“A pause in the wrong place, an intonation misunderstood, and a whole conversation went awry.” A Passage to India – EM Forster. Deborah Tannen is Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. A respected scholar in the field she is also the author of several bestselling books. Her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men [...]


Paying attention to conversational styles helps relationships


“A pause in the wrong place, an intonation misunderstood, and a whole conversation went awry.” A Passage to India – EM Forster.

Deborah Tannen is Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. A respected scholar in the field she is also the author of several bestselling books. Her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was published in 1990 and remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for nearly four years, and has been translated into 30 other languages.

Tannen first became interested in linguistics when her first marriage ended in divorce. She could not understand why two people who initially loved each other simply could not communicate in a loving manner. In her book, That’s Not What I Meant she says, “Seven years of living with the man I had just separated from had left me dizzy with questions about communication. What went wrong when we tried to talk to each other? Why did this wonderful, lovable man turn into a cruel lunatic when we tried to talk things out—and make me turn into one too?”

One problem that may lead to conversational disaster is the difference in styles of the persons talking. When we talk to someone, we assume they must mean or feel what we would mean or feel if we spoke in that way in that context. But that assumption is wrong, it is wrong more often than you may think. The problem is the difference in conversational style.

Most communications have three elements: Explicit content -The husband opens the fridge and says, “There are no eggs.” The Emotional subtext – Could be annoyance, blame or accusation and implicit statement about the nature of the relationship – The husband is trying to criticize and boss the wife. A conversational style is a mixture of these three elements and studies show that the second and third items are the most important of the three.

A relationship is a series of interactions and if the style of these interactions is repeatedly perceived as critical, harsh, and lacking in understanding the relationship is likely to go up in flames. This is especially so as our brains have an inherent negativity bias. As psychologist, Rick Hanson is fond of saying our brains are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

A basic understanding of linguistics will help you get on better with your friends and family. The most important is to understand that there is such a thing as conversational style. So, if you are having a difficult conversation take the time to stop and ask yourself,“Are my conclusions about this person’s intentions towards me justified or unjustified? Could there be a different or kinder explanation? Could it be a matter of different conversational styles?”

Here is an example of communication going wrong given by Tannen. Once she asked her husband, “Do you want to go to my sister’s?” A perfectly innocent question you might say. He answered, “Okay.” Somehow to Tannen, the answer did not sound definitive enough so she followed it up with, “Do you really want to go?” She was taken aback by his angry response, “You are driving me crazy! Why don’t you make up your mind what you want?” She too became angry, incredulous and outraged at the irrationality of his response. On quiet reflection, however, she decided that both of them were decent people who loved each other and made up her mind to not let it happen again. But it did, again and again until their marriage ended in divorce. It was only years later having specialized in linguistics did she understand what had happened. Here is her analysis of the situation from her book, That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Styles Make or Break Relationships.

“From my husband’s point of view, I was being irrational. First, I let him know that I wanted to go, and then when I got what I wanted, I changed my mind and let him know that I didn’t want to go. He was trying to be agreeable, but I was being capricious—exactly my impression, but with our roles reversed.…. He kept acting on hints I hadn’t thrown out, and I kept missing hints he had…We were driving each other crazy.”

Come to think of it our world is shaped by a series of encounters or conversations which we have with friends, relatives, co-workers and other members of the public. On any given day if these encounters are generally pleasant, we will feel good, if they are unpleasant, we will feel lousy. Human conversation is not simple. Even if our intentions are good, even if the explicit content of our conversations is wholly pleasant, we may still end up a cropper if we get our implicit and emotional overtones wrong, sometimes through no fault of our own, but the different impression of the receiver.

What can we do about it? How can we navigate our way through a potential minefield in the course of our daily interactions? There is no one-line answer to this problem. If you are interested, I would urge you to read the books by Deborah Tannen on the subject. But until you do, here are a few bits of advice on the same topic by Rick Hanson.

First, be aware of the tone of the conversation, yours and the other person. Don’t be unnecessarily negative or nasty. Be aware of even subtle put-downs like rolling of your eyes or expressions of annoyance and exasperation. Track your neutral and positive tones too. You never know when you might inadvertently shift to a negative tone. Second, consider the true purpose of the conversation. If you had an underlying agenda such as wanting to be right or trying to show the other person is wrong, shift to a more positive one such as wanting to find out what actually happened. Be empathic and speak from the heart. Third, create an atmosphere of goodwill and relate to the person and don’t try to boss that person around. Fourth, try not to get angry. Human beings are sensitive to anger, verbal and nonverbal, as it signals threat. Anger will, nearly always interfere with communication and the relationship.

So, do pay attention to your conversational style and in the words of Deborah Tannen, “the most significant outcome of knowing about conversational style is knowing itself: knowing that no one is crazy and no one is mean and that a certain amount of misinterpretation and adjustment is normal in communication.”


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