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Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen, "I'm Sorry, I Won't Apologize: Conversational Rituals"

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 Understand.



  1. Describe the ritual that the British person mentioned in this essay observed while in France.
  2. When the "well-known columnist" apologized to the author, what did Tannen think it meant? Why did Tannen laugh?
  3. What is the "most common culprit" that causes communication discord?
  4. Why do some people frequently tell women to stop apologizing? Why does Tannen suggest that this sometimes leads to bad communication?
  5. According to the author, why did the amateur pool player Julie Nogiac keep apologizing to the professional pool player Ewa Mataya?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?


  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?


  1. 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?
  2. 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?


  1. 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.
  2. 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.


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?


This review 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 required.)



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.

This PBS 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."

Here's Tannen's page at, 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 you tell?

Are you interested in placing some of these ideas into a specific context? Here are some observations about male-female communication in the workplace.