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Jan 11, 2007

Deborah Tannen on Condescension and Connection

Thats_notThe doctor who pats his patient or nurse on the arm, saying, "How are you today, Sally?," may genuinely intend to be warm and friendly.  But because the patient or nurse couldn't pat him on the arm and ask, "How are you today, Richie?," there's a (possibly unintended) metamessage of superior status in the doctor's gesture.  The ways he has of showing concern or getting close -- using first name, touching, and inquiring about health -- are paradoxically also expressions of superior status, which is condescending.

Many of us, faced with such mixed metamessages, either resent the condescension and ignore the concern or appreciate the concern and ignore the condescension.  As in looking at a paradoxical drawing, we can't hold on to both images at once.  But they're both there.  Feeling either anger at the condescension or appreciation of the concern ignores half the communication.

-- Deborah Tannen, PhD, in That's Not What I Meant! -- How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, 1986, Ballantine Books.

Deborah Tannen is on my mind these days.  Yesterday she was interviewed on NPR about the word "surge" as relates to a proposed increase of 10-20,000 troops in Iraq.  And last month, I quoted from her first brilliant book, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.  As a longtime fan of her books, I found it interesting to hear her voice for the first time. 

12:01 AM in Quotables, Reviews | Permalink


I've just bought three of her books, Phil, and I can't decide which one to delve into first. I think I may have to buy this one, too!

Now I'm off to find the NPR interview.

Posted by: Grace | Jan 11, 2007 1:59:17 PM

I just have to repeat, cause I think I already said this, that I read this book in 1993, as part of an independent study i designed in undergrad. Thankyouverymuch.

Posted by: Jenny | Jan 11, 2007 5:12:14 PM

I would like to father a love child with Deborah Tannen. I hope that doesn't sound too condescending. ;)

Posted by: Joseph H. Vilas | Jan 11, 2007 7:06:17 PM

Joe: I don't think that sounds too condescending. Just too optimistic. Then again, I seem to recall that she's been divorced at least once...

Jenny: you go, girl! (p.s. I hope that didn't sound too condescending!)

Grace: I can't think of a better way to choose which book to read first than to buy one more. Are you sure you're not in grad school again?

Posted by: Phil | Jan 11, 2007 7:56:36 PM

Deborah Tannen's books are great stuff for communicators, professional and amateur.

Just as a data point, my (brilliant and eccentric) internist in New York City insists that all of his patients and staff members address him as "Bobby." Once I got used to calling my doctor a name that I would associate with a nine year-old boy with skinned knees, I immediately got it; there is a *substantial* difference between saying, "Well, Dr. Cohen, I am not feeling very well" and "Jesus, Bobby, I'm sick as a dog." He gets better information from his patients due to the informality.

Posted by: Barry Campbell | Jan 16, 2007 6:03:55 AM

About that sure-to-be-articulate love child: yes, that is an optimistic goal, and not just because Deb (who did look pretty good on the early dust jackets) is now 61. No, the bigger problem is that getting in the paternal way will require more than just showing up at her door with a six-pack and say "doin' anythin' tonight?" Oh no, first you'll have to follow all the John Grey scripts with listening and empathizing and not going nuts when seemingly irrelevant side issues get interjected, but instead validate her concerns rather than point out how illogical they are, and don't get drawn into comparisons with your mother, and so on until at last YOU will be the one to beg off with the plea "not tonight, I have a headache."

Posted by: Charles | Jan 17, 2007 2:45:44 AM

Excellent; thank you! :)

Posted by: Joseph H. Vilas | Jan 25, 2007 2:58:09 AM