Deborah Tannen, "I'm Sorry, I Won't Apologize: Conversational
Deborah Tannen (1945-) was born in Brooklyn and earned a B.A. from the
State University at New York, Binghamton (1966), an M.A. from Wayne State
University (1970), and both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of
California , Berkeley (1976 and 1979). Tannen's been a professor at Georgetown
University since 1979. Besides nonfiction which frequently deals with
the intricacies of human communication, Tannen writes both poetry and
short stories. Her books include the bestsellers You Just Don't Understand:
Women and Men in Conversation (1990), Talking from 9 to
5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard,
Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work (1994), and I Only
Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family
Relationships Throughout Our Lives (2001). Tannen is also a frequent
contributor to periodicals such as the New York Times, The Chronicle
of Higher Education, and Vogue. "I'm Sorry, I Won't Apologize:
Conversational Rituals," which takes a close look at the rituals
of apologizing and giving praise, is an excerpt from You Just Don't
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Describe the ritual that the British person mentioned in this essay
observed while in France.
- When the "well-known columnist" apologized to the author,
what did Tannen think it meant? Why did Tannen laugh?
- What is the "most common culprit" that causes communication
- Why do some people frequently tell women to stop apologizing? Why
does Tannen suggest that this sometimes leads to bad communication?
- According to the author, why did the amateur pool player Julie
Nogiac keep apologizing to the professional pool player Ewa Mataya?
- What does Tannen mean when she refers to "the ketchup, relish,
and bun of conversational rituals"? What happens when a person
in a conversation isn't familiar with a ritual?
- What did Lester not understand about giving praise in the workplace?
What assumptions was he making? How might understanding those assumptions
overcome the problem he faced?
STRATEGY AND STYLE
- In paragraph five, Tannen transcribes a short conversation between
two colleagues to illustrate an apologetic tone. Do you find this approach
effective? Explain. How else could the author have presented this information?
- Tannen divides her essay into sections and provides titles for
them. How can you categorize the sections? What does she gain from this
choice? How would the piece be different without them?
- How would you describe this essay in terms of rhetorical mode?
Does the author structure it by means of showing cause and effect, by
providing examples, or by illustrating comparisons and contrasts? Support
your answer with specifics from the essay.
- What's ironic about the title of this essay? How can you tie it
in to the author's ideas about the ritual meanings of words?
- Tannen draws some of her examples from her own experience and some
from outside sources. How does this decision affect the tone of the
piece? How would the tone change if they were all from her experience
or all from that of others?
ENGAGING THE TEXT
- How did you rank yourself in terms of apologizing when you read
this essay? Do you apologize about things frequently or not so frequently?
Explain. How much does context figure in here?
- Let's assume that everybody likes to get praise. What kind of a
praise giver are you? If you tell people nothing, do you expect
them to assume you approve of what they're doing? Or, are you more interactive
than that? How about relating an anecdote or two involving praise giving?
SUGGESTIONS FOR SUSTAINED WRITING
- Near the end of this piece, Tannen writes, "Our understanding
of language inclines us to look for literal rather than ritual meanings
in words." Pick an example from the reading, and explain this idea
thoroughly. Clearly point out the context, the people involved, and
the related literal and ritual meanings of the words used.
- Tannen discusses two main conversational rituals throughout this
essay, apologizing and giving praise. Pick two more conversational rituals,
describe them, and explain how miscommunication often happens and how
it might be avoided.
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Do some research until you find some information about one reported communication
difference in American men and women that interests you. (Some of the
links below will get you started.) What is the nature of the difference?
Is it reasonable to think that sex difference accounts of this difference
in communication style? Explain. What other factors might account for
the difference? How can Tannen's essay help you in your research?
of The Argument Culture explores the role of fun in conflict. What
do you learn about this book from the review? What kinds of things would
you need to consult the book directly to find out? (Free registration
Looking for a great place to start your Internet research on this
author? Here is Tannen's
own homepage from Georgetown's site, where you'll find a wealth
of information including a photo and links.
page has a link to Tannen talking about Bill Clinton and Monica
Lewinsky in RealAudio, as well as the transcript of the interview from
NewsHour. See what happens when she dissects this infamous statement:
"There was no sexual relationship."
page at Bookwire.com, where you'll find links to information about
her books The Argument Culture, The Grand Chessboard, and You
Just Don't Understand.
Here's her article "Discourse
Analysis" in etext. What does Tannen mean by language "beyond
the sentence"? How does this help you understand the reading of
hers in your textbook?
This is an interview
from NewsHour about her book The Argument Culture. Here,
she discusses the ramifications of people approaching almost every issue
"as if it were a fight between two sides."
Hungry for more of this author's work? This article
has some of Tannen's thoughts about indirect discourse and gender difference.
Do you want some more information about one of Tannen's frequent
topics? Here are some notes
about male-female communication from Ohio State.
Did you know that Tannen writes more than nonfiction? This is a bibliography
of her creative work. How might this information help you in writing
about Tannen? How reliable do you think this information is? How can
Are you interested in placing some of these ideas into a specific context?
Here are some observations
about male-female communication in the workplace.