That's Not What I Meant: Language, Culture, and Meaning

By Behrens, Susan J. | Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

That's Not What I Meant: Language, Culture, and Meaning


Behrens, Susan J., Research & Teaching in Developmental Education


That's Not What I Meant: Language, Culture, and Meaning

Tannen, D. (2004). That'snot what !meant: Language, culture, and meaning. (Available from Into the Classroom Media, 10573 N. Pico Blvd., #162, Los Angeles, CA 90064.).

My inclination is to lavishly praise anyone who successfully popularizes the field of linguistics. I sometimes feel that, if not for Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, few of my friends and family would understand what it is I do for a living. And I am glad to report that, on the whole, there is much to praise about the video That's not what I meant: Language, culture, and meaning by Tannen.

I ordered the Instructor's Package, which comes with a 55-minute taped lecture of Tannen in front of an audience discussing various points of conversational style and how style differences can lead to misunderstandings. There is an additional 27-minute video called 1 on 1, in which Tannen talks to an unseen (and silent) interviewer, giving more of the academic background to her work. The package also includes a 24-page booklet outlining the taped lecture, quoting from it, offering discussion questions and assignments for the classroom, along with two follow-up essays by Tannen. (The 55-minute tape can be purchased separately.)

Tannen's lecture is intended for viewing in the classroom and is nicely supplemented by the material found in the instructor's booklet. No background in linguistics is assumed. Tannen's main thrust is the use of language in everyday life and how conversation is a crucial part of human relationships. When a conversation goes well, we don't think about the negotiations inherent in having a conversation. When a conversation falters, we don't always know why and, she says, are quick to blame the other person. Tannen is often asked, "Why don't people just say what they mean?" Her response is that we do say what we mean, but we do so in a conversational style that might not be understood or matched by the other person.

Tannen is probably best known for her books on gender differences (e.g., You just don't understand: Women and men in conversation; Talking from 9 to 5: Women and men at work)', in this lecture, however, while she uses a few brief gender examples, Tannen tends to concentrate more on cultural differences in conversational style. All speakers have internalized cultural rituals, assumptions, and norms about communication. When misunderstanding occurs, it is difficult to go back and analyze the conversation for what went wrong when rules we play by are unconscious to us.

Tannen's gender work has been criticized for generalizing too broadly: All men interrupt; all women use indirectness. In this video, Tannen makes broad statements about cultural differences: New Yorkers talk rapidly; southern Americans talk slowly. Whether she is discussing gender or culture, another problem with Tannen's work is that a huge amount of linguistic research has focused on social class differences in ways of communication, a factor Tannen only very briefly alludes to in this tape, and rarely does in her writing. Not all cultures behave the same linguistically. Even in the US, vibrant examples can be found in the literature of working class vs. middle class speech differences. To avoid discussing class as a factor in style differences and potential misunderstandings in conversations makes Tannen's overall message incomplete and perhaps misleading.

The video is structured in the following way:

Part 1 : Language and Meaning

Part 2: Signals, Devices, and Rituals

Part 3: Framing, Metamessage, and Schismogenesis

Part 4: Pacing and Pausing

Part 5: Overlap and Interruption

Part 6: Indirectness

Part 7: Listenership: Co-creating Meaning

Part 8: Conversational Style and Relationships

Tannen takes care to define all terms and follow up with examples, which are clear and easy to relate to. …

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