tannen (1986) thats not what i meant, chs. 2 3

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book on conversation

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  • Linguistics and Conversational Style

    What's to Be Done?What can we do to avoid such misunderstandings in fleetingor intimate conversations? In some cases, we can alter ourstyles with certain other people. And we may try to clarifyour intentions by explaining them, though that can be tricky.We usually don't know there has been a misunderstanding.And even if we do, few people are willing to go back and pickapart what they've just said or heard. Just letting others knowthat we're paying attention to how they talk can make themnervous. When Henry Higgins, in the opening scene ofGeorge Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, is seen taking noteson Eliza's accent, onlookers assume he is a policeman aboutto clap her in jail.

    Trying to be direct with someone who isn't used to it justmakes things worseas Stephanie felt angry that hermother-in-law forced her to be rude by 'spelling things out'.People intent on finding hidden meanings will look more andmore desperately for the unexpressed intentions underlyingour intended 'direct' communication.

    Often the most effective repair is to change the framethedefinition or the tone of what's going onnot by talkingabout it directly but by speaking in a different way,exhibiting different assumptions, and hence triggering diffe-rent responses in the person we're talking to.

    But the most important thing is to be aware thatmisunderstandings can arise, and with them tempers, whenno one is crazy and no one is unkind and no one isintentionally dishonest. We can learn to stop and remindourselves that others may not mean what we heard them say.

    Life is a matter of dealing with other people, in littlematters and cataclysmic ones, and that means a series ofconversations. This book is meant to assure you that whenconversations seem to be causing more problems than they'resolving you aren't losing your mind. And you may not haveto lose (if you don't want to) your friendship, your partner,or your money to the ever-gaping jaws of differences inconversational style.

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    I

    ^^^

    The Workings ofConversational Style

    The Meaning Is the MetamessageYou're sitting at a baror in a cafe or at a partyand

    suddenly you feel lonely. You wonder, 'What do all thesepeople find to talk about that's so important?' Usually theanswer is, nothing. Nothing that's so important. But peopledon't wait until they have something important to say inorder to talk.

    Very little of what is said is important for the informationexpressed in the words. But that doesn't mean that the talkisn't important. It's crucially important, as a way of showingthat we are involved with each other, and how we feel aboutbeing involved. Our talk is saying something about ourrelationship.

    Information conveyed by the meanings of words is themessage. What is communicated about relationshipsatti-tudes towards each other, the occasion, and what we aresayingis the metamessage. And it's metamessages that wereact to most strongly. If someone says, 'I'm not angry', andhis jaw is set hard and his words seem to be squeezed out in ahiss, you won't believe the message that he's not angry; you'llbelieve the metamessage conveyed by the way he said itthathe is. Comments like 'It's not what you said but the way thatyou said it' or 'Why did you say it like that?' or 'Obviouslyit's not nothing; something's wrong' are responses tometamessages of talk.

    Many of us dismiss talk that does not convey importantinformation as worthlessmeaningless small talk if it's asocial setting or 'empty rhetoric' if it's public. Such admoni-

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  • Ungu&ks and Conversational Styledons as 'Skip die small talk1, 'Get to the point', or 'Why don'tyou say what you mean?' may seem to be reasonable. Butthey are reasonable only if information is all that counts. Thisattitude towards talk ignores die fact that people areemotionally involved with each other and that talking is diemajor way we establish, maintain, monitor, and adjust ourrelationships.

    Whereas words convey information, how we speak thosewordshow loud, how fast, with what intonation andemphasiscommunicates what we think we're doing whenwe speak: teasing, flirting, explaining, or chastizing; whetherWe're feeling friendly, angry, or quizzical; whether we wantto get closer or back off. In other words, how we say what wesay communicates social meanings.

    Although we continually respond to social meaning inconversation, we have a hard time talking about it because itdoes not reside in the dictionary definitions of words, andmost of us have unwavering faith in the gospel according todie dictionary. It is always difficult to talk abouteven to seeor diink aboutforces and processes for which we have nonames, even if we feel their impact. Linguistics provides termsthat describe the processes of communication and thereforemake it possible to see, talk, and think about them.

