Deborah Tannen is a renowned linguist and commentator whose research explores how the ways in which we converse with one another affect our interpersonal relationships, our social interactions and the wider culture. Her books include the bestselling You Just Don’t Understand, The Argument Culture, You’re Wearing THAT? and the forthcoming You’re the Only One I Can Tell, which delves into the complex world of women’s friendships.
The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, published in 1998, seems more prescient with each passing year. The book dug deep into the roots of America’s tendency toward combative public discourse, examining how an increasingly common “winner-take-all” approach to conversation was playing out not only in politics, but also in the media, our legal system and even on our private conversations. At the time, Tannen warned that “our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention.”
We wanted to hear what Professor Tannen had to say about the current state of our nation’s public discourse and the first months of Trump administration, so we asked her. This conversation has been lightly edited.
Kristin Miller: The Argument Culture was written nearly 20 years ago. How would you describe what is happening today linguistically? Have we surpassed the book’s worst-case scenario?
— Deborah Tannen
Deborah Tannen: You’re right to trace what’s going on now to the patterns I described way back then. When the book came out, I remember thinking that maybe I missed the moment, maybe it was going to be too late. “Surpassed the worst-case scenario” is a good way to put it, with what people are now referring to as “post-truth” and “alt-facts.”
In the book, I described a pattern that in order to win — and winning was more important than discovering the truth — you suppress or don’t mention or don’t think about the arguments that support your opponent’s side. You come up with whatever you can to support your side, even if you have to twist the truth a bit or make things up or deny the truth.
But that it would be coming out of the White House? I don’t think that’s something that really seemed like a possibility.
KM: Where does this tendency come from?
DT: I do think that a lot of what we’re seeing in public discourse has been the way of the world in private. That’s a theme through everything I’ve done. I often look at what’s going on in public discourse and phenomena and I think, “Well, gee, that’s the same thing that I’ve found in everyday conversation.”
So, if you think of every conversation you ever have, the question of “is this true or is it not?” is always there. Many times a day, we correct each other, we correct ourselves — “No, it wasn’t like that.” Very little of what we “know” is because we know it is so.
— Deborah Tannen
There are things in linguistics called “evidentials.” In many American Indian languages, when you say something, there are little bits of language that you attach that tell how you know it. If you know it because you personally observed it, it has one little bit. It’s a little morphene, like the way you add “ed” to a verb to make it past tense. Is it something you observed? Something you just heard about? Something you surmised? [Having evidentials in all languages] would make a safer world, wouldn’t it? Of course, people could still lie.
KM: Twenty years ago, the internet was in its infancy. How has the explosion of electronic media affected our public discourse?
DT: The challenge of knowing what is true has always been there, but for public discourse we had assumed that somebody out there was checking, at least with someone. But we seem to have entered a more extreme phase. So much of what people are hearing today on the public airwaves — and are believing in as true — is becoming more extreme. A lot of it, we know, is because of the internet. We don’t have just a few major [media] outlets out there to check any more. And even if you are fact-checking, you still have the problem of false balance.
KM: You mention “false balance,” in which one side of an argument is given the same weight as another, even when the evidence suggests it doesn’t deserve such consideration. Has the media even gone beyond what you describe as false balance?
DT: That seems to be about the same, as far as I can tell, but the ramifications have been particularly extreme. I was going to write an op-ed about the election when people were saying, “How could so many people vote for Trump knowing the bad things he did?” I was going to say that the more important question is, “How come so many people voted against Clinton, even though they knew such positive things about her?” There was a false equivalency: [The media] didn’t want to be accused of only writing things against Trump.
I was interviewed by a journalist who commented how hard that part of her job had been finding things to have Hillary criticized about, to balance out the things about Trump. She said it almost like she wanted my sympathy. My thought was, didn’t she realize that this was part of what put Trump in office.
— Deborah Tannen
KM: How do you see gender in public discourse playing out in the Trump–Pence era?
DT: Responses to Hillary were gendered through and through. So many of the negative responses people seemed to have to her were because she was a woman talking in ways you don’t expect women to talk. I started writing op-eds about Hillary back in 1992, when she was the wife of the candidate. It’s a point that I made in the book Talking Nine to Five, which is about the workplace: Women in positions of authority are in a double bind. If they talk in ways expected of women, they are underestimated. But if they talk in ways expected of a person in authority, they’re not liked. Hillary could be speaking loudly into a microphone — but no louder in decibels than the men — and she would be perceived as shouting. We think a woman’s voice should be soft. A loud woman’s voice is seen a grating.
KM: Would you say the way President Trump talks — in short, repetitive sentences — is something personal to him or is it representative of the way our overall pattern of public discourse has changed?
DT: A lot of what you hear from Trump is sort of “guy talk.” But it’s more than that. It’s “conversational talk.” As I said before, a lot of what we’re now seeing in public has been the way of the world in private. Our public discource has become less and less formal in recent years. So what you’re getting from Trump is a lot like what you would get from your uncle. This is something that as been building up for a long time — not putting value on articulateness any more.
KM: What does is mean for our society and our culture that we’re putting less and less emphasis on eloquence and speaking more and more in casual terms and shortened sentences?
DT: The upside is that it’s populist. People are less likely to feel alienated when they hear leaders speak, less likely to feel inadequate. The downside is that they lose sight of the fact that leaders need expertise that others don’t have. And perhaps there’s a loss of pride that can come with feeling you’re part of something that has meaning and gravitas beyond your everyday life, kind of like benefiting from the grandeur of public spaces or religious spaces (like beautiful buildings and parks or soaring churches).
KM: In The Argument Culture, you suggested several ways we could tone down the battle in our public conversation. Do you still see a way out of this culture of discourse?
DT: Yes and no. People can become more aware of what they say and how they say it. And they can, at base, also become more politically involved.
KM: How do we talk with someone we don’t agree with?
DT: Maybe the most important thing is to talk less and listen more. And show you’re listening by asking followup questions. If you try to convince them you’re right and they’re wrong they’re unlikely to want to tell you what they really think and you won’t change their minds, any more than they will change yours. But if you come to understand how they think, and if they have listened to you and come to understand how you think, and show that you respect each other’s views or at least the right to hold them, maybe later in the conversation you each can point out perspectives that the other hadn’t seen before.
This post has been updated.