Parting Conversational Company Best-Selling Author Hears Different Languages or `Genderlects' When Men and Women Talk. INTERVIEW SOCIOLINGUIST DEBORAH TANNEN

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TRY to read the following scenarios without assigning gender to the characters:

- Two people get hopelessly lost while driving. Frustration builds as one person wants to forge ahead doggedly trying to find the way while the other presses to stop and ask directions of someone.

- Two people are shopping. One tries on a sweater and asks the honest opinion of the other. The answer is a straightforward thumbs down. The honest answer hurts the feelings of the first.

Most people hear distinct male and female voices in these situations: the woman wanting to ask directions, the man being blunt.

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, on the other hand, hears whole separate languages or what she calls "genderlects." And she's in big demand these days as a translator of male-female conversation.

Her premise is that the persistent American icons of the nagging gossip and the strong silent type are symbolic of real differences in male-female communication.

Depending on your politics, this could be either incendiary stereotyping or a statement of the obvious. But, perhaps because just about everyone has been confounded by the opposite sex, it turns out to be hugely popular.

A Georgetown University professor, she claims genuine surprise at having to leave academia this semester to attend to the demands of the intense public interest generated by the book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (William Morrow) now in its fourth month on the New York Times bestseller list.

At her modest cottage in northwest Washington, between cross-country jaunts to the Home Show in Los Angeles and the Shirley Show in Toronto, a TV talk show, Ms. Tannen says that the "power" of her book is that it addresses the gender differences Americans feel but overlook as society plows toward the goal of sexual equality.

Men and women communicate differently because they are different, she asserts.

A colleague's videotape studies of pairs of boys and girls at various ages first gave Tannen the notion that men's and women's conversation differs in much the way language differs from culture to culture.

"It totally blew me away that watching them as I did one after the other, all I could think is that these kids are growing up in different worlds," she explains.

She notes in her book that in these videotapes, second-grade girls act more like 25-year-old women than like boys of their own age.

The pairs of boys and girls were instructed to tell stories to each other. Both boys and girls turned to "troubles talk" about their own experiences. Over all the age groups, the girls were calm, looked directly at each other, and carried on conversation in big blocks of talk, using language to reinforce intimacy and seek consensus. Boys, on the other hand, were physically active, sat at angles to each other, spoke in short bursts, and used language to negotiate status and establish independence.

Tannen finds that these differences in conversational style can cause men and women to leave a conversation with completely different ideas of what has been said or meant. Often the result of the confusion is that men appear to dominate women.

But, says Tannen, "what I feel is news is that sometimes the effect of domination is the effect of (conversational) style differences and content, not intention." MORE than just another "self help" flare over the ever-changing currents of the human potential movement, Tannen's ideas address issues that, on the surface, would seem to be feminist taboos.

The confusion caused by differences in style has broad social implications from basic household affairs to politics and even foreign relations. …