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War of the Words
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Deborah Tannen

      . . . is a sociolinguist and author. Her #1 national best-selling book, You Just Don't Understand, explores the cross-cultural nature of communication between women and men. Now she's concerned about America's Argument Culture and suggests alternatives to today's often destructive winner-take-all war of words. Dr. Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and has written sixteen general audience and scholarly books.

Excerpts3:19 secs

      Everyday words are turning Americans into polarized cynics according to linguist Deborah Tannen. Our pervasive use of war metaphors reflects the confrontation and aggression we have institutionalized in our media, legal system, education and politics. Because all this contentiousness is undermining the human spirit, Dr. Tannen calls us all to disarm our Argument Culture (the name of her latest book) and stop America's war of words.

      Deborah Tannen is the socio-linguist who gave general audiences a sense of how people communicate (That's Not What I Meant) and how women and men do it differently (You Just Don't Understand). Now she's looking much deeper. As a linguist, Dr. Tannen uses language is the entry-point of her analysis of relationships, while acknowledging the intertwining roles of non-verbal communication, emotions and ideas.

      How did our culture became so contentious? We've talked ourselves into it, says Dr. Tannen. By appropriating the vocabulary of war, we're bound to end up with a fight. Aggressive language begets aggressive attitudes and behavior follows closely behind.

      She offers a litany of institutions where aggressive language, war metaphors and either-or thinking are getting us in trouble: popular culture, the media, advertising and entertainment, electoral politics, our legal system, public and personal interactions.

      Dr. Tannen believes words are powerful instruments that actually shape our relationships, create the landscape in which we live and interact. Our increasingly argumentative words are extracting a terrible toll. We bear the cost when policemen treat citizens as the enemy; when our legal system forces lawyers to put winning ahead of finding a just outcome; when our politicians ignore important minority voices that could enrich our civic conversation; when the media chooses extremists to argue issues instead of finding people voicing more moderate opinions. Debilitating cynicism is the result, displacing skepticism and breeding hopelessness.

      What's the prescription for moving beyond our ethic of aggression? Reclaim compromise and conciliation in our own exchanges. Be more careful in choosing the words we use. Put ourselves in the other guy's shoes. Look beyond "the other side" to "another side" or "other sides." Re-frame polarizing choices to find a third -- or fourth -- solution. Take the "argument" out of our argument culture. We can live with what's left.

Conversation 1

Deborah Tannen offers Paula Gordon and Bill Russell a linguist's understanding of how language affects the ways we think and act, focusing on the power of language to shape our lives and relationships. She explains her specialization in conversational style and shows how she has applied it to issues of gender as well as different cultural expectations expressed in human languages.

Conversation 2

Women and men, boys and girls, (metaphorically) inhabit different cultures, according to Dr. Tannen. She gives examples of how this begins early in life and the effects linguistic gender differences have in action, considering non-verbal and verbal communications. She describes how she uses language as an entry-point in her analysis of complex human interactions and gives examples. She explains the importance of seeing the world from someone else's perspective and gives examples from various ethnic traditions. Dr. Tannen expresses her deep concern that Americans today have developed an ethic of aggression, where we value aggressive tactics and do not value conciliation and compromise. She gives examples from our electoral and legal systems of how we treat everything as if it were a battle.

Conversation 3

Dr. Tannen sees the growing contentiousness of our language having a profoundly negative effect on individual human spirits. By example, she shows how -- in the face of striking evidence to the contrary -- mass media's unrelenting war metaphors encourage individual Americans to believe we are at war with each other and how the use of the war metaphors and paramilitary vocabularies (negatively) affect how our police officers relate to us. She offers alternatives, urging us to think about the words we use ourselves. She calls on us to question the assumption that opposition is the path to truth. She expresses concern that debates between two people representing the most polarized extremes of an issue exclude most of us (who hold more moderate positions,) disregard important complexities and move people beyond a healthy skepticism to hopelessness and a debilitating cynicism. She assigns to journalists a large share of the responsibility for our demoralizing, argumentative culture. Dr. Tannen, ever the linguist, draws the contrast between having an argument and making an argument. She urges us to consider how our warlike metaphors affect our own lives.

Conversation 4

Deborah Tannen describes the effect bellicose mass media advertising has on 18 to 35 year olds (to whom it is mostly directed,) especially on young men who are particularly vulnerable to aggressive rhetoric. She retells Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's story about his own experience as a young man, reminding us that public culture -- especially the entertainment and advertising industries -- targets adolescent men with violent stimuli. Dr. Tannen reminds us how women and men deal differently with conflict. She suggests "either-or" polarities wear people down, noting increasing numbers of people who simply turn off the news. She shows how our "winner-take-all" legal and polarizing electoral systems aggravate our dilemma. Dr. Tannen worries about the societal effects of ruling out compromise, losing the benefit of the perspective of "losers" and the growing inter-party rancor. Dr. Tannen factors the role of money into all these domains.

Conversation 5

Continuing the conversation about the role of money, Deborah Tannen discusses other legal systems from which the American system might learn. She gives a series of examples of abuses within the current American system. She explores the uncritical (and often naive) American assumption that "truth" is a single discernible and absolute commodity. She compares the industrialized West's tendencies toward polarities to the interlocking Chinese image of yin and yang. She shows how even ideas as basic as those we hold about gender are falsely polarized when people are exclusively assigned categories of "male and female."

Conversation 6

The Internet and other electronic communication media are Dr. Tannen's examples of how increasing cooperation and heightened connections between people can develop along side hostile acts like "flaming." She shares her firm conviction that if people understand the processes and forces that affect their lives, they can appropriately adapt them. She suggests ways people can move beyond an adversarial spirit, expand our thinking beyond two opposing positions to include a third possibility, and free ourselves from battle metaphors as the dominant way we think and speak.


Dr. Tannen renewed our interest in the work of historian David Noble. His important book A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science is currently out of print, but we hope one day to see it revived. We thank Professor Michael A. Gordon for helping us locate Professor Noble.

Related Links:
Both Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words and her national bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation are Ballantine books.

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