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The Language of Female Friendships

Update: 2017-05-02
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John McWhorter discusses communication styles with linguist Deborah Tannen, author of You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships.

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the pecan Valley is brought to you by The Great courses plus learn about topics that interest you all taught by award winning experts sign up for free month of unlimited access by going to the great courses plus dot com slash lexicon and buy blue apron create delicious meals at home with fresh ingredients delivered right to your door get your first three meals FREE with FREE shipping by going to Blue apron dot com slash lexicon the New York City this is let's tally up podcast about language of John the quarter I teach linguistics at Columbia University my latest books are words on the move and talking back talking lah but my latest favorite project is doing these podcasts and as my regular listeners may have noticed my usual pattern is to alternate episodes where I fly solo with interview episodes in this week's show is one of the ladder and specifically I am so honored to have with me today Deborah tan Deborah is a linguist at Georgetown but I suspect most of you know her as the author of the four years long before Times bestseller you just don't understand remember that book was coming out of your faucets twenty four seven back in the day and she's followed up with many other books such as The argument Culture which never just gave me the occasion to take in and I recommend and now her new your the only one I can tell which by the time you hear this will have been officially released yesterday this is a book about how women communicate within friendships that particular parodies the peculiarities yes the pitfalls and no that's not ad copy I put in that a Christian myself but instead of listening to me a liberating we should hear from Professor Tan herself ever you have sincerely always been the public linguists that I wanted to be other than Mary O pay and I could have you on my show welcome the great seven years please anyway I wanted to ask you this at first because ensure you get asked by many other people and I always think about it one point you make in this is not necessarily central to the book early on it you say that it's been documented that under stress women tend to bond likely to fight or flee and I just got thinking I assume that they're people who were going to say that they are issues of stereotyping in the very that women do one thing and man do another that being a lot of academic response to the pioneering work on language and gender in the seventies what is your take on that response was I'm sure that you get all the time yes the head of research Sally Taylor and she pointed out this kind of truism that people respond to stress by the slate is not as to when it isn't known she called the reaction she describes thousand women to be tender and the friend that end but is take care of people and the friend is turn to the people close to and yes there is always an immediate concern is stereotyping well the thing in my view is drawing conclusions not based on observation but based on assumptions that you come in with CIA research and found these patterns we don't describe them people end up blaming themselves winning each other and often it's a group that can be different can't blame the swim is seen as falling soy because they're not reacting in the way his expected it's expensive present some men do but I do like to say right up front is a problem immediately and saying women to this man did that and it would be the same for any group no study finds one hundred percent for this is zero percent as we know it academic studies if you find sixty percent versus forty percent was a very strong buying the exact same careful when irate to say many most typically ten and the qualifiers always get forgotten and ignored the people are always saying then do this and do that so I let you started with that said we can have that in mind with everything we say for the rest of this conversation it's important I think for we educated people and everybody else to understand the dangers of stereotyping but there does seem to be a tendency to talk about tendencies for some people to be wary of their even being tendencies the tendency of something to be wary of as well and I think it can get to the point that you end up avoiding imperialism if you take that too far yet say don't generalize is kind of the mind set among academic studies say that is not generalize Abel is of no use for so many people that were fun too so many of my books by saying it was such a relief to realize I'm not the only one hit me not to be tender and that wasn't a specialist in general is a specialist and cause conflict difference is when the earliest the ever did was New York conversational style view and very I was comparing Greek and American style and I talked to and then a psychologist of Greek extraction who use what would be what typical among Greeks isn't cut out and why you kind of tense and you look the other person will pick up the intern then you kill a Jew what the two didn't demand and he felt like a light at the time in his entire life as being in New York it always been seen as pathological was erm with him that he was communicating and is in direct train was more typical among the workers to be like to add exactly is there a gender issue involved in that kind of in directness would one say that women tend to be more in direct in that sense the manatees may be an American culture yes that was one of the findings the time to stand out among the most enthusiastic of five soldiers and others give you a quick typical conversation it was a real one woman driving a car and she chose him and says Are you thirsty deer which led to the pink and his so he says no and then later he discovers that she had