Oh, Shut Up

I thought linguistics professor Deborah Tannen was a well-meaning knucklehead until I appeared in one of her books. Now I think she's a deranged dumbbell.

That male/female communications are completely futile was known long before Georgetown University professor of linguistics Deborah Tannen published her two exercises in the palpable, You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (1990) and That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships (1986). Shrewdly capitalizing on the 3-million-year-old war of words between men and women--a war that didn't start with us, isn't going to end with us, and shouldn't be taken all that seriously until sharp and shiny objects are brandished--Tannen diverts attention from what is said to how it is said as she decodes the "true" meaning of conversation.

Astute readers may have deduced from my tone that I arrive at the Tannen debate with a few prejudices. I do. For instance, when I ask a moping date, "Honey, what's wrong?" my inquiry is a genuine one about her well-being. If she says, "Nothing," I accept the explanation and regard any other soul-stewing as mere baseline behavior. Tannen, on the other hand, sees through these ruses to discover the message inscribed upon the denial. Such ingenuity made her a best-selling author, and her books have launched an entire subgenre of pop nonfiction, the latest of which to top the charts is Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Having plundered the boy/girl talk subject, the academic-wonder-turned-pop-linguistics sensation has now thrust her ideas into the American workplace, paratrooping her unpaid grad students behind enemy lines to gather material for Talking From 9 to 5, her just-released book on the futility of all human communications. Lo and behold, Tannen's data indicates that the business world is not a Montessori school, bosses don't act like Mr. Rogers, and, well, People Just Don't Understand.

I also arrive at this debate with a few prejudices, seeing as I'm one of Talking From 9 to 5's subjects, and my peremptory managerial style as editor of Washington City Paper is revealed in three pages three-fourths of the way through the book (the curious should check out Page 224). It is my fault that my brutal ways have been revealed because I volunteered City Paper's offices as a test tube for the linguist's experiment: With my consent, Georgetown University grad student Lena Gavruseva wandered the halls of City Paper for several weeks during 1993, tape recorder in hand, siphoning Tannenable material from idle conversation and full-bore arguments. Gavruseva begged us to ignore her presence, a difficult task since she repeatedly thrust her recorder under our noses. Yet since this sacrifice was for science, we did our best to act normal.

Normal by City Paper standards. A newspaper office is a place filled with urgency--at least as hectic as a restaurant kitchen or a morticians' embalming room. You must serve the story, meal, or stiff on deadline. Surrender your sensitivities before entering, please. Alibis are invalid here, especially fanciful ones about the futility of human communication.

Riding high in the beamy boat that is Tannen's analysis is the horrifying prospect that someone might possibly be offended in conversation. "Talk intended to create connection always runs the risk of offending co-workers who have different styles," she writes fretfully, dissecting a recorded conversation between me and City Paper Associate Editor David Plotz. Perhaps Tannen possesses unnatural fears of strong words and loud voices because she was reared by herbivores in paradise. I, on the other hand, was raised in a large family of lapsed Catholics where the most concise and effective way to express that it was your turn at bat was by applying the thick part of a Louisville Slugger to your brother's cranium (I still wear the scar of one such discussion with my younger brother Jerry). Speedy resolution of disputes and extra-base hits were the ideals respected by my family, and conversations about conversations were banned by my father as onanistic.

Tannen, on the other hand, believes in the perfectibility of discourse, and seizes upon my exchange with Plotz to illustrate her ideas about hierarchical relationships in the workplace. (Although Tannen applied the pseudonym of "John" to me and "Dan" to Plotz, our identities became common knowledge at City Paper when the book came out and staffers distributed photocopies of the chapter.)

Gavruseva's tape recorder was there when I informed Plotz that the office had just acquired a blazingly fast computer. "You just have that little shitburner of an XT," I told Plotz, and I then asked him how his aging computer was functioning.

Plotz: It sucks.

Shafer: Why?

Plotz: I--'Cause it doesn't--

Shafer: Why, it's slow?

Plotz: No, it's not that. It's just like there are all sorts of keys that don't work and stuff.

Shafer: What do you mean keys that don't work?

Plotz: Like the caps lock doesn't work.

Shafer: It can. You want it to?

Plotz: No, it doesn't.

Shafer: You want it to?

Plotz: OK.

Shafer: All right. What else would you like?

Plotz: Um, I don't know. It was just sort of--

Shafer: No no no, come on.

Plotz: Like I can't turn it off because--

Shafer: You would like--you'd like to be able to turn it off? Why? 'Cause it bothers you?

Plotz: And it's--it's frozen up on me like three times.

Shafer: Yeah?

Plotz: Yeah.

Shafer: Like is there a pattern?

