A Jewish Life

By | Nov 21, 2012

Talking Jewish With Deborah Tannen


It was Thanksgiving 1978 in Berkeley. Some guests brought cranberry sauce, some brought sweet potato pie; Deborah Tannen—who was analyzing conversations for her doctoral dissertation in linguistics—brought her tape recorder. Over a turkey dinner that lasted two and a half hours, three Jews and three Gentiles, ages 29 to 35, discussed 38 topics that included New York geography, relationships, Quonset huts, piano hands and—of course—food.

When Tannen later listened to the tape of the lively discourse, it struck her: unlike the three Gentiles (whom she calls Sally, David and Chad), she and the other two Jews (Steve and Peter)—all of whom had grown up in New York City and were of Eastern European descent—spoke dramatically and rapidly and pursued a variety of topics simultaneously. In fact, so many distinctions between the two groups were apparent that she decided she would no longer schlepp her tape recorder everywhere; the dinner’s smorgasbord of interactions would be the sole focus of her dissertation.

It took Tannen two and a half months to transcribe the two and a half hours of conversation. She timed pauses in half-second increments, charted the number of words spoken on each topic, and examined the six participants’ speech to see how they paced what they said and how they used humor and stories. As she expected, the differences between the Jews and the Gentiles were unmistakable.

Tannen, now 60, stands a lean 5 feet 9 inches, with layered gray hair, fair complexion and a heart-shaped face. Her hazel eyes twinkle like those of a spirited woman who might have stepped from the pages of a child’s picture book, one perhaps about a fairy godmother who helps make sense of what people are saying.

Conversational Style—the book inspired by that Thanksgiving dinner—helps make sense of the communication among the six friends in Berkeley. In it, she talks about the dinner guests’ reactions when she later played the recording for them. Her Gentile friends “had perceived the conversation to be ‘New York’ in character and had felt out of their element,” she writes. The Jews allowed briefer—if any—pauses between speakers, so the others “had a harder time saying something before a faster speaker had begun to talk.” Furthermore, the Jews had a way of jumping from topic to topic, so the Gentiles “were often puzzled about what would be an appropriate comment.”

Although differences existed between the Jewish participants, Tannen calls their general style “high-involvement.” Because “high-involvement types” need to establish rapport and intimacy, they ask more questions. They also tell more stories and engage in frequent overlapping—or what some might call interrupting—as in the following exchange at the dinner between Tannen and Peter, a fellow Jew:

Peter (talking about how he found time to read): What I’ve been doing is cutting down on my sleep.

Tannen: Oy! [sighs]

Peter: … and I…

Tannen: I do that, too.

Tannen’s “high involvement” is hard to miss: There was the obvious shared ethnic exclamation (“Oy!”), mutual revelation (“I do that, too.”) and overlapping. In her text, she explains the underlying message that overlappers send to one another is, “We are such good communicators that we don’t need full forms.” In contrast, the people Tannen refers to as “high-considerateness” speakers tend to find overlappers, off-putting. Luckily for overlappers though, they are unlikely to say so, since their need is not to impose.

Of course, the tape recorder itself can be an imposition. On that Thanksgiving in 1978, the Jewish host, Steve, had prettified the table with walnuts and little tangerines. He repeatedly joked that the tape recorder was spoiling his table, feigning annoyance: “Does this have to be here?” he asked. Tannen knew he didn’t really mean she should take it off, but David—who was from California and not Jewish—later told Tannen he thought Steve had been rude. As a high-considerateness type, David was angry at Steve but said nothing.

In 1990, Tannen soared to literary superstardom when You Just Don’t Understand—her book about the differences between women and men in conversation—hit best-seller lists around the world, including nearly four years on The New York Times list. Her appeal is not surprising, especially since readers are likely to recognize themselves as well as people they know and love on her pages: a friend who shifts topics abruptly, a man who refuses to ask for directions, a mother who asks pointedly, “You like your hair that way?”

Tannen lives with her husband in a modern home in a wooded Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. Tall trees are visible through expansive picture windows in a neat patchwork of airy rooms. Sipping tea in her kitchen at a round, oak table—sections of the morning paper scattered to one side—Tannen points out, “There is no such thing as an utterance without a metamessage,” or, in lay terms, an underlying meaning. Furthermore, according to Tannen, when people share a conversational style, the metamessage is one of rapport and shared background. This comfort level may help explain why Jewish, African-American and other students frequently sit in clusters of their own ethnic groups in school cafeterias.

