How We Talk and Listen Affects Our Relationships

Linguist Deborah Tannen shares insights into human communication.

Posted Jul 27, 2018


Of all the resources, habits, and traits we bring to our relationships, communication skills are among the most important. Communication expertise is desirable on virtually all occasions, from résumés to marriages, from playgrounds to boardrooms. In a way, good communication is like a tunnel — equipped with functioning traffic lights, clean roads, tireless conductors — that helps thoughts, ideas, and feelings to travel freely and safely between individuals. Breakdowns in the communication tunnel can lead to cracks in relationships. But what does it take to be a good communicator? Is there a golden standard that allows us to talk and listen in a way that will guarantee a smooth, congestion-free ride between friends and strangers alike? 

Professor Deborah Tannen from Georgetown University has been researching human communication for over four decades. “We are always in the process of judging others in terms of their abilities and their intentions towards us,” says Dr. Tannen, “and we base those judgments in large part on the way people talk.” In her numerous best-selling books and articles, she delves into the communication tunnel of our relationships and explores the extraordinary power of our ordinary words to nourish or erode our bonds with those around us. 

What has been one of your biggest insights from your research on human communication?

The key insight is the idea of conversational style — that there isn’t one right way to speak or to listen. Although this term sounds simple, it’s not. Conversational style isn’t something extra, like frosting on a cake. It’s the very stuff from which the communication cake is made. We say what we mean, but influences such as gender, culture, ethnicity, class, and geographic region result in different assumptions about how to say what we mean. I am often asked for absolutes — what’s the best way to do this or that? I always reply, people have different conversational styles, so the best way for one may be all wrong for another. For example, let’s say you’re having an argument. Some people feel if you are emotional, I can’t talk to you — you have to be rational. Others feel if you are not emotional, I can’t talk to you — it’s as if you don't care. Some might say we can’t have a conversation if you keep interrupting me. But in many cultures, talking along is a sign of enthusiasm and engagement. And interruption can result from a slightly different sense of how long a pause is normal between turns. Whoever expects a shorter pause may unintentionally interrupt, because they think the other is not going to take the floor. Relative directness is another one. For people who tend to be direct, it’s self-evident that you should say exactly what you mean; if you don't, you are being dishonest. In other cultures, being direct is unacceptable, childlike.  

What is one of the key differences in the way men and women tend to communicate?

Source: CC0/Unsplash

Gender is only one of many influences on our conversational styles, so nothing is true of all women or all men, but there are tendencies. I often say, for girls and women, talk is the glue that holds relationships together, while for boys and men, it’s doing things together. This pattern explains many of the frustrations that I write about in my books. For example, why do many women want to hear the words "I love you," while many men are reluctant to say it? To her, the words are important; he may feel words are cheap — only actions count. Another tendency is that women are more likely to focus on the dynamic — does this conversation bring us closer or push us farther apart?  while men are more likely to focus on does this put me in a one-up or one-down position? These tendencies work together with apologies. Arguments often arise when a woman wants an apology: "If you just say I’m sorry, I’ll forget about it." But the man might think, “You know I’m sorry. Why demand I say it? An apology puts me in a one-down position, which you could exploit in the future.” But her feeling is, “If you don't apologize, it’s as if you don't care that you let me down.” 

From your research on communication in friendships, what makes a good friend?

Source: CC0/Unsplash

This, too, depends on conversational style. For many women, a good friend is someone you can tell anything to, and you will feel accepted and understood. Others don't talk about personal problems. For them, a friend is someone you can depend on when you need them, or someone who knows you well enough that you don't have to put everything into words. Some people feel disappointed and hurt if a friend didn't tell them something important. Others feel comfortable knowing that their friends will talk when they are ready. For some, friends should ask questions to show interest. For others, you shouldn’t ask anything personal — people will volunteer if they want you to know. 

Despite increasing opportunities to connect with others on social networks, we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. What role does communication play in this? 

I don't think social media is the only or even the main culprit. In 2000 — before social media — Robert Putnam described in his book Bowling Alone many forces that are pulling us apart. For example, people move more often and move farther away from family. They visit each other’s homes less, belong to fewer community organizations, and fewer people play cards. I would say, however, that many people — especially younger ones — now feel more at a loss when they meet others they don't know. When surrounded by strangers, you pull out your phone. In other words, social media is an extension of many other social forces that have reduced the time that people spend sharing space face-to-face. Electronic means of communication contribute to a trend that was already there: People spend less time in physical proximity, not focused on anything specific, just being together. 

What are some key differences in the way people speak and communicate around the world?

It starts with what’s appropriate to say. What do you talk about? Do you get right to the point or build up to it? How close do you stand? How loudly or softly do you speak? How quickly or slowly, both within a sentence and between turns. Attitudes towards speaking at once — should it be only one voice at a time, or is talking along a sign of lively conversation? Directness and indirectness. Different forms of humor. Different ways to tell a story: What can a story be about? Should the point be made explicit or dramatized? These, and all the other elements of conversational style that I mentioned before, can vary by culture.

What advice would you have for harnessing the power of our words to create more meaningful, stronger bonds with the people in our lives?

Become aware of conversational style and other parameters of communication. For example, pay attention not only to the message (the meaning of the words), but also the metamessage (what it says about the relationship that you say these words in this way at this time). We often think we are responding to the message, but, in fact, we are responding to the metamessage: tone of voice, unspoken implications. If you can be aware of that, you can step back and ask, “What’s giving me this impression? Could it be something about the way they are speaking? Could they have meant something else? Could I get a different reaction from the other person by speaking differently myself?” For example, imagine you are talking to somebody who keeps interrupting you. That’s it — they are aggressive, they don't want to hear you talk. But if you remember that interruption may result from conversational style, you can try speaking more quickly and pause less; you might find they are happy to listen. Or if you think the other person has nothing to say, try counting to seven before you take the floor. You may find they have lots to say, but were waiting their turn. If you take into account conversational style, you can make little adjustments that can make a big difference in a conversation and a relationship. 

Many thanks to Deborah Tannen for her time and insights. Dr. Tannen is University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships. Among her books are the best-selling You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and her latest You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships, which will be published in paperback in August 2018.

More Posts