Should we be Neutral Between Tannen Styles?
By Alec Rawls © 1998 (2300 words) Published in The Stanford Review, 1/16/95

Dr. Deborah Tannen has made a well deserved splash with her books about how different conversational styles and expectations lead to deep and persistent misunderstandings between well meaning people. Two styles she distinguishes in her best-seller You Just Don't Understand are "high involvement" and "high considerateness".

Involvers do a lot of talking over each other, interrupting with their comments and expecting others to assert themselves when they have something to say. High considerateness people take turns. They make spaces for each other to respond, and do not speak until a space for responding is given to them.

To some extent these styles fall along sexual lines. Tannen cites many studies indicating that girls have strong early tendencies to be cooperative with each other and and follow rules, while boys show strong early tendencies to be competitive and subvert authority. Thus girls gravitate to the turn taking high considerateness style while boys have more tendency to jump in.

These tendencies, by no means universal to begin with, are liable to be overrun by the culture one finds oneself in. Thus Tannen notes that women from the east coast, and from particular ethnic groups (Tannen cites her own Jewish ethnicity) are prone to talk over each other more than men from the west coast are.

All styles work between people who speak in the same style. The trouble comes when interrupters come together with turn takers. Then the interrupters jump in and the turn takers shut up. I tripped over that one myself when I first started dating here on the west coast. I found myself having to carry a lot of conversations while my companions remained without a word to say, even though I was leaving openings and invitations that to my mind were big enough to drive a truck through. I finally figured out that my openings and invitations were off by a couple of orders of magnitude, and that these women, who I suspected all along of actually having some brains, really did have things to say.

Tannen's response to all this is to just try to explain the nature of different styles and how to recognize and accommodate them. She makes a point of not judging any style as better or worse than another and she tries to deter others from being judgmental. This is where I disagree with her. Tannen's important insights into conversational style provide excellent handholds for an analysis of value. Different styles have their different strengths and weaknesses. The object should be to learn what we can from each style - to take the best from each and leave the worst. In contrast, being uncritical throws one's discoveries about where value lies and how to pursue it.

To critique the strengths and weaknesses of "high involvement" and "high considerateness" styles, it is handy to draw an analogy to another activity that has a very similar east-west difference: driving styles. Driving has a single clear cut objective - to get from point "a" to point "b" as efficiently as possible. This greatly simplifies the analysis of value and hence the critique of style.

You may have heard of Boston drivers - the most aggressive and, to my mind, the best, drivers in the country. When I first came to California from the Hub of the Universe the lazy west coast drivers constantly roused my scorn. Asleep at the wheel. And, mystery of mysteries, they only honked their horns at the wrong times! They honked when someone went instead of when someone failed to go. I pondered that mystery until I realized that it held the key to the different psychologies of the different coasts.

Boston's main streets are laid out on the old horse trails that wove around the city before the coastal marshes were filled in. Rotaries, five forks everywhere, no left turn lanes anywhere. Since the roads are so inefficient, drivers have to be that much more efficient. "Openings" in the east are orders of magnitude smaller than in the west and the whole driving culture is geared to taking those small openings and assuming people will take them.

The system can only work on aggressiveness and on-coming traffic accommodates. A left turner won't get honked at unless she practically makes somebody lock rubber to miss her. But hesitate, and even the oncoming drivers will give you dirty looks. When Bostonians honk their horns it is almost always for one reason: if the person ahead has a breath of a chance to proceed across or into traffic and fails to take it. Terrified newcomers can get honked right off the road. Interruption, aggressively taking advantage of openings, is a desideratum, not an offense.

The same east coast style carries over to speech. The merit of interrupting in conversation is also for efficiency. Very often the confluence of ideas at a point in a conversation will be as peculiar as Boston streets. You don't want to let yourself get carried with the flow past your exit. To be efficient you very often have to jump across. Friends and I have gone through whole complicated discussions in just a few interrupted sentences. I see where someone is going and jump ahead to comment on it. He can tell where I am going and takes me back if I have misunderstood, or forward if that is where resolution lies. Very quickly we can search out what each other understands. For efficiently advancing a discussion, interruption is absolutely fundamental.

Turn takers can appall me with their inefficiency. But there are liabilities to the east coast style too. Sometimes aggressiveness becomes a mind-set, and an end in itself. It always seemed so absurd to me the way Boston drivers would continue their aggressive ways where two lanes merge into one, fighting for each spot instead of simply taking turns. Such aggressiveness is inefficient - it is a bother for everyone and has virtually no benefits for anyone.

This same liablility can crop up in east coast style conversation. Some people grab the floor, not because they grasp that speaking rather than listening is at that point the best way to advance the discussion, but because they think that being aggressive and taking the floor is the objective. Holy cow. Even worse, people who are thrown into the culture of aggressive means without grasping that the goal is efficient pursuit of common ends are prone to get combative. Boston is full of drivers who can't figure out what it is all about and are angry the whole time they are on the road. Not everyone is suited to the east coast style. For others, aggressive cooperation is a natural and invigorating combination.