actually wanted to and was disappointed and frustrated know was that the mind reader and my comment was she probably did not expect a yes no answer she probably expected something like I don't know if you feel about it and then she say I don't know who you feel about it at this point what I'm speaking to an audience I see the elbows going so many couples in the audience recognize it and elbowing each other and laughing so this book that I've just written is about friendship and the same kinds of things can come up between friends can give you another example definitely this is one that happened to me it is so that I didn't pick it up myself so this is a good friend of mine the Mayans and I don't cook very much he tended to cook quite a bit so she would often invite us over and make it one time we had house guests who wanted to make dinner and we thought great opportunity will invite his friends only know her well she gets in my house and he's acting like a Cohoes he getting on the eve of the season I know that I keep saying I don't want her to like keep saying write it down really don't want to shoot at one point it was almost and I got into the kitchen I grabbed her arm and I enter that now normally I would have just been oh I forgot to write anything but because I was reading this book I wanted to know her well she immediately describe what happened with her mother she's been visiting her mother mother likes to see how serve the food says Please don't see site clearing the table at the start that she is washing the dishes this is you shouldn't do that I told you not to do that you never listen to me and now I know hold other mothers thank you when you don't listen to me and the light went on for both of us had never occurred to her that when I said I didn't want to help I meant it you actually meant it had never occurred to me that she's I mean it see this folks by the way is linguistics language is so much more than making statements asking questions and giving commands were getting to that realm of linguistics that has to do with that which is not explicitly said but as part of being human beings on this so I've talked about pragmatic particles in the SEO in the hay this is more in that realm to not understand these things can make it difficult to get along in this world and there's system to it were you know it's both a pleasure and awkward that one of my sponsors is the great courses because it happens I have done for courses within myself so that means it might seem little cynical of me to be pitching this particular product but I'm going to do it because I sincerely believe that the great courses are a marvelous product quite apart from anything I have had to do with them you know those books that you always say you're going to read but maybe don't especially these days when there's so many things to distract you from the page such as podcasts twelve dip in with something like the Shakespeare course we've done a show where I talked about how Shakespeare can be difficult for the uninitiated well become an initiate with one of these delightful courses listeners can sign up for free whole month of unlimited access to the great courses plus you connect to the great courses plus dot com slash lexicon do it now because all you have to do is press some buttons that's the great courses plus dot com slash lexicon signed up for the Greek courses it's a wonderful opportunity and you'll be glad you did and now back to the show ever there something else about your work that has always fascinated me because it made a light bulb go off in my head and that's the issue of what you call high involvement conversational style and by that you mean there's a kind of person who in conversation considers it normal to be constantly overlapping with the other person to the point that if that overlapping isn't happening and that's a sign of disengagement I had never thought about that as a thing until I knew your work and it made sense to me of various people who I who talk that way to this day I avoid talk shows because I don't like interrupting people but I know that that's just my particular quirk that there are other people who wouldn't even consider interrupting to be interrupting and I just want to play a quick clip of a song where people are overlapping in their conversation not exactly the way that you're talking about but the song that when I first heard it I saw all this Stephen Sondheim song performed in the London production of follies in nineteen eighty eight I remember the woman was Diana rig I remember thinking that's a good song partly because of the way they overlap so here is a little moves booster or moves or re from Mr. Sondheim one of his lesser known songs this is a country houses Carol Burnett and George her country house will be fine the the it while the the kind they have in mind due to the the the happy marriage to be the the I that's the the By the Sea the all the the that sounds like people but it goes further than that there's gender and there's culture on this I seem to recall that the idea was that New York Jewish people typically have this high involvement style who doesn't is their culture that is the opposite to this yes I confess to what I called high involvement style with a style that I called Heidi consider it as it was based on a study that I do the conversation among six people I was one three of us to chew is to California to is and what would have to is certainly high involvement style speakers whole range of styles that had a very positive the set when we see among cells but a negative effect unexpected unintended effect when used with Californians so one was expecting slightly shorter pauses between turns so that we would get the sense of the sale and they were overlapping was another so high involvement style often means talking along to show enthusiasm she don't expect the other person to stop when they start they really created the interruption you didn't it was a misunderstanding of intention comes along with