Lucye Rafferty/The Hoya Professor Deborah Tannen teaches Linguistics in the College.

For a number of mornings, whenever Celeste Martinez (COL ’05) entered the bathroom of the apartment she shared with three roommates, her face would fall. There, on the counter, was one of her roommates’ industrial-strength hair dryers, which took up most of the counter space in an already limited area. After working around it with difficulty every morning, Martinez finally decided to do something about it. “How are you?” she greeted the roommate one evening, initiating a friendly chat. Then she asked, “Oh, by the way, is that your hair dryer there on the counter?”

“Yes, it’s mine,” the roommate replied.

“Oh,” Martinez said. “OK.”

The next morning, the hair dryer was gone.

As mundane as the situation may at first appear, it is this type of scenario that constitutes most of the “field notes” in the classes of Deborah Tannen, university professor of Linguistics.

Best known for her 1990 examination of differing conversational styles between men and women, You Just Don’t Understand, Women and Men in Conversation., Tannen teaches her students to pay attention to the way language is used in everyday conversation and the effects of communication differences on relationships. In the previous case, Martinez conveyed her message of “Move your hair dryer” not by words alone, but in the manner in which she said them and the fact that she mentioned something at all.

As college students adjust to living on their own, living with other people and establishing a new set of friendly and romantic relationships, the ground is rich with potential for misunderstandings, miscommunication and hurt feelings. Common interactions, then, can become a source of frustration if one doesn’t understand differences in conversational style – the various meanings of pauses and intonations, for example, or the different approaches men and women or people of different ethnicities may take while ultimately trying to say the same thing.

“Miscommunication is huge,” says Angela Perrone (COL ’06), a student in Tannen’s Cross-Cultural Communication class. “College students are too quick to respond to what they infer about friends, and other people’s speech. People misinterpret what others say based on tone, pitch, etc., so that they miss what is really being said, the actual messages. This is present in roommate talk, boyfriend/girlfriend talk and with parents over the phone.”

Difficulties may also be inevitable in any situation that groups together, as college life does, large numbers of people from disparate backgrounds and varied geographical regions. Not even counting communication misunderstandings that may arise between people from different countries, Tannen explains how speakers from separate regions of the United States may encounter problems.

“A Midwesterner talking to someone from New York would be an example,” she says. “You figure, one person talks and you wait until they’re clearly done, and then the next person talks. There’s a certain amount of pause you expect. In New York, we don’t like pauses,” she laughs.

“So if you’re talking to somebody who’s interrupting you all the time, it’d be so automatic and obvious to conclude they aren’t interested in you and want to hear themselves talk,” Tannen continues. “It would never occur to you that maybe they would like you to talk, they’re getting frustrated that you’re not talking, but they don’t know why you’re not talking. How are they going to know that you’re waiting for a pause? And you think that they’re not giving you that pause.”

Being aware of these subtle conversational differences, she notes, prevents either party from thinking “`He’s a jerk,’ or `she’s a jerk,'” and allows them to address the real root of the irritation by speaking up more readily or pausing for longer while speaking.

Another potential for misunderstanding arises from the different ways men and women tend to communicate the same message. Men tend to be more “direct” with their words when it comes to getting others to do things, while women often rely more on “very subtle negotiations of indirectness,” as Tannen puts it. There are other contexts in which men tend to be more indirect, she notes, such as when apologizing. She relates the annoyance a student in one of her classes said he felt when his roommate (also male), diverged from the speech patterns he was used to and communicated with him indirectly.

“Are you starting a bottle collection?” the roommate asked. It took the student a while to realize his friend was in fact referring to the pile of recyclable bottles he had been accumulating, and was subtly trying to tell him to take it out.

“He was very annoyed when his roommate used this indirect method instead of just saying, `will you just take those darn bottles out of here already?'” Tannen explains. “He would have preferred that.”

This directness tends to be less present in the field notes of the female students, whose tape-recordings of interactions with their roommates for class provide “endless” examples of indirectness in communication, Tannen says. She illustrates this concept with a mock scenario:

`Sally, were you going to take your clothes out of the dryer today?’

`Well, I was gonna do it, do you need the dryer?’

`Well, I don’t really need it, but you know, I was thinking if it was available I might do a wash.’

`OK, I can take my clothes out.’

Tannen adds with a smile: “Whereas the guys might say something like, `You pig, will you get your crap out of the dryer?'” She’s exaggerating, she says, but the field notes she sees of these college interactions strongly confirm this general tendency, though naturally, she adds, there are exceptions.

A number of these observations, as well as other results of her extensive academic studies of linguistics and communication style, can be found in one of her first books, That’s Not What I eant!, published in 1986. She is consolidating many of the book’s main ideas – “conversational signals and devices,”conversational strategies” and “conversational style in close relationships,” to name a few – into a lecture in for this Friday for the Into the Classroom media series. The video series records talks by experts in various fields, to be used as a primer on that subject for students across the country – and the world.

The lecture, Tannen notes, will be a “mini version of the course I teach.” She is the first woman to be filmed for the series, but this is her second video for the company – her first focused primarily on gender and communication. This one, based on her course and her 1986 book, will essentially explore “why linguistics is relevant to everyday life.”

Linguistics major Charles Martorana (COL ’04) studies sociology and more theoretical aspects of linguistics, but acknowledges that Tannen’s work can often be applicable to everyday situations. “Sociolinguistic methods such as those used by Dr. Tannen offer a unique and often helpful perspective to be used among other tools in analyzing social interactions,” he says.

Tannen maintains that in terms of long-term impact, her students often report that “the kinds of insights they get from the cross-cultural communication course are useful in every conversation they have for the rest of their lives,” she says. “It gives you perspective on how the use of language could be affecting the outcome of a conversation . Once you understand what’s going on, you can move beyond automatic judgments and assumptions and find ways to improve communication, and relationships.”

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