The high-involvement style of the three Jews at the Thanksgiving dinner is commonly found among others of Eastern European background, Tannen says. In fact, she adds, “Now I think it isn’t so much Jewish as East European.” So, though some non-Jewish New Yorkers might utilize this style, a New England-raised Jewish New Yorker might not. One can only imagine the potential for unrecognized metamessages in a “mixed marriage” of, say, an Eastern European Jew from New York and a Midwestern Jew from Ohio. A conversation might go something like this: The Midwestern-Jewish wife begins to tell a story. Her husband, a New Yorker of Eastern European descent, butts in and tells it for her. She thinks, “He doesn’t believe I can tell a story myself.” She misinterprets his interjection as a power play but in fact his metamessage is that he wants to create a connection.

Unlike those descended from Eastern European, Mediterranean, Arab, African and other “high-involvement” cultures, Finns and Japanese—for example—tend to excel at nonverbal togetherness, which Tannen refers to as “belly talk.” Belly talk would likely induce hives in high-involvement types, whose conversations often include rapid-fire questions in order to avoid what they dread most: silence. To them, lulls in conversation signal disinterest or a lack of rapport. That is why they often “cooperatively overlap.” They finish one another’s sentences, sometimes continuing the thread, sometimes not. Sometimes they return to it after asking questions—often personal—such as, “So, what led to your divorce?” or verbalizing different thoughts that pop into their heads. As Tannen says in her book about the Thanksgiving Jews, “We assumed that topics were of interest because we thought of them.”

In spite of her own high-involvement style, there is nothing noisy about Tannen; rather, she draws you in with genuine enthusiasm, laughter and, of course, plenty of rich conversation. She is interested in what you have to say and is a good listener, clearly an asset in her role as a linguistics professor at Washington’s Georgetown University. Good listening skills, however, do not stop her from overlapping: even when asked about overlapping, she overlaps.

Given Tannen’s interpersonal skills and her grasp of communication, some people mistake her for a psychotherapist. “They ask if I see private patients,” she says. “I don’t. I’m just a researcher and a writer. And professor.” As she speaks, her long, slender fingers draw moment/images in the air, as though she is conducting, not an orchestra but her own sentences.

She attributes her hand talk to having grown up in Brooklyn amid lavishly gesturing high-involvement types. The seeds of her interest in linguistics also were sown in those early years. “I got from my mother my interest in relationships, and from my father I got this incredible love of language and playing with words,” she says. “Then I just fell in love with this idea that you could study conversation in the same way that I had studied literature, to look for the patterns and how they could explain what went on between people.”

The youngest of three girls, Tannen grew up “in a very Jewish-identified family.” Dinner conversations in her home were similar to many others in her Jewish, Irish and Italian neighborhood. Talk centered on the day’s events, the most engaging reports coming from her mother, who kept the family abreast of the mini-dramas in the lives of the clients who came to their home for electrolysis treatments. Though Tannen’s Polish-born father was, as she puts it, a devout atheist, they celebrated holidays with her numerous and ever-present aunts, uncles and cousins, sometimes renting the basement of a synagogue for Seders.

When speaking about her 97-year-old father, Tannen’s smile widens and her words come faster. The two remain close, talking by phone from 15 minutes to an hour each day, a conversation that might span politics, literature, religion or a debate about how to pronounce “acclimate.” Rants by either are not unheard of. In spite of his atheism, Tannen notes, “He is about as Jewish-aware and Jewish-proud as a person can be. In fact, just the other day I asked him, ‘Do you think of yourself as an American or a Pole?’ and he replied, ‘I think of myself as a Jew.’”

Also an atheist, Tannen says, “I have remained very aware and very proud of my Jewishness. My father’s daughter, I guess you’d say.” The issue of their relationship to Judaism is a theme in An Act of Devotion, an autobiographical play Tannen wrote about a trip she took to Poland with her father who came to the United States at the age of 12. In the play, the father recalls that he was about to leave for America when his grandfather took him on his lap and told him, “Never forget that you are a Jew.”

This year, just a few months after her mother died, Tannen published her 20th book, You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Bookstore talks have drawn overflow crowds of mother-daughter pairs—checkerboards of matching faces, young and old, nodding in understanding when Tannen says, “We are each looking for ourselves in the other—a treasure hunt.” People approach her and say, “Oh, all your examples must be Jewish mothers, right?” Wrong.

Jews do not have a monopoly on making a statement by asking a question: The vast majority of mothers highlighted in the recent book are not Jewish. A 35-year-old professor in Guyana—soon to be a bride—told Tannen that her mother said, “You’re wearing that?” when she showed her the dress she had made to wear for her wedding. Tannen laughs.

The growing influence of Eastern European Jewish conversational style may, at least in part, be attributed to the media. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and other high-involvement TV performers and writers have brought its cadences and characteristics into mainstream America’s living rooms. This not only includes words like “kvetch” and “schlepp,” which have made their way into everyday speech, but also overlapping, carrying on about several different things at once and a willingness to discuss personal topics. These days, as Deborah Tannen knows, you don’t have to be Jewish to talk Jewish.



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