Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Tannen’

Service of Saying What You Mean—Or Not

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Photo: Oneweekjob.com

I tend to say what I mean. I’m baffled when people who know me well consistently think I really want to do or buy or eat something other than what I’ve identified. That’s why Deborah Tannen’s op ed piece in The New York Times caught my eye. But her personal findings, described in her piece, surprised me given her conclusions in her life’s work as a linguistics professor, now at Georgetown.

She described a dinner party in which she asked her friend Tamara not to help clear the table and Tamara kept on doing so. In “My Mother Speaks Through Me,” she explained that the way she and her friend communicated—spoke and heard–was impacted by their “families’ styles.”

Photo: makeameme.org

Turns out that Tamara’s mother would often protest that she didn’t want any help but once Tamara had completed a chore, her mother was always extremely grateful. So when Tannen said “No” Tamara heard “Yes.” In the household in which she grew up, Tannen’s mother meant what she said.

Tannen wrote that in her first paper—she’s been researching “how people speak differently across cultures” for 40 years—that confusion occurs “when one speaker means words literally and the other thinks they are hinting at something else.” She noted that a person with a direct approach hearing a fuzzy response might think the other person is “being manipulative, or even passive-aggressive.”

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That’s why I was puzzled by Tannen’s surprise: “We both felt as if a light had been turned on. It never occurred to me that Tamara might think I didn’t mean it when I said I didn’t want her to help. And it had never occurred to her that I did.”

“Though my mother died in 2004,” wrote Tannen, “she is the one whose voice comes out when I speak, and whose speaking style shapes how I hear others’ words. The same is true for Tamara as I learned when our styles clashed.” She attributed the differences to the fact that her mother was born in Russia and Tamara’s in Germany. Tannen found it “deeply satisfying” to know that during the clearing of the dinner table she was speaking and Tamara was listening as their mothers would have.

When Tannen and her husband made Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ home, her mom would ask “did you leave any food on the shelf?” and who did they think would eat all that food? Her mother speaks through her today, she wrote. She parodies those words when her husband brings home far too many groceries.

I don’t think it is that simple or cut and dried. My mother’s hinting was closer to the way my husband communicates than the way I do. They might ask “Is there any Ketchup?” instead of “Please bring in the Ketchup.” I think my style is a closer match to my father’s. If he told me to bring his glass to the kitchen and I responded “in a minute dad,” my hesitation didn’t go over well. There was no doubt what he wanted and when—no silly sallying around. I, too, am impatient.

Does your mother speak through you? Do you hear your parents’ voices when you speak? Do you listen and hear the way they do or did?

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