Shy Students and Conversational Styles: Deborah Tannen’s Analysis

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Updated: Mar 27, 2023
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Deborah Tannen, a professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, is known by scholars and generalist readers with a curiosity about how people interrelate in conversations with one another. In her essay “How Male and Female Students Use Languages Differently,” Tannen explains how male and female students engage with one another in different situations, her core emphasis being a classroom setting. In the opening of the article, Tannen states, “the research of sociologists and anthropologists such as Janet Lever, Marjorie Harness Goodwin, and Donna Elder has shown that girls and boys learn to use language differently in their sex-separate peer groups.

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The author explains that men are much more talkative in a classroom setting than female students. Tannen suspects that female students who attend an all-girls school will have a more fruitful life. Male students present in the classroom setting are more talkative, detracting, and overpowering. Females are accustomed to conversing in small groups with other females rather than males. Males are freer in conversation and tend to be more open when in a larger group of friends. The way humans connect and create bonds with each other is quite different.

According to Tannen, girls are characteristically central to telling secrets to each other, while boys are expected to do activities with each other. Tannen then uses Walter Ong’s book Fighting for Life to further explain that males interact more when they are challenged in an argument, whereas females do not fight in an argument and tend to withhold. The author then discusses, compares, and contrasts how women and men connect. Women have the tendency to bond by talking about their troubles, while men exchange playful insults with each other. To further explain her argument, she states that males are more “comfortable attacking the readings” while females “resist discussion[s] they perceive as hostile.” One of the reasons why men “speak in class more than women is that many of them find the ‘public’ classroom setting more conducive to speaking whereas most women are more comfortable speaking in private to a small group of people they know well.”

Near the end of the essay, Tannen conducted an experiment with her students by separating them into small groups. The students were categorized by degree program, gender, and conversational style. She placed the timid students in one group, talkative students in another group, and foreign students in another group. Tannen carefully evaluated each group’s conversations, which resulted in female students not speaking nor participating in class, but when in a small group, they opened up much more to converse with each other. The students in the shy group started talking more since they were more relaxed around like-minded people. She then altered the group and diversified the students.

The shy students did not talk much when placed in talkative groups. Some of the students preferred to be in same-gender groups, while others favored the group that mirrored them the most. The author briefly expresses that everyone has their own way of conversing with others; it typically depends on the environment they are in. “No one’s conversational style is absolute; everyone’s style changes in response to the context and others’ styles” (Tannen). Deborah then says, “the experience of breaking into groups… raised everyone’s awareness about classroom participation.” In conclusion, Tannen believes a way to bridge the gap between the varied student body is “to find more-diverse methods to serve diverse students.”

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Shy students and Conversational Styles: Deborah Tannen's Analysis. (2023, Mar 24). Retrieved from