Deborah Tannen - That's Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships

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Why We Don't Communicate

Feb 9, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well written; solid information; entertaining

Cons:None

The Bottom Line: I recommend this book to everyone who wants to learn how to communicate better.


That's Not What I Meant! by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. is a book about how we communicate, and the reasons why we often don't. Dr. Tannen is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. She says in her introduction: "Linguistics is the academic discipline devoted to understanding how language works. Relationships are made, maintained, and broken through talk, so linguistics provides a concrete way of understanding how relationships are made, maintained, and broken."

The book is divided into four parts. Part One is titled Linguistics and Conversational Style. This is "Communications 101" in condensed (and very readable) form. In it, she talks about the different "cultural styles" that lead to miscommunication. For example: "Involvement versus Independence". When talking to another person, we want to let them know that we are listening and interested in what they have to say - that we are involved; while also giving them space and not being too "nosy" about things they may not wish to discuss. Where is the balance? Get too "involved" by asking questions and the other person may feel smothered or pressured; too "independent" and the person may feel you don't really care about them.

Another problem is with different conversational signals. When you stop talking, it is my turn- but how do I know when you have stopped? I may think a long pause means "It is your turn now." when the person was just stopping to order her thoughts, and planned to continue. I think I am being polite by keeping up the conversation; she thinks I am rude because I keep interrupting and jumping in before she has finished speaking. Different pitches, intonations, loudness or softness of tone can be signals, but those signals may mean very different things to different people. Some people expect conversations to be "reciprocals", like this example:
"A woman was having lunch with a man she had recently met who regaled her with stories about himself. In exasperation, she finally protested, 'Why are you telling me all this?' He explained, 'I want to get to know you.' To her this was patently absurd. How could he get to know her by talking about himself? Simple- if he assumed that his personal revelations would encourage her to follow suit. When they didn't, he tried harder and harder, telling more and more personal stories to show how acceptable it was. If she refused to do her part, it wasn't for lack of trying on his."

Part two is called Conversational Strategies. Here she talks about such things as "Directness vs. Indirectness" as a speaking style. Direct people can be seen as blunt and rude, while indirect style can be seen as weak or untruthful. We also make different assumptions about what the other person knows and thinks, which may be completely wrong. It is a staple of situation comedy: two people are having what they think is a conversation, but on two entirely different subjects. This is funny partly because it happens so much in real life! She also discusses "frames" (the assumptions we make that are unstated, but set the context), and the "metamessages" we get from conversation. She gives examples of when we feel free to call someone by a first name, or a nickname. A cute nickname, for example, may be meant to say "We're friends- I feel I can be less formal with you." The person on the other end may get the incorrect metamessage of "I am talking down. I don't respect you."

Part three is called Talking at Home: Conversational Style in Close Relationships. Here she explodes the myth of "If you really loved me, you would know what I want." She talks about why small misunderstandings and differences in style tend to get worse over time. Even something as simple as how people use pronouns can cause misunderstanding. She gives the example of a man who says "I think I'll go out for a walk." His implied metamessage is "You can come if you want, but I don't want to ask, because that might make you feel pressured to come when you don't want to." The other person does not get the metamessage, since his use of "I" says "I am excluding you." The lack of a follow-up invitation to join him adds to the feeling of exclusion. She also specifically addresses the different styles that girls and boys are taught growing up which often lead to the "he said/she said" problems.

Part four is called What You Can and Can't Do With Conversational Style. She points out that the first step is to understand your own style, and how that makes you "come across" to other people. Then, reframe your style, as necessary to fit the content and context you want to convey. A style you use with your spouse, for example, may be inappropriate for a conversation with an employee or coworker.

This little book of 200 pages is packed with solid content, with the examples I have given being only a small part. It is well organized and very easy to read and understand. Dr. Tannen has written several other books on different aspects of conversation, but this is the book I would recommend to anyone as an introduction to the subject of communication style.


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