A Review of

Deborah Tannen, Talking from 9 to 5

(Avon Books, 1994)


By Gail Baracao

May 1, 2003


Instructions for this Report


1.  The Book’s Overall Content


“I’m Sorry, I’m Not Apologizing”:  Conversational Rituals (Ch. 2, pp. 43-77)


            A conversation is a ritual.  People say things without thinking of the literal meaning.  When a ritual is not recognized, the words spoken are taken literally and differing rituals are even more problematic when we think we are all speaking the same language.  Saying “I’m sorry” when your not is one conversational ritual that is different from person to person.  People say sorry when an apology is not called for, rather it is used as an automatic conversational smoother.  Women use this conversational smoother to restore balance to the conversation and address the other person’s feelings.  Saying “I’m sorry” assumes equal responsibility or mutual blame taking.  If both parties share blame they end up on equal footing, which is a face saving device. A person who does not use apologies ritually may take them literally, which can lead to conflicts or problems.  Tannen also says that assigning and assuming blame is a delicate balancing act that can be achieved with or without uttering apologies.  In friendly relationships and near equal status, people may play down authority. 


            Americans tend to expect the discussion of ideas to be a ritual fight explored through verbal opposition.  Tannen explains that when an idea is expressed, we are waiting to see if anyone challenges our ideas.  If there are weaknesses, someone will point them out, and by arguing against those objections, they will find out how their ideas hold up.  Cultural background is important influence of ritual fighting, but fewer women than men engage in ritual opposition, and many women do not like it.  Women are likely to take ritual opposition as personal attacks and they find it difficult to do their best in a contentious environment.  The logic behind ritual oppositions is that knowing your ideas will be scrutinized by others, should encourage you to think more vigorously.  For people that are not use to ritual fighting it tends to make them doubt in what they already know.  When a person feels attacked, emotions are unclear and cloudy.  People like this are usually women who are not able to do their best work in the same environment that is bringing out the best in many of their co-workers.


“Why Don’t You Say What You Mean?”:  Indirectness at Work (Ch. 3, pp. 78-106)


            People that do things indirectly are seen my direct people as manipulative.  Direct people do not recognize the conventional nature of indirect requests.  They assume that asking people to do things indirectly shows powerlessness and insecurity.  The use of indirectness, however, is cross-cultural because in some cultures, varieties of indirectness are a normal way of communication.  In conclusion, Tannen explains that different ways of talking should not be taken as obvious evidence of psychological states such as lack of self-confidence, powerlessness, and insecurity.  Conversational styles, direct or indirect, depend on the individual.  Each individual has a certain way of communicating and expressing their emotional states therefore characteristics such as insecurity can not be linked to speaking in an indirect way. 


            Some suggests that women are more indirect than men.  But Tannen says that we are all indirect, but it depends on where, when and how we each tend to be direct and look for underlying meanings.  The assumption that men are more direct than women is parallel to the belief that men focus on more information and women focus more on interaction, which is considered a form of indirectness.  Most studies find women to be more indirect because women are usually indirect about getting others to do things.  But  Tannen expresses how this assumption depends on the activity and the situation. She gives the example of one study where Linguist Joanne Winter compared two political interviewers, one male and one female, on an Australian television show.  In this study, Winter found that the woman was more focused on information and the man was focused more on interaction.  In conclusion, Tannen was able to show that women are just as focused as information as men and men are also indirect, but it depends on the situation or circumstances.   



Marked: Women in the Workplace (Ch. 4, pp. 107-131)


            The linguistic meaning of marked is something added to a word that changes the base meaning of the word. The unmarked tense of verbs in English is the present for example, visit.  Marking the verb means to add ed to yield visit.   The unmarked forms of most English words convey “male”, while marked forms of most English words convey “female.”  Filling out forms are like titles.  Women can not fill out a form without checking one out of three choices:  “Mrs.,” “Miss,” or “Ms.”   This alone tells something about her whether she is married, single, or if she has conservative tastes in forms of address.  Men, on the other hand, can only choose from “Mr.,” which has no meaning other than the respondent is male.  Surnames for women are also marked.  When women are married, it is traditional for her to take her husband’s name.  This marks that a woman is married and traditional.  If a woman decides not to take her husband’s name, she is also marked because she is seen as worthy of comment or “kept her own name.”  A man is never said to be marked if he decides to keep his own surname because he will not usually give it up. 


