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Table talk: It's what you say and how you say it

Conversation expert Deborah Tannen offers advice on handling holiday gatherings

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

A conversation among six people at a Thanksgiving dinner in Berkeley, Calif., provided Deborah Tannen, now a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, with plenty of material for a doctoral thesis and a book.

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Her analysis of the transcript of the 2 1/2 -hour back-and-forth between mouthfuls of turkey and cranberries launched her on a path to becoming a national expert on conversational style and how it affects relationships. Twenty-five years and 10 books later, she's got the ear of Americans looking for ways to change their conversations.

On this day, as the nation sits down for the annual feast that launches the holiday season, it could be the way you say something to a friend or relative -- and not your mother-in-law's gravy -- that makes or breaks the day.

"Conflicts often arise around holidays, weddings and anything where expectations for how people should act are high," says Tannen, who lives in McLean. "Everybody has their idea, and they think they are right. The different styles that come from different backgrounds are almost guaranteed to clash."

Tannen has analyzed and dissected countless everyday conversations that took place over scrambled eggs, cocktails or PowerPoint presentations. Her revelations fill her books about relationships between men and women, co-workers, parents and grown kids, and mothers and daughters. Her latest, published in September, is "Sisters: You Were Always Mom's Favorite" (Random House, $26). She has heard it all: interrupted conversation, bad humor, no humor, too many topics of a personal nature, ethnic or gender comments, too much politics, people who ask too many questions, people who ask none.

Tannen and husband Michael Macovski, a professor in Georgetown's communication, culture and technology program, are usually the only two conversing at their three-level contemporary house near the Potomac River. They moved in 1995 to this woodsy location, the place they call "the house that the book bought." The book is Tannen's watershed title, "You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation," which had a nearly four-year run on the New York Times bestseller list.

A selling point of the house was the space for separate offices two floors apart: Both professors do a lot of work at home. "We are mutually respectful of each other, and we don't disturb each other much during the day," says Macovski. "But we always look forward to having dinner together and having a good conversation."

The best of those occur at the round Mission-style table in front of a window just off the kitchen. Tannen sits on a small maple chair that came from the 1950s New Jersey kitchen of Macovski's parents; he prefers an oak Stickley design. "We sit close together; we listen to what the other is saying," says Tannen. "We are very comfortable here."

Some of Tannen's fondest Thanksgiving memories were made in the last decade of her parents' lives, when Dorothy and Eli Tannen lived in Boynton Beach and Pompano Beach, Fla. She and Macovski, who don't have children, would fly down every November and cook for the Tannens and family members and friends who lived nearby.

"They were wonderful people, many of them in their 90s, and many amazing storytellers," says Tannen. Her favorite conversations from those holidays didn't take place at dinner. They were the laughter-filled afternoons the four of them had in the kitchen while chopping vegetables.

"Cooking gives everyone an activity to focus on. You get a tremendous sense of community out of doing things together," says Tannen. And, yes, she has a reason. "For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds relationships together. For boys and men, it's doing things. Cooking combines both of these."

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