Thursday, September 30, 2004

Dr. Vallicella versus Dr. Tannen

While I was at Georgetown, I was able to gloat in the knowledge that the noted linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen, whose populist works on discourse analysis were, at the time, best-sellers, had an office on campus (maybe she's still there...? can't say I've checked). In particular, I found her You Just Don't Understand to be a very insightful peek into the hairy world of male-female discourse.

Dr. Tannen's basic thesis is that men and women, even those who grow up as siblings in the same family environment*, are imbibing what are, effectively, different cultures. She doesn't try to resolve the nature/nurture question (such isn't her intent in the book), but she makes some very interesting claims.

Among these is the idea that men, who value status, tend toward a form of speech she styles "report talk." This is basically what I'm doing to you now: writing in a "report talk" tone of voice. I have the floor; you're reading (or listening to) me. This puts me temporarily "one up" on you. If you're a guy, and we're in a group, then at some point you'll have the floor and you'll be one up on me. This is how guys do things.

Women, who according to Dr. Tannen value connection as opposed to status, are more likely to engage in what she calls "rapport talk." Rapport talk isn't nearly as focused on content as it is on relationship-building and relationship-maintenance, as her term "rapport" implies. (Women are also prone to "onedownsmanship," the lowering of one's status in order not to break collective harmony.)

A great example of the male/female disconnect can be seen in the movie "White Men Can't Jump." Dr. Tannen notes that status-seeking men often think in terms of problem-solving, because to solve a problem is to put someone in your debt, thereby giving you that one-up status. This urge to solve problems can be at odds with a female's unstated intentions in mentioning a problem, however. At one point in "White Men Can't Jump," Rosie Perez's character mentions to her boyfriend, played by Woody Harrelson, that she's thirsty. Woody immediately gets her a drink, but Rosie rejects it, saying something like, "I just wanted you to share in my dry-mouthedness!" Woody, the male, is seeking status through problem-solving, whereas Rosie, the female, is engaging in rapport talk: the content of what she's saying isn't nearly as important as the relationship-building she's attempting. Later on, Woody woos Rosie by singing an impromptu song in which he declares his willingness to stand by his woman during her time of drymouthedness, and this bonding is exactly what Rosie's been looking for-- more important to her than a glass of water.

Dr. Vallicella recently wrote a post that expresses a typically male point of view about the uselessness of idle chatter. He quotes an amusing Kafka passage involving four characters: the narrator, his wife, and another couple. The narrator is away from the rest of the group, who are in "the next room," where they can be overheard. The group in the next room is therefore dominated by women: the narrator's wife plus the wife of "the L. couple"-- two women to one man. It goes without saying, then, that the dominant mode of discourse will be Tannen's rapport talk.

If I'm reading him correctly, Dr. Vallicella is dismissive:

I have read this [Kafka] passage many times, and what delights me each time is the droll understatement of it: "there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort." No indeed. There is no progress because the conversations are not seriously about anything worth talking about. There is no Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility): the talk does not answer (antworten) to anything real in the world or anything real in the interlocutors. It is jaw-flapping for its own sake, mere linguistic behavior which, if it conveys anything, conveys: 'I like you, you like me, and everything's fine.'

The interlocutors float along in the inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit) of what Heidegger calls das Man, the 'they self.' Compare Heidegger's analysis of idle talk (Gerede) in Sein und Zeit (1927), sec. 35.

I'm partial to Dr. Tannen's analysis of male-female discourse, and as a result I think that Dr. V is only partly right to contend that the desultory conversation is saying, "I like you, you like me, and everything's fine." This is female rapport-talk, so it's definitely about bonding and feelings. But the bonding is not, I think Dr. Tannen would contend, a superficial aspect of the proceedings. Quite the contrary: from the female perspective, the bonding, always unstated but always underlying interaction, is what the conversation is really all about. Being male or female can determine how and where we locate what is substantive in our daily exchanges. So I'll respectfully disagree with Dr. Vallicella that the above is an instance of "inauthenticity" à la Heidegger. Heidegger, after all, was a man. Of course he'd see things the way he did.

If you haven't read You Just Don't Understand, I heartily recommend it. It is, perhaps inadvertently, a much better source of wisdom on the differences between the sexes than any stupid pop psych Martian/Venusian guide out there.

*This phrase isn't as redundant as it might initially seem. Think about it.


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