Deborah Tannen is best known for her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which spent four years on the New York Times best-seller list. From this and several other books, including Talking Voices, her book that was funded with $25,000 from NEH, countless readers have learned to identify different conversational styles, especially among men and women, and to appreciate how our various ways of talking may lead to misunderstanding and conflict.
In 1980, however, Tannen was, according to her own description, a little-known junior professor with an unusual angle on linguistics. Recently she had earned a PhD from Berkeley for analyzing a single dinner-table conversation. Now summer was coming and she wanted to spend it doing research, but the meager salary she received from Georgetown University made it difficult to pay her rent.
Fortunately, NEH awarded her a $2,500 summer stipend for research. She was “ecstatic.” Not only could she pay rent and do research, but with this award she had received a vote of confidence on the value of her scholarship.
Differences between men and women were not a part of her studies at first. In fact, when, in her first year, her linguistics department invited her to teach a course on gender differences in language, Tannen said no. Not only that, she recalls laughingly, she was annoyed. Just because she was a woman didn’t mean she wanted to teach the gender course, thank you very much.
It was a lucky break that she had found linguistics in the first place. Her master’s was in English literature, and she had been teaching freshman composition when she decided to attend a summer institute of the Linguistic Society of America. That year LSA had selected “language in context” as its theme. This was linguistics at its most humanistic and its most social, a perfect entry point for someone like Tannen, who had written poetry in her youth and once edited a student literary magazine.
Tannen became a champion of the humanistic side of linguistics, “quite messianic,” she says. In 1985, she organized another LSA institute on everyday language, modeled on the first one she had attended in 1973. Six hundred linguists from around the world came. NEH awarded a $66,727 grant for a coinciding summer program that Tannen ran for college humanities professors. The NEH scholars took part in the LSA Institute but also had their own classes with teachers from the LSA Institute.
It was a busy couple of months. “I was just going ape that summer,” Tannen remembers. In addition, she received a grant from the D.C. Humanities Council to organize, at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, a public program on language differences between men and women. She hired actors from Horizons Theater who performed conversations that were then analyzed by linguists from the LSA institute.
“That was my first foray into the gender field,” Tannen says. “I think the insights were very similar to the kind of thing that I wrote about in the book You Just Don’t Understand.” For instance, “There are systematically different ways that women and men might use language,” and “that the same way of speaking might be intended one way and have a different effect.”
Image Credit: Courtesy William Morrow Paperbacks