The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Famous professor and linguist speaks at UMW on technology and conversation

3 min read
Dr. Deborah Tannen, linguist and professor at Georgetown University, spoke at the University of Mary Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 24 about a range of discursive styles available online.


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Tannen is a published author of over 100 articles and 23 books, including the critically acclaimed “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” which remained on the New York Times best sellers list for four years.

Though the majority of her career focused on gender and language, Tannen’s recent studies shifted to the virtual side of linguistics. Her lecture for the evening, “Conversational Style in Digital Discourse: Texting, Email, and IM as Cross-Cultural Communication Across Genders and Generations,” delved into how online styles function, what factors influence style and where communicative differences arise.

“People my age are complaining that kids don’t pick up the phone,” said Tannen. “But in the younger generations, everyone knows that you text first and ask if it’s okay to call. A different idea of what’s polite and what’s rude.”

Tannen further expounded on this generational gap through example. Relying on various snippets of conversation, Tannen demonstrated how an exclamation point can express enthusiasm, or how a period can seem cold. In one case, a father texted “Wow…” to his daughter, intending to express excitement. Little did he know that the ellipsis would actually reverse the effect, thus leaving his daughter confused and conflicted.

“I really liked [Tannen’s] anecdotal style because a lot of it was pretty much exactly how my life works,” said Mary Honard, junior linguistics major. “Like the parents talking to children thing, my mother texts just like that. And we have miscommunications all the time because she uses punctuation that I misinterpret.”

Tannen’s research is not limited to punctuation. She also examined the idea of the “meta-message” in which the very choice of the media denotes a certain meaning. In one example, a girl was faced with the daunting task of asking a boy to be her ballroom dancing partner. Should she email him? Send a Facebook message? A text?

“It’s exhausting!” Tannen exclaimed. “In previous days you would’ve have one option: pick up the phone and call.”

Tannen explains linguistics in a way that allows the audience to understand, according to some faculty and staff.

“It was a very accessible talk with lots of audience enthusiasm,” said Janie Lee, assistant professor of linguistics. “It was nice to see how she was able to talk about linguistic details in a way that’s geared toward the general audience.”

English major Moira McAvoy had a similar opinion.

“I always find it really interesting that, with Deborah Tannen’s work, it’s things that seem so obvious and so inherent that we understand what they are, but then she also really eloquently illuminates why we believe them and how they work in society,” said McAvoy.

Perhaps one of the most propelling aspects of the lecture is Tannen’s personal connection to UMW. Tannen is the first guest of The Christina Kakavá Speaker Series, formed to celebrate life and legacy of the late Christina Kakavá.

A professor of linguistics, Kakavá taught at UMW from 1994 until her passing in 2010. Kakavá studied under Tannen’s mentorship at Georgetown University, where she earned her master’s degree in 1989 and her doctorate in 1993.

“Those of you who knew Christina knew how charismatic she was,” said Tannen.

Judith Parker, professor of linguistics, spoke of Kakavá and her time at UMW.

“Dr. Kakavá was a much loved teacher, colleague, and friend,” said Parker. “We hope to honor Christine tonight for the remarkable person that she was.”

The Christina Kakavá Speaker Series will continue to host similar events in the future.