            After scanning four women and eight men at a conference, Deborah Tannen realized that the women’s styles were marked and the men were unmarked.  Women have to make decisions about clothes, hair and makeup and each decision carries a meaning and is marked.  Men’s decisions are narrower because they can choose from marked styles, but they have an option.  Women also marked in their professional roles.  Women are typically seen to fill support roles such as, nurses, receptionist, etc.  Children also pick up these gender roles.  They see their mother as the caretaker or housekeeper and their father as the breadwinner.  More than 50% of women between ages 35-49 have been discriminated because of their gender; 40% have been sexually harassed.  Tannen also explains the reasons why men still earn more than women even if the world is changing.  One reason is that pay equity can be eliminated by objectively valuing women’s work and that they are paid accordingly.


“She’s the Boss”: Women and Authority (Ch. 6, pp.161-169, 171-189)


            Our primary images of female authority come from motherhood and male authority comes from images of the military and sports.  The assumptions about women and motherhood are shaped by mothers and the way mothers talk to and treat their children.  Tannen gives an example of American and Samoan mothers.  American mother’s egalitarian ideology tends to downplay their own power and authority relative to their children.  Samoan mothers, on the other hand, rely on their society for power and authority.  American and Samoan mothers tend to talk differently to their children; American mothers talk “baby talk” to accommodate to their child’s needs while Samoan mothers do not talk baby talk to them.  Instead, they do not try to carry conversations to their children until they are able to talk on their own.    These different ways of talking to children contribute to the middle-class American image of women as accommodating to others, downplaying or dismissing their own contributions and as helpers lacking in status.


            One reason that images of women in position of authority are marked by gender is because the notion that authority is associated with maleness.  Physical appearance; men are taller, bigger built, and lower pitched are some reasons of men are considered to have more authority than women.  Association of authority is pervasive in linguistic systems as well.  Women who want to sound more authoritative must risk sounding like a male and men who want to sound polite must risk sounding like a female.  Tannen explains that understanding and realizing that authority is associated with masculinity allows us to understand the professional women in our society.   Most movies display women as the caretaker and a warm and loving person.  A woman having a career brings negative images because she is looked at as neglecting her family or does not want the responsibility to having a family at all.


            Women and men tend to use language to create an authoritative stance.  People in position of authority have to speak in ways that create the proper demeanor for someone in their position.  Studies show that women and men speak differently when they are in the role of doctor.  This suggests that they have different ideas of the qualities that should go along with being in that position.  The effect of downplaying authority encourages others to downplay it too. The reason of downplaying authority is because many men associate being given orders with attempts to dominate so the situation becomes sensitive when the person giving the orders is female. Another reason is that women are seen as “people-oriented” and men as “autonomy invested.”


What’s Sex Got to Do with It? (Ch. 8, pp. 242-275)


            The indeterminacy of language means that just as our sayings can be misinterpreted, so can our actions, especially in the case of sexual harassment.  The same moves that are harmless in most situations can become discomforting if done in a different situation or in a different way.  Tannen gives an example of a young American woman in two different settings.  As an intern at the Latin American branch office of an American company, the woman felt uncomfortable because her boss kissed all the secretaries every morning, including her.  When she finally told him that she did not like him doing so, he stopped greeting her altogether.  At another job, her boss treated her with more distance and formality.  She considered the flowers he sent her at the end of the summer to be a token of friendship, not of romantic interest.  According to sociologist Erving Goffman, courtship and courtesy rituals are intertwined.


            Men can be harassed too, but it is different.  In regards to sexual behavior, society expects men to be aggressive and women to be seductive.  Women are associated with physical attractiveness such as being “beautiful”.  Men are associated with his size and appearance of power.  Sexual harassment can be experienced at any level of power.  A high position does not necessarily mean a protection.  Examples of this is a female New York state senator having to climb over a man to get to her seat and a congresswoman was complimented by a male colleague about her appearance and said he was going to chase her around.  Leaving pornographic materials in sight can be disturbing and a form of sexual harassment because it may shock, embarrass, or harass women.  Women are sometimes seen as objects of obscenity, which can cause them to feel vulnerable.  On an international television call-in show, a caller made reference to a sexual body part.  This would less likely happen to a man because men regard their sexuality in regards to their sexuality as a form of prowess, not vulnerability. 


