By Flo Dwek
Meaningful dialogue and conversation have always formed the cornerstone of our diverse, yet closely knit WIFV community. Buoyed by our supportive, day-to-day interactions, we can speak up, speak out, listen intently, empathize, and create lasting bonds and connections. Our deep sense of camaraderie and respect for one another derives in large part from our shared language—with all of its uniquely complex nuances and stylistic dimensions.
As filmmakers and other industry talents, we are driven to probe reality, hold up a mirror to life and champion the truth. At its best, the language we choose to depict on screen can only resonate truthfully through an informed understanding of how and why we speak the way we do.
Our dialogue with best-selling author and renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, should spur us all to develop a better ear for the subtleties of language and their impact on relationships—both the personal kind and on screen. We hope her scholarly insights spark your thinking and creativity in exciting new ways. I was honored to speak with Deborah Tannen; please read the Q&A below.
Tannen’s latest book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, was published in May and was named one of The Washington Post’s 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2017. You can purchase her book through Amazon Smile and Amazon will donate to WIFV. Find other gifts supporting women filmmakers on the 2017 WIFV Gift Guide.
WIFV: What propelled you into the field of linguistics?
TANNEN: The combination of my love of language (I had a BA and MA in English Lit.; wrote stories and poems; was the editor of my college literary magazine) and my interest in real people’s lives. The kind of linguistics I fell for looks at how language use affects relationships.
WIFV: When you consider the historical patterns in the language of American films—the way Hollywood has depicted the dialogue, conversational style and interpersonal relationships of men and women on screen—what comes to mind?
TANNEN: Though I haven’t studied films from a historical perspective, my sense is that early Hollywood films depicted conversations in an idealized way — the way we’d like to think we talk, in full sentences, articulate statements of feelings and intentions — and that the trajectory has been toward more and more “natural” representations of conversation: truncated utterances, unarticulated feelings and intentions.
WIFV: Have our on screen depictions in these areas evolved and shifted to reflect what’s really going on between men and women in today’s world?
TANNEN: Whether the depictions are “real” or a different idealization is open to debate. I’d say it’s the latter. Since I have studied innumerable hours of real conversation, I can attest that it would be unutterably boring, taking many hours before getting to what a film might want revealed. This is not a failing. It is the distillation necessary for art.
WIFV: How do the repercussions of gender equity and gender politics affect your research?
TANNEN: I came to the study of gender through an interest in cross-cultural differences in conversational style, not gender. My dissertation and first book were about New York (City) conversational style in interaction with California conversational style. Gender equity and gender politics had no place in and no relationship to my linguistic research. When I wrote about gender patterns in my first general audience book, That’s Not What I Meant!, I approached it as – metaphorically of course — a cross-cultural phenomenon. Once I began focusing on the study of gender patterns, in You Just Don’t Understand and in Talking from 9 to 5, I observed and described the ways in which they resulted in women’s being underestimated, silenced, and otherwise disadvantaged – as, for example, in the double bind faced by women in authority, which I described in Talking from 9 to 5. However, this was the result of my research, not a motivation underlying it.
WIFV: When you probe and survey the reasons behind a particular way of communicating and interacting, and then correlate them as being typical to men or women, do you run the risk of perpetuating stereotypes?
TANNEN: This is always a risk in research describing patterns typical of any group. Patterns found to typify groups that are favorably viewed in a culture will be seen as stereotypically favorable; those found to typify groups that are unfavorably viewed will be seen as stereotypically negative. I confronted this in my research on New York (Jewish) conversational style. An important finding of my research was that New York City speakers in my study, who were of East European Jewish background, often talked along as a show of enthusiastic listenership, and were mistakenly perceived as interrupting. The mistaken impression of interrupting was also a frequent result of a slightly different sense of how long a pause is normal between turns. My take on this finding was that the stereotype of New Yorkers as aggressive and intrusive is a mistaken interpretation, resulting from this linguistic difference. However, some critics of my research felt I was reinforcing the negative stereotype.
In a parallel way, my chapter on gossip in You Just Don’t Understand argued that many women talk about personal relationships, their own and others’, out of a sense of caring, an interest in people, an interest in figuring out how to deal with life challenges, and to create connection with the person they’re speaking to. Overall, my intention was to counteract the negative stereotype of women’s conversation about others as gossip. Some critics felt I was reinforcing the negative stereotype by describing women’s conversation as commonly being about other people’s personal lives. In other words, there is a tension between, on one hand, describing observed patterns and, on the other, reinforcing negative stereotypes of those patterns. I come down on the side of science: it is better to describe the world as it is.
WIFV: What can screenwriters and filmmakers do to hold up a better mirror on the true nature of our private and public discourse?
TANNEN: Base your film scripts on real conversations you have had or observed.
WIFV: Is there a “holy grail” of linguistics? What deep seated mysteries or questions are at the top of your research wish list?
TANNEN: The holy grail, in my mind, is understanding how language works to convey meaning and negotiate relationships.
WIFV: Good luck with your new book, and thank you so much for your time and efforts on our behalf.
TANNEN: My pleasure!