many other things telling what personal story sometimes traumatizing the point of the story rather than spelling out our voices would have more extreme fluctuations of information and often very long pauses but in return you to a dramatic pause in its own maybe before you make that point but not as a teacher exchange was also asking questions to show interest to give you the person the floor so that you are kind of being generous but when they don't answer us get the RNC was the one asking scene in question when you have different styles you end up doing more thing we think make sense to end up frustrating the other person driving them into more extreme forms of the opposing behavior so these rapid fire questions don't get the other person speaking which was the intention that makes me clam up because they feel overwhelmed by the rise of Christian DeVore you must stare with our listeners the term where behavior by one person makes the other person opposite behavior more extreme with Cole yes my favorite terms complimentary mode Genesis House gets to get the lead to in Genesis creation the creation of a split complementary way so all of these religious but we're talking along his enthusiasm asking a lot of question standing close to chucking I'm only showing you a good person by emphasizing your involvement in the composition what is the logic of the opposing style Reeves longer pauses speak more slowly bake in a lower volume as questions allow the other person to volunteer if they wanted chili is actually not even ready to get the flu or perhaps all of those things would be high considering the value that people who tend toward that style world feel they're being considerate or not imposing this post up to the work of runaway costs so much of what I see is dependent on that pioneering work of Lakeland who was my professor at Berkeley and was your colleague at Berkeley yes he wants she was one of the reasons that I went into it was the first place she pointed out that every person every speaker in every conversation has to follow three rules maintain camaraderie the family don't impose option and she points out we all to observe them all but we observe them in different ways exactly different content so high involvement sale puts more emphasis on the first rule maintain camaraderie be friendly I consider it a style for emphasis on the other two I do tend to collapse the other shoe don't impose give options and you can see immediately what arrogance to if you have to fence and has a style that I interviewed over a woman for my book that friends and I heard many stories like this I ask a question she just knows me well maybe she's one of these people who think it's imposing to as a volunteer and that actually was an explanation the woman who had told her friend that her mother was in the hospital and sent a follow up as a mother doing she was she didn't and when she estimates she and my mother always taught me you don't ask questions like that if and when there is no right right you know it's interesting there are about light bulbs and conversation style because I was equipped to understand myself and my social world on the basis of that observation that I actually learn from you I am an herb in northeastern or by birth I grew up in Philadelphia and spent some time in New York then I spent fourteen years in California and I've been back in New York now for fifteen years and I remember thinking when I moved back to New York and go to that I found it easier to talk to a lot of people in New York and I realized why it was in fourteen years you can do a lot of great things a lot of crummy thing there were people in California who didn't like me because I did something bad there were other people in California though who often found me unpleasant because they found me pushy in conversation when I never thought of myself that way but I realize what is that mellow California style that you're talking about which I never quite fit into whereas on the streets of New York or even that the salons of the Upper West Side it fits right in I wouldn't call myself an especially high involvement talker but I was definitely out of place for fourteen years at those lovely parties in the Bay Area because of that but folks you know I know that are waiting for a particular clip when we talk about these different conversation styles an issue of pace and so of course we're going to play Bob and Ray and of course this kid is going to be an excerpt from the slow talker which is still funny over fifty years later for those of you don't know who Bob and Ray are listen to this which is now in and tell us your name please I hope he can the Where you from from the Glens Falls uh uh New York the I uh M Levy president and recording secretary the secretary the love of the S B old baby was born the slow talkers the of uh uh believe speaking slowly the Indo for me were not our idea is the and opinions clearly the forest making the we speak the we are here in New York City the In The The City of New York the uh the membership of the the the break because it shows you the frustration of the fast talker the response of a slow talker and so often we think more about how high considering the speakers are put off by the styles of my involvement because they feel in person it's frustrating it's both an efficient way to make and I quote this woman who she was I involved because I was explaining that I consider it because of following the rules don't impose and she said but are not imposing its own offense and oh no I only heard about blue apron last summer was one of those gatherings where people are kind of passively trying to talk about something other than their kids Donald Trump or how expensive houses are as luck would have it I'm actually trying it out now for the very first time I only signed up last week and I'm not going to be tasting any of this food for a couple days but you do get meals delivered to your door it's less than ten dollars per person which is pretty sweet and