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A Conversation with Deborah Tannen and Michael Toms

So often the view of the world we see or hear about is one of conflict-opposing sides going at it hammer-and-tong. Newspapers, radio, television, even university lectures are filled with combative rhetoric: the drug war, the battle of the sexes, who's winning or losing in media-created polls, rather than addressing the issues of concern; news analysis shows set up to be divisive, with opposing sides arguing past one another. It's as if Deborah Tanneneveryone is engaged in a war. How has our society come to this state of affairs? What is really happening?

The answers to these questions and others serve as the focus for this dialogue with Deborah Tannen. She is best known as the author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times Bestseller list for nearly four years. It was this book that brought gender differences in communication style to the forefront of public awareness. Another book, Talking from Nine to Five: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power, a New York Times business bestseller, does for the workplace what the earlier book did for women and men talking at home.

Dr. Tannen is one of only three professors at Georgetown who have been appointed to the distinguished rank of university professor. She has been on the linguistics department faculty since 1979. In addition to her linguistic research and writing, she has published poetry, short stories and personal essays. She is also the author of The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (Random House 1998).

MICHAEL TOMS: Your previous books have dealt more with personal communication, and in this book, The Argument Culture, you're dealing with communication in this society. So there's a leap there.

DEBORAH TANNEN: There is a leap, but there is a natural thread. The first book I wrote for non-academic audiences was That's Not What I Meant. It introduces my idea of a linguistic approach to understanding relationships, taking into account conversational style-the power of the way we express ourselves based on our ethnic background, regional background; and gender was one part of that.

The one chapter on women and men from that book is the one that got disproportionate attention. People almost demanded to hear more about that. So that led to You Just Don't Understand. After the success of that book, people said to me, "Well, this has been wonderful in helping me in my private relationships, but what about work?" Many people said, "I spend more time talking at work than I do with my spouse." So that was the natural next book, Talking from Nine to Five.

While I was on the road, talking publicly about these books, I became so aware of the way that discourse was being framed. Here I had written books promoting understanding between women and men, saying we could have less friction, less hostility and better relationships if we take into account the different conversational styles and how they're influenced by gender as well as other things. And it would always be referred to as "the battle of the sexes," "the gender wars."

I had done a public conversation with Robert Bly at the Open Center in New York, and we called it "Toward a Reconciliation Between Women and Men." Well, somebody who wrote a column about books in a major newspaper wrote about it, and decided that it was going to be a debate: "Head-to-head, toe-to-toe, for the first time, Robert Bly and Deborah Tannen face off!" And when we ended up having a conversation instead of a fight, the media disappointment was resounding. It was quite bizarre. Some of the journalists who had come to cover it didn't write anything at all; some of them ridiculed us because we hadn't fought; and some wrote their own fantasies about what would have happened if we had fought. It was so dramatic. One person said, "He would have hit her over the head with his bazouki." The violence of it! And of course the male-against-female violence of it-so against the spirit of what we were doing.

All of these experiences made me think about why we were approaching everything as a war-the battle, the conquering, the victory-and it made me want to explore the deeper impulse of that. The Argument Culture is not just another book about civility. I certainly believe that we should try to get more civility in our lives; but there's something deeper that I'm trying to talk about-the power of words to frame how you think about things, how you feel about things, how you perceive the world. The tendency in our culture to use war metaphors so pervasively, and to frame everything as a metaphorical battle, influences how we approach each other in our everyday lives. We end up thinking problems are insoluble, because we have allowed the polarized extremes to frame the debate.

MT: Why do you think that we've come to use the war metaphor? It really permeates our whole society- from news to sports, you'll find the battle metaphor.

DT: It's closely related to our emphasis on the division between self and society, the individual self at war with society, whereas many other cultures see the self as inseparable from the network of society. It's related to the history of our universities going back to the medieval university, which was a seminary. It grew out of the religious framework in which the early monks were warrior monks, Christian soldiers, and the universities were set up in this way. They were seminaries, but they were set up on a military model. And the fact that it was all-male was definitely a factor; they took men out of their homes, and put them in this isolated environment; they had a secret language, Latin; they read about military exploits, and they had to learn to dispute publicly. It was not a search for knowledge, it was honing your disputation skills so that you could publicly defend a thesis and attack a thesis. This is the history of our intellectual tradition. The Western tradition has placed a lot of emphasis on oral disputation. This is different from the Chinese and other Asian traditions, which would have found oral disputation quite unbecoming a sage.

MT: You came up with the Greek word, agonia and the concept of agonism. Tell us about that.

