For Deborah Tannen, a little conversation is never just a little conversation: It’s academic research. Tannen, a 62-year-old Eagle Rock, Va., resident and Georgetown professor, is a linguist who has made a career of talking about talking: She analyzes pauses, interruptions, negotiations, and exclamations in an attempt to explain how and why people talk the way they do. Sometimes, she even analyzes herself.
“Am I being too verbose?” she asks during an interview for this article. “I could be more concise!”
Tannen began her obsession with language in 1973, when a University of Michigan summer institute first introduced her—then a freshman composition professor—to the idea of linguistics in context. “It completely blew my mind,” recalls Tannen, who speaks lengthily and excitedly, and rarely pauses. Only six years later, Tannen held a Ph.D. from Berkeley and was heading to Georgetown to fill a vacant teaching position at one of the foremost linguistic programs in the country, which she still holds. “I consider myself incredibly lucky,” she says. “Just the stars lining up.”
Indeed, Tannen is a rare case in the field of linguistics. Both an accomplished scholar and a best-selling author, she’s spent 28 years at Georgetown University and nearly half a decade on the New York Times best-seller list. “I’ve spent my life recording conversations,” Tannen says of her career. And over the course of it, she’s recorded more than she can count—conversations between men and women, bosses and employees, mothers and daughters, and Californians and New Yorkers—that have helped her locate the ways in which social categories affect speech. In the process, Tannen has managed to cultivate a minority academic field, sociolinguistics, into a pop phenomenon with mass-market appeal.
Tannen—who considers herself “foremost, as a writer”—has voiced her particular blend of linguistic study and pop psychology in 15 academic books and six books for general audiences; her most recent, You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, was published in 2006. Her most well-known work, 1990’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, spent eight months atop the New York Times best-seller list and is largely credited with introducing the study of gender and language to a mass audience. (In another book, Talking From 9 to 5, Tannen also featured an entertaining exchange recorded in the offices of the Washington City Paper, later dissected in a cover story by former editor Jack Shafer [“Oh, Shut Up,” 12/23/94].)
On the surface, Tannen’s popular books can read like most other self-help bibles; they’re inhabited by people such as “Linda and Josh” and “Louise and Howie,” theoretical couples who have theoretical problems understanding each other. But, unlike the bulk of self-help writers, Tannen’s guides on linguistic theory are backed by years of research.
“I’ll take work that I had already written for academic audiences and recast it,” Tannen says of her popular books. “My academic work would always be based on analysis of some conversation that I taped, transcribed, and analyzed.”
The nature of Tannen’s work—which often involves interpreting different social groups based on the way they speak—can draw its share of criticism. “You’re describing something, and people think you’re judging them,” Tannen explains. “My first goal always is insight and understanding,” she insists. “We tend to assume there’s just one way to say what you mean. But, because peoples’ conversational styles vary, that may not be true. That’s the basic thrust of everything that I write: to point out the power of ways of speaking and its effect on relationships.”
Tannen discusses and signs copies of her work at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Washington District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center, 1519 16th St. NW. $20. (202) 777-3250; in conjunction with the “Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.”