Deborah Tannen’s Essay on “Sex, Lies, and Conversation”

Length: 4 Pages 916 Words

Deborah Tannen’s essay on “Sex, Lies, and Conversation” highlights the different communication styles of men and women. Tannen attempts to get beyond simplistic stereotypes that, for example, women chatter constantly while men are ‘strong and silent,’ or, conversely, that women are shy and quiet and men are more articulate than their female partners. Rather, the truth behind these contradictory stereotypes is much more complex. Tannen opens her essay with an anecdote drawn from her own personal experience, from one of her lecturing engagements. A man stood up, pointed at his mute wife, and said, quite loudly, “she’s the talker in our family” (Tannen 1) The crowd laughed, and Tannen uses this as an example of how women are often more talkative in social situations, where relational and establishing a human connection is a priority, while men are more apt to speak in public to gain social capital, and where they alone are the focus of attention. Tannen is an academic by training but her writing makes effective use of dialogue and dramatized real-life scenarios to illustrate her points. This also makes her essay more engaging for the reader, as the reader is encouraged to identify with the incidents Tannen relates i Continue...


It would be easy to condemn the husband in the above-cited example as a heartless boor, but she does not, rather she suggests that he is merely unconscious about his conversation patterns, a common foible for all of us. Tannen is also fairly compassionate and nonjudgmental in her depiction of the sexes. Men frequently express friendship and concern through put-downs and jokes, and make less eye contact than women (Tannen 3). But a woman cannot expect that her husband will be "a new and improved version of a best friend (Tannen 2). "Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets, and women continue this pattern between one another later in life...what is important is not the individual subjects that are discussed but the sense of closeness, of a life shared (Tannen 2). Some husbands may be more willing to put their new linguistic self-consciousness into practice than other men. Complaints about male social silence at home outweigh complaints about inequitable sharing of chores and women giving up life opportunities to keep house. "Some couples will still decide to divorce, if they cannot accommodate their spouse's conversational expectations, "but at least their decisions will be based on realistic expectations of what their partner is capable of offering or tolerating when conversing (Tannen 4). Tannen takes a common cultural image that most readers have grown up with and interprets it, suggesting it has deeper sociological significance. Rather it may be a different conversational set of expectations and habit that is hard to alter. Body language between the sexes is another linguistic difference equally as important as what is said or unsaid women tend to sit closer together, for example. To illustrate this point, Tannen uses an example of a study of 10th and 11th grade boys who spent most of their time together talking 'to' one another slumped in their chairs, staring at the camera, the ground, or anything but the person they were talking to, because the sense of one-on-one intimacy was too uncomfortable to negotiate. Rather than using language as a source of connection, men are more likely to use language to convey information, or to demonstrate their superior knowledge of a subject when trying to show their power in a social situation.