DT: Yes. In a way, this is the key to the whole theme of this book. Agonism is a reference to the Greek word for war, agon or agonia. Agonism is ritual opposition-the use of a warlike format when what you're doing is not literally a war. Sports is agonism; it's a ceremonial combat. And what we have now in our public discourse is a great deal of ceremonial, ritual, automatic combat-not the genuine opposition of ideas in contact with each other, not the genuine opposition when you see there is a wrong in the world and you feel passionately it is your responsibility to oppose that wrong. That form of public opposition I'm all in favor of. Jewish tradition, in fact, says that it is the responsibility of the individual to speak out against a wrong that he or she sees. What I am questioning in this book and calling into question is the use of ritual, automatic, knee-jerk use of debate formats, setting everything up as a war when it really is not called for and not appropriate. Any issue that you want to discuss you get a debate going. That means you're going to get the most polarized views you can, get people that you know are really good at shouting at each other and encourage them to shout each other down, because you think it makes a more lively show.

MT: There is also this idea of having "balance," so if you have one view then you automatically have to have an opposing view in order to have balance, when in point of fact sometimes there isn't even an opposing view; or one is made up.

DT: It grows out of a very laudable desire of print journalists to be fair. But if it's over-applied, often it means you don't even allow any idea to get developed, to live for a moment, before you find someone else to oppose it. It causes people to feel cynical. People end up feeling, "I don't know what to believe. I read this, and then immediately I read that critics say it's not true."

It's similar to what happens with people's cynicism about politics. There is so much of what I call the "ethic of aggression"-among journalists, as well as in many other fields. In this book I show the thread that runs through all our great institutions-journalism, politics, law and academia. This ethic of aggression encourages journalists to constantly attack people in public life. Now, I would never say that journalists should not be adversarial toward people in public life who are committing wrongdoing. But, my concern is the assumption that only the exposure of wrongdoing is worth writing about. The result is that people end up feeling more cynical about their public leaders than the journalists themselves feel.

The journalists know that it's agonism, that it's a ritual opposition. James Fallows wrote a book in which he quotes a study: Journalists and average people were asked, "Do you think most public leaders are more or less honorable than the average citizen?" Journalists actually believed that most politicians were more honorable than the average citizen. The average citizen believed that politicians were far less honorable. So citizens are taking literally these agonistic attacks that journalists realize they're doing just because it's their job and that's what the genre requires, in their view.

MT: Watergate was very much a turning point for the press. Larry Sabato says that before Watergate journalists were like lapdogs. They took at face value anything that the government presented. After Watergate they became watchdogs, which is the appropriate role for the press. In recent years they have become attack dogs, going after every public official for every little thing. The result is that anyone in a public position feels under siege.

DT: The situation of Bobby Ray Inman is a good example of what I call agonism. He was someone who was sure to be confirmed as secretary of defense. He held the most eloquent press conference out of Austin, Texas when he withdrew, in which he tried to call attention to the unfairness of being attacked from all sides. He quoted editors who had said to him, "We have to write negative stories about you; that's our job." He quoted journalists who said to him, "I have to write this story; it's what my editor wants." He quoted his senator friends who said, "Of course you will be confirmed, but we have to ask tough questions, make the confirmation hearings unpleasant for you. That's what's expected of us now." He said, "Public service is a sacrifice. I have to disrupt my family; I have to find a new place to live. My entire life is a compromise; my income is going to go down. But I do it in the spirit of public service. And now the expectation is I also should put up with this kind of attack." He says, "In Washington, everyone tells me, 'You have to get thicker skin.' At home everyone tells me, 'You'd have to be crazy to put up with that.'" He said, "You guys have got to be careful. I'm pulling out, and a lot of other people are also not going to be willing to serve under these circumstances."

When I heard that press conference, I thought, this is great; he put it out there; he said it. People are now going to listen. And the reaction was, "What is wrong with this guy? He should realize that if you're going to stand up for public office, this comes with the territory. You have to put up with that kind of attack."

MT: There's also an overemphasis on sensationalism-the more sensational the better.

DT: Yes, that's very true. The aspect of it that I focus on here is the assumption that only conflict is dramatic, and so to get readers for your articles you have a headline with a war metaphor-that's going to be most interesting to people. And what I try to argue here is, there are other kinds of drama. I was listening to a debate on the radio, and at the end of it the moderator asked the two debaters, "What did you hear tonight from the other person that made you change your mind?" And the audience burst into applause. They wanted that drama of change. But they didn't get it; both people said nothing. That's the way we set it up in a debate-you don't yield anything to the other side, because you want to win the debate.

MT: And one usually doesn't listen in a debate.

