February 1st, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; discourse analysis; Professor Deborah Tannen's work

This discussion has become so complicated that I'm having trouble finding a way to do a post that's even moderately organized or adequate; it's also awkward for me, since I have to try to find a way to speak what I consider to be the truth without sounding like I'm motivated by sour grapes. I don't know if I can do it -- let's see what happens.

Professor Tannen and I are, as I've already said, on opposite sides of the theoretical spectrum when it comes to alleged gender differences in spoken American English. (She sometimes appears to have a wider population in mind when she writes, but my own expertise extends only to speakers of American English.) We agree that there are observable differences in gendered speech; we agree that there is a Dominant spoken discourse variety of AE and a Dominated (or Subordinate) one. [Those labels are mine, not Tannen's.] Our agreement ends at that point.

Tannen's position, so far as I can determine from reading her work and listening to her statements in media appearances, is that those differences are linked to gender. Mine is that they are linked to power -- to status and rank -- and that the fact that they seem gender-linked is a statistical phenomenon; because more men than women are in positions of higher status and rank, we routinely observe more male examples of Dominant American English than female ones. My position is that all genders know and use both Dominant AE and Dominated AE, depending on the linguistic environment and circumstances in which they find themselves.

This difference of opinion isn't trivial. When Tannen's You Just Don't Understand came out, I said and wrote that if she was correct in her claims we had to immediately set up courses in Male American English for our little girls, starting no later than the first grade; otherwise, the playing field was never going to be level. I found the portrait of AE-speaking adult women in the book offensive. Feminists had spent decades trying to get rid of the "Men are logical/women are emotional" stereotype, and here it was again in Tannen's book. It seemed to me that the book gave every man who perceived things that way the opportunity to buy a copy, approach a woman, say, "You know how I've always said there's no place for women in business [or politics, or the law, or ...]? Well, here's a book that proves I'm right! And you can't say it's sexism, either -- because the author of this book is a woman!"

I also objected to the book because it seemed to me to hand people the perfect excuse for crossgender communication failure. If women and men speak different "genderlects" -- different dialects of American English, based on their gender -- then that explains everything. Nobody ever has to say anything like "The reason I have trouble talking to my opposite-gender partner is because I'm opinionated and stubborn and convinced that I'm always right" or "because I don't know any way to stand up for myself without starting a fight" or any of the other multitude of possible explanations for crossgender communication breakdowns. And in the Tannen framework (as I perceive it) there's no need to try to learn any strategies or techniques for improving communication. At the end of every disagreement, you can just shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh, well -- we speak different languages, and this kind of thing can't be helped."

The other problem I have with Professor Tannen's work is the one I've already mentioned -- that the language environment she portrays -- and attributes to "women" and "men" and "mothers" and "daughters" and "fathers" -- is as alien to me as if it were extraterrestrial. I believe that this is because the language behavior she's portraying is accurate for a population of upper-class privileged white Northeasterners, but doesn't extend much beyond that group.

I do think Tannen has done a substantial amount of useful work, and I am careful always to include her in my bibliographies and recommended reading lists. For example, there's the work she's done demonstrating the division of AE speakers into (a) a group for which "overlapping" discourse is expected and acceptable, and (b) a group for which that "overlapping" is perceived as interrupting, and as rude. That's valuable. Her work in bringing to public awareness the existence of various different conversational styles, and the possibility that those style differences are responsible for a lot of conflict and misunderstanding, is valuable. And she has done an excellent job of making clear the contradictory impulses human beings have for getting close while still maintaining their separateness, and the delicate adjustments required for balancing those two impulses in daily life.

Nevertheless, I continue to disagree with her basic position on many matters and to feel that she extrapolates too broadly from too small a sample of language behavior. That's fine. Linguists do disagree, like any other scientists, and the disagreements keep things moving.

My own book on crossgender communication is called GenderSpeak, and it was published by John Wiley & Sons. I strongly objected to that title because it presupposes the existence of American English genderlects and the thesis of the book is that no such thing exists -- but the marketing department overruled me because the title, they said, "had legs."