each recipe is said to only take forty minutes or under and yes you might be a little skeptical about that but I remember the couple who told me about the saying that they really do only take forty minutes listen to what I am having next week seared salmon roast potatoes salad with pickled mustard seeds and cram freeze and I get sugar snap pea risotto with mask or pony cheese whatever and mint check out this week's menu and get your first three meals free with free shipping so it's not double the price with shipping the shipping is free by going to Blue apron dot com slash lexicon that it's blue apron dot com slash lexicon blue apron a better way to cook and now back to the show Deborah I want to ask you about something else men and agony them then an agony of them the idea that men compete when they converse which is something that I actually noticed when I was about ten although I did have the vocabulary for but that has been shown to be statistically true that men likely to play one up and ship in conversation the term I've heard from or is it the ritual the position that God is or isn't is using or warlike stance to accomplish things and not literally fighting for obvious one would be teasing if the gays that poison that are more likely to use choosing to use playful insults that said in a sick as a way of showing affection and yeah it can be a kind of competition kind of one upping good humored sort of way when I get letters and two little clips and I often show two little girls playing and talking and four little boys and talking and the boys are trying to tap each other so one little boy is mine and S's minds up to the eye lenses might have been in the fourth line minds all the way up to God married to and you can see that their good natures are enjoying it but it is one less likely of girls you definitely nothing like that among girls of the two little girls is drying and one says you know my babysitter called Amber has already contacted the second one says My mom has already tightened my dad is due the first one is so pleasing she says the same I have lots of examples where girls and women spend a lot of effort showing that the same the boys and men are showing that they can tap each other and it isn't all good and I have heard also complaints from women the requirement to always be the same can be problematic one woman said My my women friends so let you be different another woman said I find friendships with women a very difficult to navigate because this is you say here differently have different opinion they thinking putting them down the criticism I definitely know what you mean I actually found that was part of the problem between me and some people in California that there was a general assumption the general cultural assumptions of his beak was that people were to seek to agree with one another whereas in New York City I find that there's more for jolly disagreement yeah you might say friendly contentious exactly the best descriptions of the style that way they do a Ana County women and men from New York and again was so important to realize not everything has generally had influences on style from regions and ethnicities firm class for the kind of work that you do a little personality so that parameters of style are always flexible and even high considering the above is not monolithic in the relatively more one relatively what the other hand some features of one some features of the other and we all have our own unique style exactly folks it's about a lot more and verbs and I wanna touch on one more thing Debra which is the piece that you now have in the Atlantic which addresses something else that you discuss in this book which is that there are certain pitfalls in social media communication between friends that might happen between and the old and that's something that I'm noticing a lot of interest out there and these days what is it that a person who's older as we say the same old ur might watch out for when it's a text saying facebooking or whatever ing with those who are younger err one would think that it things would be pretty straightforward because everybody can rob a noun and verb together but apparently it's not that simple yes that was the the essence of the period just because when you write in the area's young people here angry know from others tested her daughter saw me doing it now period the things I'm really hot water no position to see innocence is one that really surprises of the people you got that cut through that we use it to me and I'm more and more and since only that they hear it as undercutting the thing you just said before so Father is to have his daughter which she did for her birthday and she tells him the best time she went to and he says Wow that was what she hears his foot and then Mary Wright signed I love you that that guy it sounds like I don't really love you exactly where the bit for both you that's not what it would mean at all if anything it puts a pleasant little haze around it but definitely it doesn't undercut the way many younger people would think I'm noticing also with some people who are say thirty and below that email in general is for them something that's kind of cramped and they often won't answer for three or four days whereas if I'm in a situation where I am also texting with them because maybe they were my students and then that we have kept in touch or you know done some sort of performance in the years afterward that I talked with them they immediately answer tax and they are much more immediate and vivid and themselves in texting it seems that email has become elderly and texting is what the lively and interesting person does yes he is a sense of what formal and informal so for me and people lately think of email is informal and young people tend to think of it is formal on the way we would feel if we got a letter really exact town and anti potential
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The Language of Female Friendships

Slate Magazine/Panoply