red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



That's Not What I Meant!
How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.
New York: Ballantine Books ©1986


Despite the mid-1980s copyright date, this little gem of a book remains as relevant today as when it was first written. Given that we're always trying to communicate with each other, we need good information on how we talk and listen (or not), no matter when that information first came to light.

Author Tannen is University Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. She expanded upon the premise of That's Not What I Meant! in the groundbreaking book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, written in 1990. During the following decade, she added to the literature of language and conversational style with Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex, and Power; and The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. In 2001, her book, I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives, honed in again on the challenges of clarity in our private communication. Tannen is well liked and well respected by students and colleagues and has become a minor talk-show celebrity with her very accessible approach to helping us listen, hear, and appreciate what we think we're saying to each other at home, at work, in argument, and in love.

Using her own experiences in miscommunication as starting points and examples throughout That's Not What I Meant!, Tannen engages us in the explanation about why we so often seem to be misunderstood or why we cannot seem to get our own point across. As an intrigued host once said when introducing Tannen to speak, "most books on speaking are about public speaking," while hers, on the other hand, address the speech we most often use, the "private speaking: talk between two or among a few people."

Articles based on Tannen's extensive work can be found in many popular magazines, and she says that colleagues, friends, and strangers often tell her the information has "saved their marriages." How can that be? Because relationships of all kinds are "made, maintained, and broken through talk." That means Tannen's academic discipline of linguistics "provides a concrete way of understanding how relationships are made, maintained, and broken."

Various branches of linguistics deal with how people use language every day and "how people from different cultures use language differently." This "cross-cultural communication" is important whether or not the people involved come from the same location because, Tannen posits, "all communication is more or less cross cultural. We learn to use language as we grow up, and growing up in different parts of the country, having different ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds, even just being male or female — all result in different ways of talking," which Tannen calls "conversational style." These subtle differences in style can be enough to create an accumulation of misunderstanding and disappointment if we're not aware of what's happening. Tannen suggests that bad feelings created when conversations go downhill should be seen as arising from differences in conversational style, not character flaws.

By familiarizing ourselves with "conversational signals" (pausing and pacing, loudness, pitch and intonation) and "conversational devices" (expressive reactions, asking questions, ritual complaining, setting examples) at work in every exchange, and by appreciating "conversational strategies (why we won't say what we mean and why we [sometimes] can't say what we mean [known as indirection]: joking, truth, honesty, manipulation)," as well as the concepts of "framing" and "reframing" while we talk and listen to others, we have a much better chance of keeping ourselves out of conversational trouble and on track to get the most from all our public and private relationships.


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