DT: Yes, yes. And this is partly the metaphor of argument that I'm using. I point out, when you have an argument with a partner that you're in love with, and you're really angry, you don't listen to what the other person is saying. You're not trying to understand what they're getting at. You're listening for a point that you can jump on so you can win the argument. So when they make points that you know have some truth to it, you put those aside, and you wait for the ones that you know are outrageous. That's where you leap. Well, maybe we can't avoid that in our personal arguments-we should try-but in our public lives, is this the way we're going to solve problems? I don't think so.

MT: You quoted John Dewey: "Democracy begins in conversation." It's a great quote. Why do you think that's true?

DT: What he had in mind was that people have to be talking about the issues in their private lives, face-to-face, one-on-one, in order to be informed and participate in a democracy. When I quote that, I add to it that I fear it's getting derailed in rancorous argument. And again, it's not that I think people should not argue-yes, we should be arguing constructively about the true issues. But when we turn everything into a rancorous, polarized debate, then we make it harder to solve problems.

MT: Also, there's a duality-it's either this view or it's that view. The message that is there are only two views.

DT: Yes. And then people end up thinking that there is obviously no solution to the problem because the two sides are so polarized. But the only reason we think they're so polarized is because we've allowed those extremes to define the debate. And when we polarize the issues, we polarize people. That's what I think is important in all of this-what it does to the human spirit, to the people that are hearers and receivers of this kind of discourse.

MT: It's quite similar to the problems with our adversarial system of law. If we force people into enemy positions, and force them to act like enemies, they continue feeling that animosity long after the lawyers have gone on to the next case.

DT: Let me tell you my personal experience with this. This was very instructive to me. For the book Talking from Nine to Five, I worked with corporations. I spent time observing; I interviewed people, got to know everybody at the companies where I worked, and had individuals at those companies carry tape recorders, record their own conversations and then give me those tapes. I analyzed them and used examples for the book.

With many of the companies I worked with, we had a simple agreement that I would show them anything I planned to use based on their company. If they weren't happy with it, I'd either cut it out or change it in a way that they felt comfortable with it. With other companies, we came to this same kind of verbal agreement, and then they said, "That's fine, we're set to go; we'll just have our lawyers write up a contract." In no company where it was handed over to lawyers were we able to come to an agreement! They had a lawyer, so I had to get a lawyer. The lawyers then began going back and forth, projecting everything we could do to destroy each other.

One company stands out in my mind, because eight months later-after we started, and everything was ready to go-we had to give up. It broke down over these two things: Their lawyer was demanding the right to veto my entire book. I could write the whole book; there could be one example they didn't like, and they could forbid me to publish the book. I couldn't agree to that. And my lawyer was demanding the right to use those videotapes any way I wanted. So, for example, if "20/20" did a segment on the book, I could have put up their company, exposed them to lawsuits, embarrassed them, let out trade secrets. But I had no interest in doing that.

Now, colleagues of mine who are attorneys say well, that's just bad lawyering. The lawyers should not have asked for things that you didn't want. That may or may not be the case. But they were doing an extreme form of what their job trains them to do, that is, to demand everything you can for your client and expect the other party to do the worst and protect your client from it. It was very instructive about the legal system to have that experience.

MT: One of the things that permeates your book, The Argument Culture, is that this culture of critique, sensationalism and dichotomies creates an atmosphere of defensiveness and fear, and that's not very good for our society.

DT: Absolutely. And not good for the individual human spirit. An atmosphere of animosity spreads like a fever when there's an ethic of aggression by which, every place you turn, you feel people being sneered at. So much of journalism now has this assumption that it should have an edge, it should have attitude. Now, in the past, attitude could be any kind of attitude, but now attitude means an aggressive, hostile attitude.

It creates a feeling where everyone feels threatened and under siege, that whatever you do is going to be interpreted in the worst possible light. It creates a disconnect between our leaders and ourselves. We are not allowed to think of our leaders as our leaders, even briefly. When FDR held his fireside chats, they were not immediately followed by an opposition response. For a short time you were able to think, this is our president; let's hear what he has to say. We now are not allowed to hear what our president has to say. The idea that there is always an opposition response sets up a cynicism about our public figures, and breaks down that sense of connection.

MT: Deborah, do we have a way out of this incredible situation we find ourselves in?

DT: I am sometimes accused of being too optimistic, but in each of the institutions that I mentioned there are movements from within to change things. Journalists are questioning their ethic of attack; the move within law to alternative dispute resolution is growing; the field of mediation is the fastest-growing sub-field of law; we read recently that congresspeople are going off on retreats so they can learn to get along better. So there's definitely awareness. In academia, I don't see it yet, but I do see some movements in all these fields.

This article has been excerpted from New Dimensions
Program #2712, "Stop Arguing and Start Talking" with Deborah Tannen.

"Changing the World, One Broadcast at a Time"          © 1980-2003 New Dimensions Foundation. All Rights Reserved.