Who Gets Heard?:  Talking at Meetings (Ch. 9, pp. 276-309)


            In some meetings women’s contributions are ignored, while men’s thoughts and inputs bring the group to life.  If a man supports and expands on the suggestions a woman had made he will seen as the one responsible for the idea.  Women sometimes use self protective openers “butterfinger buts” to avoid seeming presumptuous.  Many women speakers speak at a lower volume and try to be succinct so they do not take up more meeting time than necessary.  When men spoke in a taped university faculty meeting, their turns ranged from 10.66-17.07 seconds, while a woman’s turn was from 3-10 seconds.  The longest contribution  by a woman was shorter than a man’s shortest contribution.  Even in an e-mail discussion that took place on linguistics distribution list, found that men’s messages were twice as long as women’s. 


            It is misleading to ignore some people and pay attention to others solely to the individual’s own behavior.  There are many factors that influence how seriously someone is taken even if some are not in their own control.  One reason is that the position in the organization plays an important role.  People in a higher rank tend to speak up more and are listened to when they do because people in the lower rank are not in position to judge them.  Even though the ways women speak may contribute to not being listened to, they are not likely to be listened to by men regardless if they speak up or what they say.  Furthermore, if a man elaborates on the suggestion a woman made, men will see him as the greater influence.


            When everyone is using the same conversational style, things work out fine.  Problems arise when people’s styles differ or speakers are not observing the same rituals.  We tend to see our own behavior as reactive, but others as absolute.  We do not usually think that the behavior we dislike in others may be a reaction to something we said or did.  If a person tries talking differently, the reaction they get may be more to his or her liking or desire.  A person should be flexible in the way of talking and interpreting how others mean what they say.





            Tannen chapters do progress into the next chapter.  The book starts of  with men and women talking on the job.  The chapter progresses when she goes more in depth about the situations of men and women talking in a workplace.  Chapter two, “Conversational Rituals,” is basically about people saying things without thinking about the literal meaning.  This chapter leads into the next chapter where they talk about indirectness at work.  These two chapters relate to one another because saying things without thinking such as “I’m Sorry” is almost the same as being indirect in that they are both a form of powerlessness.  Chapters two and three then leads to chapter on being “marked” which then progresses to chapter seven, “Status and Connection”. When a woman is marked it makes it more difficult for her to receive the top position because she is stereotyped or  “marked” to be a certain way and to have limited capabilities.  Chapter seven then progresses into chapter eight and nine because being in a lower rank or position, usually women,  may lead to being sexually harassed or ignored.




          I was interested in most of these topics were familiar to me because I could see how they related to my own life.  I also thought that I benefited from reading this book because I was able to notice things that I would probably never have realized.  I feel more aware of the way I communicate and talk to others, as well as how others communicate with me.  This book has also helped me to understand the differences in men and women’s styles of communication and that just because people communicate differently, it does not necessarily have to be something negative.  I also feel more cautious of the way I communicate, which will help me to be more secure and self-confident of myself.  This book is definitely relevant to everyone in our society because almost all people will experience the workforce some time in their life and it is important to understand the underlying messages of communication in order to prevent miscommunication.


            This book will be of interest to all people, not just women and men in the workplace.  Even though the main focus of the book had to do in the workplace, there was a lot of information that could be used in just everyday life.  I do feel, however, that women would probably take the greatest interest in this book because it allows them to recognize the verbal power games and miscommunications that cause good work to be under appreciated or go unnoticed.  Overall, I think that all people in the workplace should read this book because it helps promote a more positive and productive professional relationship among men and women.



2.  The Book’s Overall Importance


          One specific problem that the book identifies is that the differences in how men and women speak leads to miscommunication.  Indirectness, for example, is miscommunicated that the indirect person is powerless and insecure.  But, in a cross-cultural sense, it may be a normal way of communicating and should not be used to describe someone’s emotional states.  Tannen’s solution to this is to recognize that everyone has their own way of communicating and that it should not be misinterpreted as a negative trait such as insecure.  She also suggests that we have to understand and be flexible to people’s individual differences before we jump to conclusions.  Another problem is that we stereotype genders in which we think that men and women are supposed to fill certain roles.  Females are more likely to change their style in the presence of a male.  The solution that Tannen suggests is to be flexible and have a mutual understanding, which will reduce the frustration of both genders.  The company that is able to accommodate employees with a wide range of styles will have more flexibility in dealing with customers. Also, if more people’s styles are accommodated, more talents and ideas will be available.


