Summer 2016

She said that!?

A Q&A with linguist Deborah Tannen

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Jonathan Timmes
Deborah Tannen

When Deborah Tannen left Harpur College with an English degree in 1966, she skipped graduation, turned her nose up at grad school and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. 

Fifty years later, Tannen is an accomplished and acclaimed professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of more than 100 articles and 11 books, including You Just Don’t Understand! Women and Men in Conversation (1990), which was a New York Times best seller for nearly four years.

She received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Binghamton in 1993 and returned this year to accept the Alumni Achievement Award. While she was here, she talked about love, luck and language.

QUESTION: What led you to Binghamton?

DT: I grew up in Brooklyn. My two sisters lived at home and went to college. They married at 19 and 20. The assumption was that is what you did to get out of the house. Harpur College had just been founded, so it was an opportunity for me to go away to college.

When I graduated I had no interest in going to graduate school. I worked awhile, saved money and went off to Europe and planned never to come back. A friend and I were going to meet in Greece and go to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Japan. It was 1966; you could do it. What a different world.

I ended up staying in Greece, where I taught English for about a year and a half. I met somebody there, and we came back to the states. He was getting a master’s, so I figured I would get one, too. It was at Wayne State University — all of my degrees are from state universities, and I’m very proud of that.

When I was 29, the marriage ended. I was free.

I had seen posters for a linguistic institute, and I was curious what it was all about. I went there for the summer and I was lucky — that was the one summer that the institute was devoted to language in context. Linguistics is quite a technical field. Most of it is the study of syntax, semantics and phonology. But the field that I went into is discourse analysis, sociolinguistics — how language works in everyday life.

I was particularly taken by the work of Robin Lakoff, and she worked on communicative style, which I ended up expanding to conversational style. So I applied to Berkeley, where she taught — my third state university — and got a PhD. I was 35 when I got my degree and was very lucky that Georgetown had an opening, because it’s the perfect place for me. The program is the biggest and most prominent PhD program in sociolinguistics. Most linguistics departments have maybe one professor in that subfield, rarely two. We have five.

Q: Did your family have a love of language?

A: Yes, my father was trilingual. He was born in Poland, so he spoke Polish, Yiddish and English fluently. My mother was born in Russia, but her Yiddish was half English. But what my father had was sensitivity to language. He was always commenting on it: “Did you hear how they said that?”

My father went to law school at night while he worked in a factory. He was totally an intellectual.

I always loved language. At Harpur I was the editor of the literary journal, Clarendon. So when I discovered linguistics, I found I could study everyday interactions in the same way that I studied literature — picking apart words.

Q: You wrote an op-ed about Hillary Clinton in 1992, before Bill Clinton was elected president. And you’re still writing about her, including an op-ed on titled “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Disliking Hillary Clinton.” Why? 

DT: What I saw happening to her is what I see happening to women in authority. It’s called a double bind, when there are two commands you must obey but anything you do to obey one violates the other. For example, you must be a good manager and be a good woman, but you can’t be both. As I wrote recently, when Hillary Clinton is tough, she can be perceived as unfeminine and, thus, inauthentic. If she were self-deprecating, she’d come across as feminine and likable but not presidential.

It’s so tragic, this double bind, and it infuriates me that people don’t see it. They just think they don’t like her, they just blame her, so that’s why I get worked up about it.

Q: Your next book is about friendship. What are you finding in your research?
I’ve heard everything from, “I really don’t have women friends. I don’t trust women” to “I couldn’t live without my women friends.” And “I don’t need a lot of friends; I have one or two” to “I have six best friends, and then I have 10 other really close friends. There are my friends from work, my friends from college…”

The first thing that surprised me is how many women said, “My husband is my best friend.” Because I used to say, and I wasn’t the only one, that if you asked a man to name his best friend he’d name his wife. But if you asked a woman, she’d name another woman.

Q: What is your opinion about gender-neutral pronouns?

In writing, you can’t say the generic “he” anymore, and that’s a good thing.

There was a lot of resistance to “he/she.” And people felt strongly that “he” means he or she. Well, it doesn’t. When people hear “he” they think “masculine,” period. I think “they” in some contexts is easy, because everybody does it. “Will everybody please raise their hands?” It’s automatic.

Also, I think word choices make a difference. I once quoted actor Alfre Woodard, who said something like, “Actresses worry about their makeup and cellulite; actors worry about the character they’re portraying.” And she put her finger on something. I made this point in the piece about Hillary, where [New York Times columnist] Frank Bruni “complimented” her but used the words seamstress and sorceress. Those words are loaded in many ways. Any time you use a feminine ending, you trivialize. A poetess is not as serious as a poet.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

DT: My husband and I are obsessive theatergoers; we subscribe to six theaters in Washington, D.C.

But a lot of my spare time goes to email. Email is destructive, energy wasting, time wasting, soul wasting … and I can’t cure myself of it. I’m very chatty.

Q: Are you an eavesdropper?

DT: Yes! People complain about people talking on their cellphones in public, but I love it. 

Q: You’ve written 11 books. Do you have a favorite?

DT: It’s Talking Voices, an academic book. The basic idea is that everyday conversation is made of the same linguistic features that we think of as literary: repetition, dialogue, and details and imagery. It’s taking the skills I learned in English literature and applying them to everyday conversation.

My book That’s Not What I Meant is, I think, my most important book. It was the first one for a general audience. I want people to realize that these linguistic things, these ways of speaking, affect relationships. It should be part of high school curricula; everybody should know it.

Q: What do you remember about Harpur?

DT: I was here in the ’60s, and I had a point of honor. If I was interested in a field, I wanted to get an A. If I was not, I wanted to get a D, because I didn’t want to waste my time studying a topic I wasn’t interested in. I wanted to get credit for the course, but I didn’t want to go to grad school, so my grades didn’t matter. My first year I got three A’s and two D’s, and my second term I got three A’s, one D and one C. And that C bugged me.
There was a history course I took with [Robin] Oggins that I wasn’t interested in, so I didn’t study. There was an exam and I didn’t know the answers, so I wrote a little poetry clip from E.E. Cummings that included the phrase:

the stupidest teacher will almost guess

(with a run


around we go yes)

there’s nothing as something as one

And when he returned the exam he responded with words from T.S. Eliot:

History has many cunning

passages, contrived corridors

And issues,

I loved that! I was so impressed. I got to remind him and thank him when I came back for Homecoming last fall.

The classes of ’65, ’66 and ’67 were all very tight. The school was small and we had the sense of possibility; whatever we wanted to do we could do.

I finished midyear, so I didn’t go to graduation. And I didn’t go to my master’s graduation, so when I got my PhD, it never occurred to me to go. Then my parents told me they had been planning to come for it and I felt bad.
Now I go to all the graduations at Georgetown. I’m making up for having missed all of my own.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.