Plotz: No, I mean maybe there is, I haven't noticed it. I--I don't know. It hasn't done it for about a week or so, so don't worry. I'm just griping. I'm just griping. I've never--I've got no particular complaints because it--all I need to--I'm not--I'm not a computer junkie so I don't really care.

Shafer: So if you want your caps-lock key to work, there's no problem. I can come in and do that.

Plotz: No, I don't really need a caps lock.

Shafer: It'll take me twenty-five seconds.

Before we look at Tannen's take on this exchange, a little background. I am a computer enthusiast, whereas most of my City Paper colleagues aren't, expecting their Dells, Austins, Ambras, and other clones to work as simply as toasters and screaming bloody hell if they don't. This makes them as dependent as babies on me, but since I can solve most of their computer-related problems by rebooting their machines, the relationship has also bolstered my ego.

Plotz is among the proudly computer illiterate. But that's OK with me. I pay him because he knows how to write great stories on deadline, not because he knows when to give his computer the three-finger salute when he flummoxes it.

Back to Tannen: The linguist perceives several hidden messages behind our banter. In her view, my profanity is "an invitation to engage in friendly complaining, a ritual of camaraderie." That's a bit of an extrapolation. What the professor doesn't know is that around the Shafer household, idle profanity was standard, as in, "Mom, can you pass the goddamn pork chops?"

Tannen uses the Shafer/Plotz dialogue to show how in the hierarchical relationships between boss and employee a simple complaint can be transformed into an implicit criticism. Indeed, Plotz later told researcher Gavruseva that he continued to complain about his computer "as not to ‘rebuff' his boss." Tannen writes, "Like many people in the superior position, John [the pseudonym Tannen affixes to me] was unaware of the impact of his own status and power on a subordinate."

Unaware of the impact of my status and power on a subordinate!!!??? As chefs, morticians, and editors will tell you, bosses are ever mindful of their status and power over subordinates, ever longing for more status and power. Without status and power, how does one get subordinates to do one's bidding? Ask them nicely? Buy them flowers? Food, funerals, and features must be served on time, and snuggling your employees in a love circle isn't a prescription for beating the clock.

Plotz then "challenged" me to fix his computer, which Tannen interprets as "using the cover of humor to talk back to his boss, redressing the power imbalance that had been taking shape." I responded to his challenge thusly: "You are a fool if you think you can challenge me, Mr. Computer!"

Maybe Tannen is right about the diffusing properties of humor. But since she is obsessed with the form of conversation rather than its content, she neglects to report the upshot of the Shafer/Plotz badinage--that I fixed his goddamn fucking piece of shit computer. What's more, I eventually replaced Plotz's pathetic XT with a 486/66 and he still doesn't know how to use it properly. And do you know why, Ms. Deborah Tannen Ph.D.? Because he doesn't care about computers!!!!!

But then Tannen probably doesn't care about computers, either. Or about the speedy resolution of disputes or the immediate solution of problems without the benefit of a licensed sensitivity trainer.

Not that Tannen can't construct a sensitivity session from scraps of cassette tape. In the case of the computer challenge, Plotz changed the subject by inquiring about my health (I was recovering from the flu). I proceed to regale him with the graphic details of my illness, telling him of a nasty "gastrointestinal thing at both ends. It was--it was spewing," I said. "It was violent."

"Not simultaneously," Plotz responded in horror. "Please tell me no."

"No no no, but it was intense," I said. "And it made me so glad that there was no girlfriend around, nobody could take care of me. There's only one fucking thing I hate, and it's being sick and somebody wants to take care of me."

Tannen's interpretation of my Grand Guignol grandstanding: "Asking John how he felt served not only to change the topic but to focus on an area in which John was not heroic [!], and full of mastery but rather vulnerable. By giving so many details about his intestinal ailments, John agreed to the realignment. When he added how glad he was that there was no girlfriend around trying to take care of him, and did so using language few men would use in front of women, he realigned himself with [Plotz], setting them apart from hypothetical women. Although editor and newly hired young writer were not the same rank, they were both men and could bond on that basis." (Emphasis added.)

F.A. Hayek had a disparaging term for this sort of slipshod, skyhook thinking. He called it "the pretense of knowledge." Not knowing me, how could Tannen know whether or not I might favor a woman with the thrill ride of my bout with the flu? Contra Nietzsche, the flu didn't kill me or make me stronger, but the story of my illness is pretty damn entertaining if you ask me, completely upholding Michael Dolan's first law: "From bad times come good stories."

And from clashing conversational styles often come a modicum of understanding. If Tannen were as interested in conversation as she is in metaconversation, she'd know that.

(Reprinted from Washington City Paper with permission.)

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