            The book’s topics are relevant to public concern today  because many women are being discriminated and harassed in their workplace.  They are not always given the same opportunities as men because they are thought to be inferior to men.  Women are not usually given the high power at work because they are not as acknowledged for their work as men are.  Even though they may have the same idea, the men would be noticed and acknowledged for their work.  This book can help people in the workplace to be more aware that differences in communication do not mean being inferior and that women should be given the same opportunities as men.  This book is relevant to psychology as a field because people studying the differences in communication in psychology can study the cognitive or mental aspects of gender differences in speech.


            This message is needed in our society and in psychology today because by understanding the differences in communication, we can understand each other better without underestimating the other person.  By understanding each other better, our society could probably improve the relationship and opportunities with people in the workplace.  In psychology today, psychologist can use this message to do more in depth studies on some things that Tannen points out. This will also help our society to have a better idea on the true messages of communication.


            The broad concern that this book addresses is that we all have different ways of communicating to express our selves in different situations.  If we allow ourselves to understand that everyone is different and unique in their style of communication, than we can work better together.  The book answers the most of the concerns adequately because I was able to see, by a lot of Tannen’s studies and examples, that many people are misinterpreted or not treated fairly because their way of communication.  Considering my background as a psychology major, this book helps me to understand the psychology of communication a lot better.  Before I read this book I had no idea that there were so many different levels and meanings in communication, but now I am able to understand some of the reasons people talk the way they do.



3.  The Book’s Structure


            The book did not have any exercises, tests, tables, or diagrams.  The book did have an informative preface, and afterward, notes, references and an index.  The part of the book that is most useful is the preface because before I started reading, I was able to get a overview and abstract on what the book would be about.  In this preface, I was also able to read about the author, Deborah Tannen, and see what kind of person she was and why she decided to write this book.  The index in this book is detailed and a pretty good length.  I did not have to use the index for any of my assignments or while I was reading this book, but it looks like it would be easy to understand and follow.  I do not think that I can think of any better titles for the chapters because I already approve of the chapter titles.  The titles, including the subtitles, were all relevant to the information.  The layout is also very understandable because the chapters did progress from one another.  The print was a perfect size because I did not have any problems reading everything clearly.



4.  Critique of the Book


            What I enjoyed about this book is that it gave me a deeper understanding about how women and men speak.  I have so much more knowledge on the meanings communication than I did before I read this book.  The book was also very interesting because there were a lot of things that I could relate to from my own life. 


            If a woman’s clothes are tight or revealing (in other words, sexy), it sends a message—an intended one of wanting to be attractive but also a possibly unintended one of availability.” (p.110)


            I liked this passage because I thought it related to my own self.  I notice that when I go to the grocery store down my street in sweat pants and a sweat shirt, I do not get much attention.  But if I go into the same store with the same people working in something tight, revealing, or sexy, I notice that I get a lot more attention.  The workers tend to approach me more and ask me where I am going or what I am doing later.  It is the same thing when I go to a bar.  Men approach me depending on the clothes I wear.  They also seem to assume that I am single or available because of what I am wearing. 


            “Conversation is a ritual.  We say things that seem the thing to say, without thinking of the literal meaning of our words any more than we expect the question.”(p.43)


            I chose this passage because it also reminded me of myself.  I often catch myself apologizing when I did nothing wrong or saying thank you even when I do not actually mean it.  It was only after I read this passage when I realized that I say a lot of things without thinking what I am actually saying.  Sometimes after I hang up the phone with my friends I say “Thank you.”  I do not know why I am saying that I am thankful for something when I am not.  I think that I am so use to saying “thank you” when I end a conversation that I say it without thinking of the literal meaning. 


            The strengths of the book were that it related to many problems that people face in their workplace and that it helps people to get a better understanding of the meanings of conversations and communication.  I did not feel that Tannen’s book had any weaknesses but it would have been interesting to hear more of a man’s perspective so that the reader could hear both sides of the two gender. 



            Some other reviews that I found of this book were:










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