Ringing Truth

Review:¬†You Just Don’t Understand, by Deborah Tannen

by Nancy Reynolds Nangeroni

Have you ever wondered why members of the opposite sex (or same sex!) seem to speak a different language sometimes? Why your S.O. (Significant Other) doesn’t just say what they mean? Or why other people sometimes seem to be playing games which don’t make sense? Have you ever felt frustrated by the inability to elicit a simple expression of preference from someone else?

YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND (subtitled “Men and Women in Conversation”), by Dr. Deborah Tannen, is a book that answers some of these questions. In this thoughtful, straightforward, and compassionately written work, she provides insight that helps make interaction with others of both sexes a little bit more pleasant and rewarding.

No, this isn’t a book about transsexualism or understanding crossdressing. In fact, neither are even mentioned (I know, how boring!). But the questions listed above are discussed thoroughly; and this discussion is likely of particular interest to anyone with a special interest in gender issues. What’s that you say? YOU’RE interested in these issues? Oh good, I thought you might be! After all, a better understanding of these questions will likely allow you to:

* acquire better control of your conversational style, allowing you to appear more or less feminine or masculine as you wish;

* improve your ability to navigate the gender-related currents of day to day social life;

* achieve more satisfying relationships with your loved ones of the same or opposite sex; * understand some of the forces that molded you.

Before going any further, understand that this is not another one of those popular psychology books promising to cure everything from headaches to severe depression to underachievement and beyond if only you’ll look at things their way. Rather, it is a thoughtful narration of observations leading to some motivational generalizations supported by well thought out reasoning. In other words, Dr. Tannen tells of how she studied the interactions of men and women, and noticed some trends which help to understand how each gender tends to behave.

Just how good is the book? Well, different people will tend to rate it differently, depending on how much they like her style of writing, how many new ideas (attractive ones) they discover, how much redundancy they have to wade through, and how much they agree with her reasoning. I’ll try to give you an idea of what to expect.

Her style is light and straightforward; her ideas are presented clearly and simply, and much of the book is spent relating examples and observations. Thus it has more of the quality of a narration than scientific treatise, making it pleasantly readable. Although it seemed at times that she over-illustrated some of her points, the illustrations were light and easy reading, so it was not terribly offensive. I found it pleasant to read the book in short stretches, with plenty of time between to digest her ideas, which were frequently new and worth remembering.

You’ll probably find her ideas accessible and meaningful, particularly since you’re someone who is acutely aware of the gender-related social issues which she has studied carefully. Her adherence to scientific principle is laudable; only very occasionally does she lapse into expressions of personal bias. She seems careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions, and for the most part her reasoning is sound.

Her preface starts: “Every person’s life is lived as a series of conversations”. Now that’s the viewpoint of a true sociolinguist! As an engineer, I look around me and see designs; she looks around and sees conversations! Here are a few excerpts for your consideration:

Talking about our close relationships:

“We look to our closest relationships as a source of confirmation and reassurance. When those closest to us respond to events differently than we do, when they seem to see the same scene as part of a different play, when they say things that we could not imagine saying in the same circumstances, the ground on which we stand seems to tremble and our footing is suddenly unsure. Being able to understand why this happens – why and how our partners and friends, though like us in many ways, are not us, and different in other ways – is a crucial step toward feeling that our feet are planted firmly on the ground.”

On like and respect:

“…The game women play is “Do you like me?” whereas the men play “Do you respect me?” If men, in seeking respect, are less liked by women, this is an unsought side effect, as is the effect that women, in seeking to be liked, may lose that respect.”

On men and women in meetings:

“When men do all the talking at meetings, many women – including researchers – see them as “dominating” the meeting, intentionally preventing women from participating, publicly flexing their higher-status muscles. But the result that men do most of the talking does not necessarily mean that men intend to prevent women from speaking.”


“The culprit, then, is not an individual man or even men’s styles alone, but the difference between women’s and men’s styles.”

On listening:

“A journalist once interviewed me for an article about how to strike up conversations. She told me that another expert she had interviewed, a man, had suggested that one should come up with an interesting piece of information. I found this amusing, as it seemed to typify a man’s idea of a good conversationalist, but not a woman’s. How much easier men might find the task of conversation if they realized that all they have to do is listen.”

This last idea, of course, it not new; you will find it in Dale Carnegie’s writings as well as those of many others. Perhaps all of Dr. Tannen’s ideas have been expressed at one time or another somewhere else. However, she has grouped revealing ideas on gender and social interaction with supporting observations that ring with truth, often making you say to yourself “Oh yeah, I’ve been there! And that’s what was going on! If only I’d seen it then…”.

At several points in the book, her observation and reason culminate in expressions of exceptional clarity and insight. Like pearls in an oyster, these gems reward the reader generously. Although it is tempting to present an example of such, to do so without first presenting the supporting discussion would undermine the effect. Sort of like revealing ‘who done it’ to someone who hasn’t yet seen the movie!

What’s really great about Dr. Tannen’s writing is that she exposes real motivations behind everyday actions, and does so from a viewpoint of understanding rather than blame. By understanding where each other (and ourselves) are ‘coming from’ when we behave in ways that apparently defy reason, we take the first step towards changing that behavior in a way which replaces conflict with harmony, hurt with love, and frustration with success.

Dr. Tannen’s book is not without flaws, but its’ observations and conclusions convey clear truths of real and lasting value. To the extent that your interest in gender issues extends beyond appearance and self to include interaction, you will like and appreciate this book. Like a bit of Windex on your windshield, it will help you to navigate a bit more easily. So read it and enjoy. Don’t expect too much, and you’ll be rewarded.