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Deborah Tannen

  • ... all communication is more or less cross-cultural. We learn to use language as we grow up, and growing up in different parts of the country, having different ethnic, religious, or class backgrounds, even just being male or female — all result in different ways of talking ...

  • All conversation, in addition to whatever else it does, displays, and asks for recognition of, our competence.

  • The one who decides who goes ahead has the upper hand, regardless of who gets to go. This is why many women do not feel empowered by such privileges as having doors held open for them. The advantage of going first through the door is less salient to them than the disadvantage of being granted the right to walk through a door by someone who is framed, by his magnanimous gesture, as the arbiter of the right-of-way.

  • In an ongoing relationship, each current criticism packs the punches of all the others that have gone before.

  • ... any criticism heard secondhand sounds worse than it would face to face. Words spoken out of our presence strike us as more powerful, just as people we know only by reputation seem larger than life.

  • Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations.

  • We all know we are unique individuals, but we tend to see others as representatives of groups.

  • When those closest to us respond to events differently than we do, when they seem to see the same scene as part of a different play, when they say things that we could not imagine saying in the same circumstances, the ground on which we stand seems to tremble and our footing is suddenly unsure.

  • The biggest mistake is believing that there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation — or a relationship.

  • This book is about a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight. It is a tendency in Western culture in general, and in the United States in particular, that has a long history and a deep, thick, and far-ranging root system. It has served us well in many ways but in recent years has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems. Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention — an argument culture.

  • The argument culture urges us to approach the world — and the people in it — in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as 'both sides'; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize.

  • Public discourse requires making an argument for a point of view, not having an argument — as in having a fight.

  • In dialogue, there is opposition, yes, but no head-on collision. Smashing heads does not open minds.

  • Words can be like weapons of destruction: It takes so much effort, and the cooperation of so many people, to build something — and so little effort of so few to tear it down.

  • Cooperation isn't the absence of conflict but a means of managing conflict.

Deborah Tannen, U.S. sociolinguist, writer


Full name: Deborah Frances Tannen.