tannen: One of the managers that was studying told me, he said, "You know, when I make a decision, I just announce it and I assume that if people aren't happy with it, they'll tell me." Well, that's going to work for some people and not for others.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Deborah Tannen: So being aware of conversational style differences is something that applies in every conversation.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, and you can see in the workplace a manager who tells a subordinate, "I'm wondering if you can do me a favor, can you get me an update on that report?" In one situation, the employee can sort of say, this person is not flaunting their power, even though they could just simply tell me to go and get the update on the report. They're actually opening a conversation that sort of makes me feel included. But somebody else could say, why is the boss talking like he's a pushover? Why can't he just simply tell me what he wants? And they're both perfectly legitimate ways of entering the conversation, but the ground rules need to be shared for the conversation to actually unfold successfully.

Deborah Tannen: I think power can be expressed and created either way. I was once told by a career naval officer, when he heard me talk about indirectness, he said, "That's how the military works." I said, "What?" He said, when he was a mid shipman, just in training, and one of the officers teaching class, came to the class and he said, "It's cold in here," and everybody nodded and he said, "Young men," it was men at that time, "When I say something I expect you to do something about it, so let's try that again. It's cold in here." And the officer who's telling me the story said, "And we all jumped up and went to close the windows and that was the lesson we had learned that served us extremely well in the military." It was because of the power that he had the privilege of being indirect.

Shankar Vedantam: What makes all of this even more difficult is that the interplay of conversational styles changes from person to person. Deborah, as a fast-talking New Yorker, learned she had to force herself not to jump in every time there was a pause in conversation she had with one colleague.

Deborah Tannen: I had to learn to count to seven, before I thought he had nothing to say. His name was Ron Scullen and he was from the Mid-West. He was married to Suzy Scullen who was Chinese from Hawaii and when he talked to Suzy, he was the one who kept interrupting and she would say, "You asked me a question, and you don't give me time to answer, you're asking another one." He and Suzy did research in Alaska among Athabascan Indians. Suzy was constantly interrupting the Athabascans, because their sense of pauses were longer than hers. So I like that example, because it really drives home, we're not talking about absolutes.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Deborah Tannen: "You talk fast, you talk slow." It's always relative.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how to learn to code switch across the chasms of cross-cultural communication.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: We've seen how different conversational styles can produce unintended conflict and misunderstanding. Linguist Deborah Tannen's more recent work has focused on the landmines buried in conversations between siblings, between parents and children, and between political adversaries. In all these realms, she finds that much animosity and conflict could be reduced if we only stopped to do what her parents did during her childhood or what she did during her PhD dissertation: step back from conversations and analyze them like a scientist. This is often very hard to do in real life, because when people say things that upset us, we rarely stop to think.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah, after you started getting famous and went on TV all the time, your mom noticed something about your TV appearances. What was it?

Deborah Tannen: My mother was very upset that I was wearing the same red jacket on all the TV shows. She just complained. Of course, my mother was the only one who watched every show that I was on. At that time it was every city you went to, you did a show and so I had the jacket I was wearing on my book tour. But then she would watch them all back to back, and it really upset her. My mother always felt that I paid insufficient attention to my clothes.

Shankar Vedantam: I have to mention one thing. Since your mom is not here to observe the conversation, I have to flag the fact that you are wearing a red jacket for this conversation today.

Deborah Tannen: No, it's just a red turtleneck, but I do like to wear red, it's true.

Shankar Vedantam: And what was your reaction when your mom basically told you after you'd finished this triumphant book tour why you were wearing the same jacket all the time? What was your reaction Deborah?

Deborah Tannen: I was of course hurt that she was talking about what I was wearing, and not what I said. And I remember discussing this with the host on one of the national morning shows. She told me that her mother did that. That her mother would tell her after each morning what was wrong with what she was wearing, or maybe what was wrong with her hair.

Shankar Vedantam: The kind of interaction Deborah had with her mother has long been a staple of television comedy. In Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a politician and a mom. In one episode, her daughter reaches out with a heartfelt plea.

Sarah Sutherland, as Catherine Meyer: I have had a hard, lonely, miserable life and the only thing that is going to make it worthwhile is if I become the daughter of the next president of the United States.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina Meyer: Okay, sweetie, thanks, and that jacket doesn't work. By the way, you look like a waiter.

Sarah Sutherland, as Catherine Meyer: Oh, God dammit.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah writes about what she calls the big three flashpoints in conflicts between mothers and daughters.

Deborah Tannen: Hair, clothes, and weight. And the mother-daughter relationship in some ways is a perfect storm. From the point of view of the daughter, here's the person you most want to think you're perfect. You think, she knows you so well, and if she think you're wanting, then you really must be fatally flawed.

Deborah Tannen: From the point of view of the mother, here's the person you most want to help to make sure everything goes as well as it could for her. And women are judged by appearance: hair, and clothes, and weight. So from the point of view of the mother, this is caring. "I just want to make sure everything goes well for you. Nobody else will tell you because they don't love you as much as I do. They don't care as much as I do." But any time you make a suggestion for improvement, you are implying criticism, and that's what the daughters hear.

Deborah Tannen: So in fact, "My mother's critical," is one of the biggest complaints I heard from adult daughters. And one of the biggest complaints I heard from mothers of adult daughters was, "I can't open my mouth, she takes everything as criticism." And it's both.

Deborah Tannen: It's not who's right, who's wrong? It's that suggestions for improvement really are implied criticism, and are also a sign of caring.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that one time, your mom asked you about your hair.

Deborah Tannen: Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: Tell me about that.

