How Women Talk: Heather Wood Rudulph Interviews Deborah Tannen

October 11, 2017   •   By Heather Wood Rudulph

WHILE THERE’S an endless fascination with what women want — evidenced in countless think pieces, popular television shows, and books — Deborah Tannen has built a career by focusing on how women communicate, and the ways in which that communication shapes who they are.

A professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, Tannen has authored eight books on communication, digging deep into how the nuances of human speech shape our relationships, and our lives. Her latest, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, analyzes how female friends communicate. Tannen illustrates how this communication plays a critical role in, among other things, women’s happiness, self-confidence, and self-esteem — as well as how the communication, and oftentimes miscommunication, between women can reinforce common stereotypes of female personality types, from passive introvert to bossy bitch.

The book’s title hints at the sacred nature of female friendships. “You’re the only one I can tell” is a confession many young girls make to one another when sharing their deepest secrets, desires, or fears. The power of female friendships has been explored in great depth in recent feminist texts, including Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot — as well as in fictional portrayals, like Sex and the City or Girls Trip, which glamorize female friendships as more important than anything else in a woman’s personal life, or in the world.

Tannen digs deeper.

Having researched dozens of real-life women across race, class, age, and geographic location, and drawing on anecdotes from her own friendships, Tannen reveals what most women know: relationships with other women are wonderful, complicated, frustrating, joyful, heartbreaking, and fulfilling. To put it more succinctly: Women are people, and people are a mess. Tannen spoke with me about how she attempted to make sense of them.


HEATHER WOOD RUDULPH: You didn’t begin your career focused on the language of women, even though you’ve now written eight books on the subject. What led you to this specialty?

DEBORAH TANNEN: That’s true. I did not start out as a specialist on gender. My first book, Conversational Style, which was based on my dissertation, was on conversational style as a phenomenon. In particular, I compared the conversational styles of speakers from New York Eastern European Jewish background, and speakers from Southern California, who were some combination of Catholic and Christian. That was a book I wrote for academics. Then I immediately wanted to communicate these findings to a wider audience. So I wrote a book called That’s Not What I Meant!, which had one chapter on gender, which to me was just one part of conversational style. Well, that was the chapter that got all of the attention. It was an obvious next step to write another book about gender because there was so much interest. After I wrote You Just Don’t Understand!, which I didn’t know would have the impact it had [it was on the New York Times best seller’s list for eight years], I became the gender lady.

Miscommunication is a big theme in your new book. I think everyone has experienced frustration from not understanding a friend, or not feeling understood. But I also think there’s a general misperception about how women talk to one another. What do you think is most misunderstood about how women communicate?

I think both women and men tend to misunderstand the other’s way of communicating because our assumptions and expectations are different. There are so many stereotypes that women talk too much, women gossip, women talk about nothing. I guess we can start with gossip, which is often associated with women and it has such a negative connotation. The assumption is that it’s malicious. There is such a thing as malicious gossip, but not all talking about other people is malicious. I make the distinction between talking about and talking against. The negative image of gossip is talking against someone. But gossip is also as simple as being interested in other people’s lives.

Speaking of stereotypes, one that really irks me is that women are “better” communicators than men, presumably. It’s a stereotype often used to justify gender imbalances such as the fact that more women hold jobs in people-facing industries such as communications, teaching, or nursing than they do in, say, technology or finance. From a linguistics point of view, does gender make a difference in being “better” communicators?

Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive. We don’t say, this is better. It would be like asking: Which is the better language, German or Italian? You just want to understand language and how it works. I feel the same way about women and men. It’s a question that has no answer.

I will give an example: Women are more likely to be indirect. They give an indication of what they want and let the other people volunteer and accommodate [that desire]. I give an example in the book [about] some of my [female] students who shared an apartment. One of them overheard that they were throwing a party on the night she had to stay up late and write a paper. She doesn’t say outright, “Hey guys, don’t have a party. I have to be up all night writing a paper.” She starts vague with, “What are you guys doing tonight? Oh, you’re thinking of having a party? I have to stay up late and write a paper.” Then they say to her, “Oh, we won’t have a party.” Then she says, “No, no, have your party.” Then they say, “No, we won’t.” And she says, as if relenting to what was her original desire, “Oh, okay.”

I would say that’s great communication because she didn’t make a demand. She’s able to think that her friends accommodated her desires of their own volition. But it doesn’t work when the other person doesn’t get it, and that’s where miscommunication poses a problem.

Your introduction dives right into what I see as the major problem when talking about female friendships: the perception of a female relationship binary. Women are either the loves of each other’s lives, or mortal enemies. We are either acting as each other’s hype woman, or bullying one another. We’re cuddling or in a cat fight. How much of this is exaggerated by media depictions, and how much is truth?

I do think it’s exaggerated. A psychologist friend once said to me that every relationship is an ambivalent one. We accept that romantic partners fight sometimes. And we accept that siblings bicker. Relationships that are intense have intensely wonderful things about them, and when things go wrong you feel very strongly and you are very hurt. Anything associated with women is often negatively stereotyped because that’s our culture. Men’s ways of doing things are the norm, and women are seen as different, we would say marked, which is the term in linguistics.

Marked feels like a very loaded term. Can you explain a bit more what it means in the context of your work?