One artifact of east coast conversational style is particularly likely to lead to escalating combativeness for those who track style instead of substance. If one is interested in efficiency, it is redundant to repeat what one agrees with so one jumps ahead to where one sees a conflict. As a result, the preponderance of statements in the east coast style are liable to express contradiction, even when the discussion is progressing primarily through agreement. The person who is not in tune with how this serves cooperation is prone to get defensive. It is like those studies that show how school-children are buoyed by a "yes" answer to a question and deflated by a "no" answer when they get just as much information either way. They are not paying attention to the goal.

I have learned to pay attention to when the goal of communication is getting lost and notes of gratuitous disagreement start creeping in. Here is where I have learned to take a page from the west coast, feminine, high considerateness book and provide enough overt signs of cooperation so that intentions are not mistaken. West coasters also have to learn when their style is unproductive. For my part, having grown up in a low considerateness family, I have almost unlimited tolerance for superficial disagreement without mistaking it for antipathy or competitiveness. Ironically, it is the turn takers, whose surface demeanor is tolerance, who are most prone to have little or no tolerance for superficial disagreement. When their style is not adhered to, they fixate on the violated style at the expense of substance. From an efficiency conscious point of view, they honk at the wrong things.

Of course anyone who is tuned into substance is likely to follow substance rather than style and make an easy transition between different communication styles. For such people, what is valued about the west coast style will be the way it does facilitate communication. When conversation is not at a crazy Boston intersection but is just merging two lanes into one, needing to elicit everyone's contribution, it is more efficient if people can make their contribution without having to be aggressive about it. Other times, it can be most efficient to interrupt.

For people who are used to following sense and making sense, one's gender should have little impact on one's reaction to either style. You just go where sense goes. Conversely, the sexual correlation to different styles seems to be strongest amongst people who get caught up in style at the expense of content. Males who are not attuned to the goals of making and following sense are more likely than women to be captured instead by the goal of aggressiveness for its own sake - by competitiveness and self-promotion. Females who fail to grasp these goals are more likely to be captured instead by fixation on turn taking and considerateness for their own sakes. It is these style over substance people who cause the only real problems.

I got such a laugh one day when I honked several times at some nerd who would not take a left turn through openings fifty yards long. When he finally proceeded a car coming the other way honked at him, even though the honker was ten yards from having to even touch his brakes. I giggled for a mile. That is what "high considerateness" will get you. I would have loved to drop that honker into the middle of Boston. "Honk at somebody for going? Dude, you are about to learn what a horn is for." West coast style drivers shouldn't even have horns.

You see those people in conversations too. They start to burn the instant someone interrupts, becoming policemen for their turn taking style. They are the equivalent of the east coasters who manifest angry aggressiveness. But for anyone who wants to be reasonable, there is a very simple rule you can follow: credit all merit. Follow value. You cannot pass judgement on how something is being said until you hear what is being said. Merit in a means is measured by its advancement of meritorious ends. You never want to get caught up in style at the expense of substance. Aggressiveness for its own sake and turn taking for its own sake are both garbage. People should take from each style where it is most productive of substance and condemn each style where it is counterproductive.

Until now, Tannen has used her unwillingness to judge the merits of different styles to avoid getting involved in finger pointing between men and women. She has seen her efforts as pointing out how conflicts arise from misunderstanding, with goodwill on both sides, and this has won her a lot of goodwill from the many men and women who love the opposite sex. Unfortunately, large parts of Tannen's new book, Talking From 9 to 5, reek of victim feminism, depicting women as selfless saints and men as relentlessly selfish aggrandizers.

Instead of acknowledging that the easier familiarity that "women's" styles facilitate is female power, Tannen just assumes that familiarity implies low status. Similarly, the greater female freedom of dress is somehow counted as a form of oppression. Tannen even manages to call the fact that many women are hired for their looks as bias against women. The promoting of dumb women supposedly stigmatizes women as dumb.

She can't even get her facts straight. Studies have shown that looks are more imortant to job success for men than for women. She even buys into such hoary feminist lies as the widely circulated and now completely debunked myth that boys get called on in school nine times more often than girls. (The actual statistic behind this national uproar turned out to be that boys are punished nine times as often as girls, often for offenses that go unpunished for girls.)

Tannen's tendency to reach hard for victim status is balanced by counter-examples early on but becomes constant and unmitigated by the end of her book. What happened? What caused this very moderate woman to suddenly jump in bed with the victim feminists? Ironically, it seems that Tannen's commitment to non-judgmentalism is the source of her fall into angry partisanship. By renouncing substance as a criterion for merit she is left with only equality to serve as a criterion for judging styles. From here she determines that turn-taking serves equality better than aggressive discussion does, and so she becomes a partisan for the "female" turn taking style.

Equality is itself a style. It is a means, not an end, and when it is treated as an end equality is morally perverse. A concern for equality per se is equivilant to envy. I am going to have to write an article soon on the basic elements of moral theory. For now, it is enough to remember that the only tenable criterion of judgement is value or merit. Never put style over substance. Style can have merit, but it is the merit that must be the criterion, not the style.

(Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics.)


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