Deborah Tannen: I was visiting my mother, and she said, "Do you like your hair that long?" And I burst out laughing, and she asked why and I said, "Well, I'm writing this book about mothers and daughters and so many daughters tell me their mothers are critical of their hair." And she said, "I wasn't criticizing." So I let it drop and then later in the visit, I said, "So mom, what do you think of my hair?" And she said, "I think it's a little too long."

Deborah Tannen: Now, I once interviewed this one woman who said to me... She was in her 60s and so her mother would have been in her 80s and she said, "My mother's losing her eyesight, but she can still spot a pimple across the room."

Deborah Tannen: Now, that was said in the spirit of, "My mother's going to find my flaw, the one thing, the one flaw." Now who, when they look at you, is going to see the pimple? Yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Deborah Tannen: And mothers and daughters often look at each other as reflections of themselves and therefore, with the same level of scrutiny to which they subject themselves.

Shankar Vedantam: And we touched on this earlier in our conversation, all of these categories are going to be influenced by class, by culture, by nationality in all kinds of interesting ways. There might be cultures where moms are expressing their concerns in terms of how their daughters are not eating enough, not that they're eating too much. I mean so it's a lot of this is culturally specific. It's not necessarily that all mothers and all daughters in all cultures behave exactly the same way.

Deborah Tannen: Yeah, well, the specifics may be different, and by the way, I have been told by some women, "My mother never did that. My mother never criticized." So all these things are not everybody, not a 100%, but the pattern seem to be pretty cross-cultural. So for example, a women from Oman told me that mothers there might say to their daughters, "I can see hair," meaning your hijab isn't completely covering your hair. Or a woman told me, this is from Africa, she had a wedding she was going to go to. She showed her mother the dress she was planning to wear for the wedding, the mother made a comment that she didn't think it was appropriate and so the daughter stayed up the whole night sewing a new dress for the wedding.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Deborah Tannen:

Yeah, so the specifics may be different, but the mother being the guardian of the daughter's appearance, because women are judged by appearance.

Shankar Vedantam: As I read your work, Deborah, I was struck by how naively many of us enter conversations. We think conversations are like a walk in the park but when really it's often potentially a walk across a minefield. And the fact that we're naïve about the challenges is actually one of the dangers. We... this is why we never expect it when things blow up in our faces.

Deborah Tannen: Yes, and this is partly why it's so satisfying when it goes well. There are so many things that could misfire. The pace at which you speak, not just the how long you wait between turns, but how quickly within turns, how you get to the point? Do you get right to the point? Or do you start kind of vague so that if you're talking to someone who doesn't work that way, they cut you off before you get to the point, because they think you've had a chance? The rhythms, the music of speech, the intonation patterns, the humor. That is a minefield, what can you tell jokes about? How do you let people know that you're joking and that you're teasing?

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, Deborah, if one of the solutions that might be called for is in some ways for all of us to exercise both a little more empathy but also a little more compassion for one another. In other words, to start with the assumption that misunderstandings are happening because of unintended signals. So in other words, to extend to the other people in our lives, whether those are work colleagues or people in our personal lives, that if a misunderstanding has occurred, odds are it's probably happened because of a miscommunication, not because someone intended to hurt us.

Deborah Tannen: That's a great way to look at it. I often say, mine is a rhetoric of good intentions, and people sometimes object to my work. They say, "Well, what if people don't mean well? What if they really are out to get you? What if they really are hostile?" And my response is, "That's not news. People are always ready to see other people as having bad intentions and being up to no good or having bad personality characteristics."

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Deborah Tannen: So the news that my work can provide is to step back and think what if they don't have bad intentions but have different conversational style, different ways of trying to accomplish the positive things they're trying to accomplish? And what thinking about conversational style does is give you a way to imagine different intentions.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, we had the actor and writer Alan Alda on Hidden Brain a couple of years ago and he said something that was very insightful. It's possible of course, that if we imagine that other people are not trying to harm us, we could be wrong. In fact, they might actually be out to get us and we could be naïve about it, but he said, "The more empathy I have for other people, the less annoying I find that they are."

Shankar Vedantam: So separate from the fact that whatever people's real intentions might be, and it might actually be just be better for us to show more empathy, because we'll end up being less triggered by other people.

Deborah Tannen: I love that perspective, absolutely. If you frame everything as a fight, it's corrosive to the human spirit. Everyone feels less safe and more vulnerable. If you get in the habit of seeing good intentions, yeah, maybe you'll miss a few bad intentions, and think better of a few people that don't deserve it, but the world will feel like a safer place, whether you're right or not. But I think you'll be right more often than you realize.

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah Tannen is a linguist at Georgetown University. Her books include "That's Not What I Meant," "You Just Don't Understand, Women and Men and Conversation" and "You're Wearing That: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." Her most recent book is "Finding my Father."

Shankar Vedantam: Deborah, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Deborah Tannen: Thank you. It's really been a pleasure.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer. I'm Hidden Brain's Executive Editor.

Shankar Vedantam: Our Unsung Hero today is Ben Riskin. Ben is a co-founder of Room Tone, a consulting firm that provides strategic and managerial support to podcasters. Ben is someone who seems to know everyone in the audio field and even better, he enjoys making connections between people who have shared interests. Since we launched our independent production company last fall, we've greatly enjoyed chatting with Ben and hearing his insights on where the podcasting industry is headed. Thank you, Ben.

Shankar Vedantam: For more Hidden Brain, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. You can sign up at news.HiddenBrain.org. If you like this episode, and you'd like to support our work, please go to HiddenBrain.org and click on "support."

Shankar Vedantam: I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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