Deborah Tannen's popular scientific book "That's Not What I Meant" in the focus of criticism

Seminar Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Deborah Tannen’s That’s Not What I Meant in the focus of criticism
2.1 Deborah Tannen, That’s Not What I Meant
2.1.1 General information on That’s Not What I Meant
2.1.2 Content of That’s Not What I Meant
2.2 Critics of Deborah Tannen’s popular books
2.2.1 Troemel-Ploetz, Selling the Apolitical
2.2.2 Freed, We understand perfectly: A critique of Tannen’s view of cross-sex communication
2.3 Critics of That’s Not What I Meant

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The reason why popular scientific books are very successful is probably that an overview of the topics of modern science and an understanding of the main ideas are of interest to most people. But scientific literature does not only use a style too complicated for the “ordinary”, not academically educated person. It also is too extensive and contains many, at times confusing, details that are of no interest to a “normal” person. So for a person just trying to get the main drift of a scientific topic, it is on the one hand hard to deal with the scientific vernacular and on the other hand almost impossible to filter the information of real importance from other information that is not as important.

Popular scientific books seem to be the solution for people not academically interested in a topic. Here the authors can concentrate on the basics and foundations of knowledge, going not too much into the unnecessary detail. They are not bound to the strict structures of scientific literature, but can explain simply with examples from real life.

But more important is the fact that most people in our society want to be entertained rather than taught and find the academic side of science simply boring. The colloquial style of writing in popular scientific literature, the colourful examples that draw relations to the readers’ own life and the sometimes humorous descriptions add to the pleasure of the audience and render this kind of literature not only informative but in the first place entertaining.

Though it may be true that most people read popular scientific books only for entertainment, it is also true that with this literature the ideas and discoveries of modern sciences become more transparent not only for a small academically educated group but for everybody who is interested in it. Of course they can only “scratch the surface” of the actual scientific knowledge. In order to have a greater understanding of the science in question popular scientific literature cannot replace scientific literature.

Popular scientific books are published with topics of many different sciences from all fields.

Deborah Tannen is one of the most successful authors of popular scientific books in linguistics. She is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and wrote numerous books, including the bestsellers That’s Not What I Meant (1986) and You Just Don’t Understand (1990)[1].

Although she is an internationally recognized scholar, especially You Just Don’t Understand, which focuses on cross-sex communication, received some of the most critical reviews ever seen in the sociolinguistic world (cf. Coates 1998:415).

At the same time there are hardly critics on the earlier published book That’s Not What I Meant, which focuses on miscommunication on grounds of different conversational styles.

This paper will take a closer look at Deborah Tannen’s popular scientific book That’s Not What I Meant. Later it will deal with the numerous critics of Tannen’s other literature. It will discuss whether these critics can or should be transferred to That’s Not What I Meant.

2. Deborah Tannen’s That’s Not What I Meant in the focus of criticism

2.1 Deborah Tannen, That’s Not What I Meant

2.1.1 General information on That’s Not What I Meant

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics, published her popular scientific book That’s Not What I Meant in 1986 and it sold extremely well (cf. Coates 1998:414).

The subtitle “How Conversational Style Makes Or Breaks Relationships” already gives most of the content away: Tannen discusses how differences in conversational style lead to miscommunications in our everyday life.

The way of writing is very personal and casual. Tannen conveys her information by mixing examples from her own life with a lot of examples from real life (or at least fictitious examples, which are supposed to resemble reality). In this way Tannen appeals to her audience, because her examples are chosen from very common situations which everybody can relate to. Thus the reader will find his/her own life reflected in Tannen’s book.

That’s Not What I Meant has a certain structure of applying linguistic contents to the examples given: Tannen describes scenes of conversations between different characters in different situations where miscommunications arise. Then she identifies the source of miscommunication and explains how it could have been avoided. In the course of this, she introduces linguistic terms and thus tries to give an impression of the state of affairs in modern sociolinguistics. The language is very simple and unscientific.

