It’s Deborah Tannen Day - or how family communication can go weird

Deborah Tannen, foto by Susanne van der Kleij. Why is this day Deborah Tannen day? According to Wikipedia, it’s her birthday. Which is the same as my birthday. Yippee! Tannen is the author of the books You Just Don’t Understand and Talking from 9 to 5 – about the style of discourse. It’s a discipline called socio-linguistics. Or, how language shapes interactions between people. In addition to talking about how language between the sexes is sometimes a cross-cultural communication, and about how the language of work affects who does what and who gets the credit, Tannen also talks of communication within families.

In her book, I Only Say This Because I Love You Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults, Tannen gets into the whys and wherefores of communication mixups and cross-signals within families. I’m so glad to have her input on this, because as one individual with one family, I feel very un-credible saying, “Wanna interview family? Do this. Worked for me!” Having her research on conversations within families is very helpful—it helps get me around some of the YMMV - your mileage may vary - circumstances.

Connection vs Control

In my Why not ask Why? post, I touched on her tension between connection and control—everyone wants to be connected, and everyone wants to avoid being controlled, but sometimes, as a family member, you just can’t help but be controlling toward another. And, well, something that one person says with the intention of caring is received by the other as controlling.

When High-involvement and High-considerate people talk together

Another, more general part of Tannen’s body of research involves two different speaking styles.

Both of them have their own internal logic about what constitutes polite speech. They each have their own standard for “how long a pause between taking turns in conversation?” and “what is the amount of loudness or emphatic that constitutes good conversation? Naturally, each style differs from the other. In fact, they clash.

when high-involvement and high-considerate talk together

High involvement: Good, polite conversation is one where both talk in quick turns, pauses are short, and you display your enthusiasm and interest in the other person by asking lots of short, machine-gun style questions, and even talk simultaneously. This is the way to be friendly. Silence is not golden. It’s better to hold up your own end of the conversation by talking than remaining silent. They feel free to talk over others, “trusting others to persist or withdraw depending on how badly they want to raise a topic or complete a point.” (Tannen, IOSTBILY, p. 160) Storytelling is a team sport.

High considerate: Friendliness and goodwill in conversation follows a more relaxed pace of speaking, with longer pauses between people taking turns. You do not press yourself on the other person. If you’re just acquaintances, avoid overly personal discussion of yourself. Being indirect is good, because it gives the other person an “out” if the other one misunderstood your question, or prefers not to engage in that particular topic. Being considerate of the other person enables social cohesion. Storytelling is an individual endeavor.

When the two styles talk to one another, watch out!

Members of each group share a standard for what constitutes a suitable pause between when one talks and then the next person talks. Match that pace, and you’re golden. If you don’t, you either feel shut out of the conversation, or end up dominating it.

High-considerate thinks,

“He talked to much, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. So I was quiet. Then he talked more. So I stayed quiet, and he kept talking.” Or, “I don’t understand why she kept asking me question after question after question, one right after the other. I felt like she was putting me on the spot… or almost accusing me—I couldn’t believe that. How rude!

High-involvement thinks,

“He didn’t answer my question, so I asked another one. I don’t think he had anything to say. I kept asking questions to come up with one that he would answer. The more I asked, the less he said. He just. wouldn’t. talk. … he wouldn’t take part in the conversation. How rude!

Oh, but this doesn’t apply to me, you say. All my family are the same. We have the same style.

Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.

Here are some regions where each style is known to dominate (not exhaustive; I have pulled this from Tannen’s books)
High-involvement: New Yorkers (City), French-Canadians, Jewish of Polish or Russian descent, Italians, Armenians, African Americans, Russians.

High-considerate: Californians, New Englanders, Midwesterners, England, Sweden, Scandanavians, Irish Americans, German Americans.

It’s all relative. To some Alaskans the usually-high considerate person from California is someone who “talks too fast and won’t let a word get in edgewise.”

So how does this difference work in families?

That’s all well and good. But how about families? Marriage between people with conflicting styles will make conversation among partners and inlaws (and extended family) a task to navigate this difference. Further, regional differences play a part. (I started out life in one area, and moved to another where the dominant style was different than the one my parents have.) This gets played out among generations, too. What was the going conversational style in your grandmother’s era may be different from what you experience now.

How does this affect interviewing?

If you are high considerate interviewing a high involvement person, your task is easier. You’ve already set yourself up as listener. Crank up your facial expressions a notch to match the high involvement “storytelling is a team sport” style. (If you end up vocalizing on the recordings more, well, you’ll have your own voice in the recording more than ideal, but if it makes your interviewee more comfortable, then go for it.)

If you are high-involvement interviewing a high-considerate person, make a decision right now to slow your mind down to a level that will seem painfully slow. Each time you want to ask a question, take a couple of slow breaths. Seriously. Give the interviewee enough time. That amount of time may seem painfully long to you, but for your interviewee, it constitutes a suitable pause to stop and gather thoughts. Ask one question at a time (machine gun style: just don’t do it.)

So, Happy Birthday to the high-involvement style Deborah Tannen from fellow birthday person and the high-considerate style writer of this post. Thank you for helping me understand “how the other half talks” and for giving me a way to share good interviewing advice that applies to more families than just my own.

What about you? Have you experienced this kind of cross-cultural communication in families? What happened? How did you feel about it?

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on June 07, 2010 in • Interviewing
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