One of my favorite essays I wrote is called, “There Is No Unmarked Woman.” I give the analogy of linguistics where the basic form of a word is present tense, and you have to mark it if you want to make it past. If a basic word is singular, you have to mark it if you want to make it plural. In English all basic concepts are male, and you mark them to make them female. Women can’t be neutral. Anything we do gets interpreted.

The relationships women have with each other at work walk an interesting line. It’s as though women are pressured to be each other’s allies, but also compete for the best jobs and opportunities while also competing with men.

I’ve written a lot about what I call a “double bind,” which is very clear in how Hillary Clinton is talked about. Ways that we assume that women should speak are different from the ways we assume people in authority should speak. That puts women in a double bind. When they act like a boss, they are not liked. When they act like a woman, they are not respected, or they are underestimated.

Some of the things that come into play for most girls and women is that we are most comfortable if we can pretend everybody is equal. Hierarchy tends to be downplayed in relationships among girls and women, and there are a lot of manifestations of that. Girls are always saying, I’m the same, and are very negative to any girl who thinks she’s better. Whereas among boys, claiming to be better is part of the rituals that they value. In the work setting, there are hierarchies built in. When I wrote Talking from 9 to 5, I asked women and men what makes a good manager. The most common answer I got from women was, I treat the women who work for me as equals. Well, that can be a little complicated. Women will expect their women bosses to act like friends and they will feel negative when they act in exactly the same way a male boss might act. That’s the double bind.

A key factor to issues of gender equality, such as equal pay, is centered around who is permitted access to the important conversations. Men are disproportionately having these conversations, but not necessarily because they are better at them. They simply have the access.

Definitely. This gets back to your question about which way is better. Women at work would often spend a fair amount of time doing rapport talk, and men will think they are wasting time. But it’s actually time well spent. Which means when they have work to be done, there is a friendly relationship there and the wheels of communication are already turning, and you can go and get the work done really quickly.

I find it interesting how you look at competition among women. You distinguish between connection and competition, which seems to bisect women’s most dominant instincts of empathy and survival.

For what it’s worth, I don’t use the term empathy mainly because I focus on language and what you observe. Empathy is an internal space, and it’s hard to describe. But it’s connected to how girls and women have a negative view of competition. I found a lot of examples where women thought their friends were being competitive, but really they were connecting.

It’s often said that boys are competitive and girls are focused on connection, and some say that’s cooperative. Women are both competitive and cooperative, we just do it in different ways. For example, you have a group of little boys talking about how high they can hit a ball. They are being competitive, but also very cooperative in agreeing that competitive talk is fun. Boasting about what you’re good at is fun. You’ll hear this from guys of any age teasing each other. Girls can be extremely competitive about connection [within their friendships] — who is closer to a certain person, who knows more about them, and who heard it first.

You talk about “indirect communication” in the book, which sounds like a nice way of saying passive aggression. Is there a difference?

That’s a wonderful example how we attribute psychological motive to something that’s just a way of speaking. Another one would be manipulative. The word manipulative always intrigues me because it means the person is not talking the way they should given what they are trying to accomplish. Conversational style differences means that the way we think someone should talk to accomplish something is different from how someone with a different conversational style thinks one should talk. It’s almost a setup that when you talk to someone whose conversational style is different [from yours], they will think you are manipulative or passive aggressive.

The other side is active aggressive. If your communication style is to be direct, you think, I’m being honest. More people should be direct to get their point across. But when the person they are talking to expects the communication to be indirect, they misinterpret that as active aggression and they can be very offended by it.

What surprised you most about the women and girls you talked to?

I noticed a theme that seems to run through every age and seem to typify girls and women more than men [in friendship communications]: they are hurt when they were not told something, or they were left out of something. It doesn’t seem as common or that big of a deal for boys and men as it is for girls and women.

Technology, which you cover extensively in one chapter, has changed everything in our lives; communication may be chief among them. Social media can create a sense of community, and also exclusion. It can give someone a friendship circle that spans the globe, while also making them feel lonelier than ever. We talk in emojis over text rather than person-to-person conversations. Do you think these advancements are going to permanently disrupt how we communicate?

It’s going to transform how we communicate, but not necessarily disrupt. The social media ramp-up amplifies what’s best and what’s most challenging about communication face-to-face. I mentioned the fear of being left out — FOBLO — as one of the most challenging for girls and women; how painful it is to hear about a party you weren’t invited to, or just a party you weren’t at because you couldn’t be there. The chances of you seeing a picture of everything the people you are close to are doing when you are not there has increased exponentially. So that means you are constantly coming face-to-face with images of where you are being left out.

On the other hand, one of the positive things about friendships is you get this sense of connection. The comfort of feeling someone cares about you or cares what you’re doing. I love this line from one of the older women I interviewed being critical of young people using social media. She said, “All this stuff out there that nobody needs to know. I don’t care what somebody had for dinner!” But the truth is, we do care when it’s someone we’re close to. It’s this sense of connection.

Previously, the default case was, you’re alone. And something had to happen to make you connected to someone. A person had to walk in the room, or call you on the phone. Now you are in an open state of communication all the time. It’s as if you are sitting in a roomful of people and any one of them could talk to you at any moment. That sense of connection is a positive effect that I see as a real fundamental change in the way of being in the world.


Heather Wood Rudulph is an author, journalist, and professor living in Sacramento. Her work on feminism and culture has appeared in, Elle, Refinery29, DAME Magazine, the Guardian, The Daily Beast, and others. Follow her on Twitter @hwrudulph.