With That’s Not What I Meant Deborah Tannen moves the linguistic topic of cross-cultural communication out of the academic frame into the social life of the reader.

2.1.2 Content of That’s Not What I Meant

In That’s Not What I Meant Deborah Tannen describes every sort of communication as cross-cultural and thus as a constant seed of miscommunication.

The way we speak derives from our personal background, which differs depending on geographical, ethnic, religious, social or gender issues[2]. Consequently, according to Tannen every person uses a different conversational style. Most people are not aware of this because “our ways of communicating seem evidently natural to us” (Tannen 1986:10). Arguments and other awkward situations in communication can arise from unexpected collisions of conversational styles and are in fact only miscommunications[3].

Tannen also emphasises that conversational style is not only established by what we say, but by how we say it, not by the message, but by the metamessage. “Information conveyed by the meaning of words is the message”, but what is more important in communication is the metamessage, which reflects “our attitudes towards each other, the occasion and what we are saying” (Tannen 1986:16).

The content of the metamessage depends on conversational signals and conversational devices. Conversational signals are for example pacing and pausing; loudness; pitch and intonation. A combination of these signals make up conversational devices, such as expressive reactions, asking questions, complaining and apologising (cf. Tannen 1986:33). According to Tannen these devices are invisible, because they are natural parts of our way of speaking. That is why the perception of a metamessage only relies on assumptions, which often lead to wrong conclusions about the intentions of the speaker. So, if the conversational signals and devices are not shared by the speakers, these different styles can become reason for miscommunication (cf. Tannen 1986:50).

Each conversational style is affected by the basic social human needs involvement and independence:

We need to get close to each other to have a sense of community, to feel we’re not alone in the world. But we need to keep our distance from each other to preserve our independence, so others don’t impose or engulf us. This duality reflects the human condition. We are individual and social creatures. We need other people to survive, but we want to survive as individuals.[4]

Involvement and independence influence the way of talking because people set different values to these needs. A person setting priority to independence, may feel uncomfortable talking to a person more concerned with involvement.

The same pattern is also reflected in Lakoff’s principles of politeness (Don’t impose; Give options; Be friendly), by which we decide how we “take into account the effect of what we say on other people” (Tannen 1986:21). When different priorities are set to these principles, conversations can lead to misunderstandings.

We balance the conflicting needs for involvement and independence by hinting and picking up hints, by refraining from saying some things and surmising what other people mean from what they refrain from saying. Linguist refer to the way people mean what they don’t exactly say as indirectness[5].

The concept of indirectness is a linguistic tool in communication for sending silent metamessages of rapport or as a kind of self-defence to avoid confrontation and save from rejections (cf. Tannen 1986:59). Similar devices are irony, sarcasm and figures of speech, which cause rapport in the sensual pleasure of shared laughter and still give the ability to retreat (cf. Tannen 1986:60).

But just as joking holds the danger of not sharing the same humour, the concept of indirectness works well, only if people agree on how to use it. In case people, trying to communicate use different kinds of indirectness, it can raise the feelings of being manipulated or lied at. Still indirectness is necessary in communication because relationships between people rely on metamessages like rapport (cf. Tannen 1986:63).


[1] cf. Tannen, Deborah (1986) That’s Not What I Meant: booklet

[2] cf. Tannen, Deborah (1986) That’s Not What I Meant: Preface

[3] cf. Tannen, Deborah (1986) That’s Not What I Meant: booklet

[4] Tannen, Deborah (1986) That’s Not What I Meant: p. 17

[5] cf. Tannen, Deborah (1986) That’s Not What I Meant: p. 55

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Deborah Tannen's popular scientific book "That's Not What I Meant" in the focus of criticism
University of Duisburg-Essen
Proseminar - Language and Gender
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Deborah, Tannen, That, What, Meant, Proseminar, Language, Gender
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Andrea Dorweiler (Author), 2004, Deborah Tannen's popular scientific book "That's Not What I Meant" in the focus of criticism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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