Though no two people’s conversational styles are exactly alike, there are patterns that tend to characterize styles.
Expecting shorter pauses between turns, and perceiving long pauses as uncomfortable silences, tends to go along with other linguistic habits that together make up what I call high-involvement style.
Expecting longer pauses and being more comfortable with silence are among the linguistic habits that make up what I call high-considerateness style.
Think about it this way: we all want to be considerate, and we all want to show that we’re involved in a conversation, but speakers of one style tend to place more emphasis on showing involvement, while speakers of the other style tend to emphasize showing considerateness.
Let’s consider a hypothetical conversation between two friends, Tammy and Carolyn. If Carolyn is telling a story and Tammy encourages her with “yeah,” “uh-huh” and “right,” Carolyn probably will assume that’s listener talk, and won’t feel interrupted. But what if Tammy says whole sentences like “I know what you mean; the same thing happened to me.” That could feel like listener talk, too — or like an attempt to grab the floor and start telling her own story.
And how about if Tammy meant it as listener talk and Carolyn takes it as an attempt to steal the floor? Carolyn might stop talking, thinking she was interrupted, and Tammy might start her own turn, interpreting Carolyn’s silence to mean she was finished. Who created that interruption? Tammy, because she began speaking? Or Carolyn, because she stopped? I’d say neither created the interruption single-handedly. It resulted from the differences in their conversational styles.
By filling a pause that threatened to become an uncomfortable silence, Tammy was showing enthusiastic listenership, as high-involvement style requires: a good person makes sure to show she’s involved. By expecting a listener to be relatively wordless, Carolyn was exercising a high-considerateness style: a good person makes sure to leave plenty of room for others to talk.
Linguistic habits that go along with high-considerateness style also include standing farther apart (in other words, giving more physical as well as verbal space); speaking more softly and with relatively level pitch and minimal gestures; talking more about impersonal topics and less about personal ones; being relatively indirect about conveying something negative or getting your way; and not asking personal questions.
Linguistic habits that go along with high-involvement style include expecting shorter pauses between turns — or maybe no pause at all: to avoid an uncomfortable silence, a speaker signals she’s ready to relinquish the floor by winding down, expecting a listener to chime in before she comes to a complete stop. It also includes standing closer when you talk; speaking in a more animated way and often more loudly; telling more personal stories and making the point of the story relatively dramatic; being more relatively direct; and asking personal questions to show interest and caring.
Differences in habits and assumptions about any of these ways of talking can lead to frustration, even between good friends, because the same way of speaking can have different meanings. Being quiet while listening really can mean you’re not interested — and so can starting to speak before your friend’s finished.
For example, Ruth and Alice were taking a walk by a lake, a lovely setting replete with the beauties of flora and fauna. Alice was telling Ruth about something going on in her life, and Ruth was listening with attention and empathy. But Ruth was also enjoying the natural surroundings, and the pleasure of sharing them with her friend. So whenever they passed a particularly pretty or interesting sight — a duck gliding on the surface of the lake with a string of tiny ducklings behind her, or a patch of flowers with extraordinary color — Ruth pointed it out.
Suddenly Alice burst out: “You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said!” Ruth was stunned — and stung. Of course she’d been listening. Calling attention to things she thought Alice would want to take notice of did not mean she wasn’t. If she didn’t point them out while Alice was talking, her friend might miss them: by the time her story was over, the thing of interest would be long gone.
For Ruth, sharing the beauty of their surroundings was a show of involvement just as surely as was listening to her friend’s story. Quick comments about something in the environment are not really interruptions, just as a dinner guest might murmur a request to pass the salt without interrupting another dinner guest’s long story. In both cases, the remarks are obviously fleeting parenthetical asides.
But here’s where conversational style differences wreak havoc: in Alice’s high-considerateness style, listening means not talking; anyone who is talking is not listening. If that means a listener must forego sharing the beauty of a passing sight — or salt on her food — it’s a price she has to pay. Both friends have had a lifetime of evidence that their own conversational styles make sense, because members of their families and the people they grew up with shared them.
We learn conversational styles at the same time that we learn language, as children growing up, so experience tells us that the way we show good intentions is the right way, and those who play by other rules are wrong.
Actually, we rarely realize they are playing by other rules; we think they’re breaking rules. (The title of Haru Yamada’s book about communication between Japanese and Americans, Different Games, Different Rules, can also apply to communication between people who speak the same language but have different conversational styles.)
Of course a listener should be quiet! That’s the definition of listening. Of course a listener should talk along to show enthusiasm and involvement! Otherwise how do you know she’s paying attention? Both styles make sense, each in its own way.
A good listener can emphasize considerateness by being silent, even if it means forgoing observations that she thinks the speaker would appreciate; and a good listener can emphasize involvement at the same time that she’s listening — by talking.
Talking across styles is all the more difficult because each style fosters its own capabilities. If you’re used to hearing listeners talk while you’re speaking, it doesn’t distract you; it encourages you.
But if you’re used to listeners being quiet, it does: you can’t keep your focus if someone who’s supposed to be listening keeps talking. It’s hard to believe that what wouldn’t distract you might distract someone else, or that someone else — especially a friend — wouldn’t be distracted by what distracts you.
Conversational style differences cast doubt on the adage “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” If your conversational styles differ, what you would have others do unto you may be the very thing that bugs them when you do it unto them.
Excerpted from YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE I CAN TELL by Deborah Tannen. Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Tannen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.