Survival Guide: Deborah Tannen, linguist and professor

Deborah Tannen

What we say and what people hear are often two different things. This is very clear to linguist Deborah Tannen, who studies the different ways people communicate and sometimes miscommunicate. Best known for her books, "You Just Don't Understand" and "Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work," Tannen has helped bosses and employees throughout the world understand what happens in conversations. A professor at Georgetown University in Washington, Tannen spoke with Editor Steve LeSueur about communicating effectively in the modern workplace.


WT: Is there a key to clear communication.

Tannen: If there were a key, it would be that you have to be attuned not only to how you mean things, but how the person you're talking to is likely to interpret them. It's not enough to know that you meant well. You have to be concerned not only with the message, the meaning of the words, but what I call the meta message: What people are going to think it means that you say these words in this way at this time.


WT: How can you ensure that your

message is getting across?

Tannen: You can always ask people to say back to you what they heard you say. ... You'll frequently hear people say, "I just want to make sure we're all on the same page." A recent expression, but a useful one.

It would be an extreme statement to say that you could ever completely understand how people are going to hear [your message], but in one sense, everything I've ever written is about increasing the likelihood that you'll be able to foresee and correct how things are likely to be perceived by others.


WT: How do you rebuild communication in a relationship gone sour?

Tannen: One way is through what you might call meta communication. You try to talk through what it was that broke down and why. If you can agree on that, that gives you the basis to start building it up again.

WT: Does videoconferencing facilitate the same communication as face-to-face meetings?

Tannen: No. I haven't done any research on it, but that's my educated guess. When you're in a videoconference, the person is not in front of you, you can't get into little side things, it's hard to negotiate who gets the floor. Because of the expense and the discomfort of it, people tend to keep their comments much more to just business. It's better, I suppose, than an e-mail conference, but it doesn't really provide the sense of connection that being in the room with the person does.


WT: Is e-mail proving to be a good way to communicate?

Tannen: E-mail is super efficient and super dangerous. The benefit is that you can communication quickly, and you can communicate to people you might not otherwise feel comfortable communicating with.

But e-mail -- or any one-way communication such as leaving a message on somebody's answering machine or writing a memo -- is very risky, because you don't know how people are taking it. For my book, "Talking from 9 to 5," I did a lot of actual observation of workplaces and talking to people. Just about every conflict that arose during the time I was doing that research had been provoked by some one-way communication, either a memo written or a message left on voice mail or an e-mail sent.


WT: Would this suggest that if you have something important or potentially controversial to communicate, you should do it face to face?

Tannen: Yes. I think we have an impulse to use e-mail for the most delicate communications, because we feel a little protected behind our own screens. If you have something negative to say to somebody, and you really are loath to confront them, you might find it easier to just dash off an e-mail or leave an angry message on their machine. But it's going to be very risky to do that.

Even if it isn't a matter of the particular interaction being sensitive, just having the face-to-face interaction is important in building up a relationship. So I would say force yourself from time to time to just walk over to the person's office and do something in person, because it gives you a chance to establish that relationship that becomes the basis for a future of working together. *

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