Deborah Tannen shares some words about relationships at the Drue Heinz Lectures. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Deborah Tannen shares some words about relationships at the Drue Heinz Lectures.

Deborah Tannen's best-selling relationship books feature bold, snappy titles like You're Wearing THAT? and You Just Don't Understand. But make no mistake -- Tannen is no pop psychologist. A linguistics professor at Georgetown University with numerous awards to her name, Tannen has made a career out of arguing that our relationships are deeply influenced, curiously, by individual speech patterns.

While attending the University of California-Berkeley in the 1980s, Tannen published a groundbreaking graduate thesis, Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends, which was based on the recorded conversations of a three-hour-long Thanksgiving dinner in 1978. In Conversational Style, Tannen wielded her research against the field of traditional academic linguistics, which, at the time, focused solely on the sound, syntax and history of language. Tannen argued that many more elements of speech remained to be studied, among them a speaker's intonation and word choice.

In 1990's You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation -- which spent a mere four years on the New York Times Best-Sellers List -- Tannen elaborated on her initial thesis, providing a dose of scientific backing to the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" school of thought.

According to Tannen, if a woman asks a man, "Do you want to get a coffee?" empirical evidence suggests she views the question as a polite way of expressing a desire without making a demand. Men, on the other hand, sometimes interpret this question as a command in disguise. This common misunderstanding can occur, Tannen writes, not because men and women have different brains, but because they are members of different speech communities. 

Tannen again delves into relationship dynamics in her latest book, 2006's You're Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. This time she analyzes an often stormy class of relationship -- one whose difficulty, ironically, arises from how close mothers and daughters tend to be in the first place. When a daughter hears criticism about her job or her hair, Tannen argues, a mother is often expressing concern or a simple desire to help. But because the daughter values her mother's opinion, she may lash out at the perceived criticism, and the mother becomes hurt and defensive. (One woman interviewed for the book claimed, "My conversations with my daughter are the best and the worst.")

Tannen is a rare breed of relationship writer, able to back up her claims with extensive scientific research while still writing with an easy, entertaining style. On Mon., March 19, she visits the Drue Heinz Lectures to discuss how her own relationships, including the tumultuous one with her own late mother, Dorothy, have informed her research.

Deborah Tannen at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series. 7:30 p.m. Mon., March 19. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $19 ($8 students). 412-622-886 or

click to enlarge She does understand: Deborah Tannen.
She does understand: Deborah Tannen.

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