Tag Archives: conversation

What Deborah Tannen taught me about conversation & interruption

tannen you just dont understand

I was recently invited to attend a charity event in Washington DC. Dinner was a catered affair of 300 with a few senators & Muhammad Yunus there to talk about micro financing.

After dinner we broke up into some smaller groups, and had great conversations into the night. It was interesting to me as I don’t often rub elbows with lobbyists & political animals. While we were all talking, the subject of language came up, and in particular how different people’s styles affect how they come off.

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I became really engaged, as this topic has always interested me. I was introduced to the ideas of Deborah Tannen. She’s a professor of linguistics from Georgetown University, and an expert on the topic.

Afterward, I went straight to my kindle & bought here seminal book “You Just Don’t Understand”.

Boy do I understand a lot more now.

1. Conversational style varies by culture & gender

Across cultures, from europeans to Asians, North to South Americans, conversational styles vary. Some pause longer between breathes, while others make briefer pauses. Some deem conversation more like judge & jury, where each should be afforded carefully the chance to take stage, while others prefer the casual chance to jump in, and constant overlap.

These differences lead to the sense of pushiness versus interest, interruption versus dominance. Interest versus boredom. Since all these cultures have a different style, it can get rather complicated interpreting someone’s intentions if you’re not from that culture.

What’s more these vary quite a bit between men & women.

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2. Report & rapport talk are different

Report talk is in public, perhaps at a lecture, or out with a large group of friends around the dinner table. There stories & conversation revolves around a larger group.

Rapport talk on the other hand is at home, among intimates.

She says that women tend to prefer the latter while men prefer the former. So in different circumstances it can appear that one or the other has “nothing to say”, when it actually revolves around their preferences of when to speak.

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3. Like & respect

Women’s behavior & style of speaking is rooted in the goal of being liked. So there are many cases where they may downplay themselves, to reach a more equal state with those around them.

Men’s behavior & conversational style is based around seeking respect. This can often mean emphasizing differences, and not parity.

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4. Contest or connection?

Men often see the world through the lens of contest, especially in relationships with others. Women on the other hand tend to see it as an interconnected network. By building bonds you strengthen that network.

These two styles inform dramatically different behaviors in similar situations.

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5. Interest or independence

Here’s another example of how men & women may see things differently.

When men change the subject, women think they are showing a lack of sympathy — a failure of intimacy. But the failure to ask probing questions could just as well be a way of respecting the other’s need for independence.

So it seems styles & priorities inform intention & interpretation of a lot in conversations.

Although all of this doesn’t resolve or put to rest these differences, being informed can certainly help a lot towards understanding.

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