I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say, “I’ll Have to Get Back to You on That.”

August 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen was in a colleague’s office when the phone rang. It was a man in the department asking the colleague to serve on a committee. She ran through the list of things she was already burdened with — thesis supervision, an overloaded teaching schedule, other committees. “There’s no way I could responsibly join another committee. Of course, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it, but honestly, I don’t see how I could add it to what’s already on my plate.”

When the conversation had ended and she had hung up the phone, she turned to Tannen. “I can’t believe it. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he put me on the committee anyway.”*

The problem, as Tannen sees it, is not that the man was inconsiderate but that the two people were speaking in different “conversational styles.” He was listening in a “direct” style; she was speaking in a more “indirect” style. The only “No” he would hear was a direct one – simple and without qualification or exception.

It’s as though they were speaking different languages. Language is a part of culture, and cultures have different ideas about directness. When I was in Japan long ago, people would sometimes comment on how “frank” Americans were. At the time I took it as a compliment. Only much later did I realize that what they meant was that Americans, including me, will just barge in and tell you what they think or what they want with not a thought to anyone else’s feelings or preferences. They are too obtuse to consider the harmony within the group.

Japanese culture and language are indirect. There are countless stories of Americans doing business in Japan thinking that they had been told “yes” when the Japanese had thought they had clearly told the Americans “no.” The Japanese, with their comment about frankness, were telling me to be more sensitive and circumspect. But they were saying it indirectly, and I just didn’t hear.

Even within our own frank culture, getting to No is hard. We all are reluctant to give an unequivocal No. “Not really,” is often as close as we get. But there’s a gender difference. Men are more comfortable with the direct style than are women, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. Women are more indirect. Tannen’s overburdened colleague thought she was being direct, and maybe she was — for a woman. A better example comes from a McSweeney’s list last week.

Nelles-Sager’s list includes, in part:
1. “Hmm… maybe.”
2. “We should look that up.”
3. “Totally.”
7. “Yeah, for sure, I mean, actually, it’s [right answer], but you’re right that it could be [wrong answer] if it wasn’t [right answer].”
8. “It’s possible.”
In many situations, gender overlaps with another variable that affects directness — power. In saying  “no” to someone higher in power, it’s probably better to be less direct.  Alternatively, those in power may take care not to be too harshly direct to those below them. Nelles-Sager doesn’t mention it, but three years earlier, McSweeney’s had another list : “Ways Teachers Avoid Saying ‘No.’” At least one entry — “I suppose it’s possible” — is identical to one of Nelles-Sager’s. Others include “I see where you’re coming from” and “I guess that’s an interpretation.”

The general point may be that when we are thinking about the feelings of others, we use the indirect style. The reason may be based in culture, gender, or power. It may even be a matter of personality, as illustrated by the passage that I cribbed the title of this post from.

The truth was that Pinchuck had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. “I want to be liked,” he admitted to Blanche. “Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no.” (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I'll get back to you.” This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)

 — Woody Allen, “By Destiny Denied”


* This anecdote appears in Tannen’s recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.


Unknown said...

FWIW, I've never found the examples of Japanese being "too indirect" in business dealings convincing.

"We'll take it up at the next board meeting."
"Let us get back to you on that."

They're all things that are clearly recognizable by a native English speakers with their wits about them as being just as likely to mean "When Hell freezes over, maybe." as anything else. And all are things that are used regularly in US business negotiations with exactly the same meaning and intent.

The only thing that might be a problem is that the Japanese seem better at handling multiple negation than English speakers. (My favorite Linguistics blog has a running series on "misnegation": even smart famous people get "cannot be overestimated/cannot be underestimated" painfully wrong painfully often. I've caught Japanese writers misusing obscure words, but they eat deeply nested conditionals for breakfast.) Even in colloquial speech, people follow fairly intricate logical sequences correctly. And in written Japanese, one can never read casually, you have to follow the logic. (The current novel* I'm reading is dense of snark (the Japanese love snark: one of Soseki's earliest novels (Nowake, 1907) starts out "Doya Shirai was a man of letters and literature." and proceeds to have great fun at his expense.), and snark adds another level of implicit negation to things. At 40 pages in, I had to restart from the beginning to make sure I had the logic behind the snark right.) But snark is wonderful, and worth the effort.

* Utopia, by Kanae Minato (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanae_Minato) who writes beautifully about people living their lives in rural Japan. (Ms. Minato and my wife are both from islands in the Setonaikai, and she nails the problems of rural Japan dead on perfect.)

Sorry about the stream of consciousness there. Whatever. Do my parens match???

Jay Livingston said...

Hai. Soo des' ne.