Lucye Rafferty/The Hoya Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen Professor of Linguistics

Deborah Tannen is considered one of the world’s preeminent linguists. Her 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation was a groundbreaking examination of communication differences between men and women and spent nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list. She has published eight other books in addition to a number of creative works. Tannen has been teaching at Georgetown since 1979.

How did you first get interested in the study of linguistics?

When I was studying for an MA in English literature, I saw a poster advertising a Linguistic Institute (each summer the Linguistic Society of America runs such an Institute), and the topics looked fascinating. I also liked the sound of the word “linguistics.” I wasn’t able to attend that one, but as soon as I could be away an entire summer, I enrolled.

I was lucky that the summer I attended the Institute was devoted to Language in Context – the type of linguistics that I do, that captured my imagination and my heart. That was 1973. It inspired me to apply for the Ph. D. program in linguistics at the University of California – Berkeley. Imagine my excitement when I got to organize and run the 1985 Linguistic Institute at Georgetown.

What are some of the most common ways men and women communicate?

Oh, dear. How long do you have? I’ve written books about his. Let me give you a few of the “biggest hits” from my book You Just Don’t Understand – examples that have gotten the strongest responses.

Why don’t men like to stop and ask directions? When I included that example in my book, which was published in 1990, no one ever talked about this. It has since become a commonplace in our culture. I used this example to illustrate how women and men often regard the same conversation differently: for her, you make a fleeting connection to a stranger and you don’t lose anything. But many men perceive the experience of asking directions as putting themselves in a one-down position to a stranger, and they have learned to avoid the one-down position if possible. So for them it makes sense to find the place on their own.

Have you noticed anything linguistically interesting in language on a national level (for example, from statements made by the government or by presidential candidates?)

I have been struck by the administration’s use of language to misrepresent policies. For example, the “No Child Left Behind Act” should have implemented policies to make sure no child is left behind. Instead, the act mandates testing but does not increase funding to improve education.

What was your proudest moment?

I wrote a one-act play about a trip I made with my father to Poland, where he was born. Then I wrote a second one-act play to go with it, about my family. My proudest moment was when the play was produced at Horizons Theater in Arlington, and my parents and the rest of my family were all in the audience to see it. Or maybe my proudest moment was when I learned that the play was included in Best Short Plays 1992-3. I guess those two moments go together in my mind.

And finally, what do guys really mean when they say they’ll “call you tomorrow?”

As with any utterance, the meaning depends on the context and the conversational style of the speaker. It could mean:

(1) I’ll call you tomorrow. You’d better be there. (2) I’ll call you tomorrow. Be there if you can; if you have something else to do, no problem. (3) I am feeling well disposed toward you and like you enough to call you tomorrow. However, if I get busy I won’t call, but you’ll still know my intentions were good. (4) “Call you tomorrow” is a good way to end a conversation, like “take care,” or “be well” or “love ya.” Whether or not I call you tomorrow has nothing to do with this formulaic expression. (5) None of the above.

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