    This chapter introduces some of the linguistic terms thatgive names to concepts that are crucial for understandingcommunicationand therefore relationships. In addition todie concept of metamessagesunderlying it, in a sensethere are universal human needs that motivate communica-tion: the needs to be connected to others and to be left alone.Trying to honour these conflicting needs puts us in a doublebind. The linguistic concept of politeness accounts for theway we serve these needs and react to the double bindthrough metamessages in our talk.

    Involvement and IndependenceThe philospher Schopenhauer gave an often-quoted exampleof porcupines trying to get through a cold winter. Theyhuddle together for warmth, but their sharp quills prick eachodier, so they pull away. But dien they get cold. They have to14

    The Workings of Conversationalkeep adjusting their closeness and distance to keep fromfreezing and from getting pricked by their fellow porcu-pinesthe source of both comfort and pain.

    We need to get close to each other to have a sense ofcommunity, to feel we're not alone in the world. But we needto keep our distance from each other to preserve ourindependence, so others don't impose on or engulf us. Thisduality reflects the human condition. We are individual andsocial creatures. We need other people to survive, but wewant to .survive as individuals.

    Another way to look at this duality is that we are all thesameand all different. There is comfort in being under-stood and pain in the impossibility of being understoodcompletely. But there is also comfort in being differentspecial and uniqueand pain in being the same as everyoneelse, just another cog in the wheel.Valuing Involvement and IndependenceWe all keep balancing the needs for involvement andindependence, but individuals as well as cultures placedifferent relative values on these needs and have differentways of expressing those values. For example, some indi-viduals and groups glorify individuality, especially for men.Others glorify involvement in family and clan, for womenand men.

    Many individuals, especially (but not only) men, placemore emphasis on their need for independence and less ontheir need for social involvement. This often entails payingless attention to the metamessage level of talkthe level thatcomments on relationshipsfocusing instead on theinformation level. The attitude may go as far as theconviction that only the information level really countsor isreally there. It is then a logical conclusion that talk not rich ininformation should be dispensed with. Thus, many daughtersand sons of all ages, phoning their parents, find that theirfathers want to exchange whatever information is needed andthen hang up, but their mothers want to chat, to 'keep intouch'.

    Western men's information-focused approach to talk hat

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  • f.Ungufetks and Conversational styleshaped their way of doing business. Many Western business-men think it's best to 'get down to brass tacks' as soon aspossible, and not 'waste time* in small talk (social talk) or'bearing around the bush'. But this doesn't work very well inbusiness dealings with Greek, Japanese, or Arab counterpartsfor whom 'small talk' is necessary to establish the socialrelationship that must provide the foundation for conductingbusiness.

    Another expression of this differenceone that costsWestern tourists huge amounts of moneyis our inability tounderstand the logic behind bargaining. If die African, Asian,Arab, South American, or Mediterranean seller wants to sella product, and the tourist wants to buy it, why not set a fairprice and let the sale proceed? Because die sale is only onepart of die interaction. Just as important, if not more so, isdie interaction that goes on during bargaining: an artful wayfor buyer and seller to reaffirm their recognition that they'redealing widiand that they arehumans, not machines.

    Believing that only die information level of communicationis important and real also lets men down when it comes tomaintaining personal relationships. From day to day, thereoften isn't any significant news to talk about. Women arenegatively stereotyped as frivolously talking at lengdi with-out conveying significant information. Yet dieir ability tokeep talking to each other makes it possible for diem tomaintain close friendships. Washington Post columnistRichard Cohen observed that he and die other men he knowsdon't really have friends in the sense that women have diem.This may be at least partly because they don't talk to eachodier if diey can't think of some substantive topic to talkabout. As a result, many men find themselves withoutpersonal contacts when they retire.

    Trie Double BindNo matter what relative value we place on involvement andindependence, and how we express diese values, people, likeporcupines, are always balancing die conflicting needs forboth. But die porcupine metaphor is a litde misleadingbecause it suggests a sequence: alternately drawing dose and16