BOOKS: He said, she said

TALKING FROM 9 TO 5: How women's and men's conversational styles affect who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done at work by Deborah Tannen, Virago pounds 16.99

MEN and women are the same in some ways but different in others. Tick true or false or don't care. Feminists muddy the issue by calling for equality, which implies sameness, while stressing the specificity of women's experience, which suggests difference. You can call this fruitfully contradictory or foolishly illogical, depending on the jargon you prefer, just as you can choose to believe that there isn't a communication problem between the sexes, or that we speak what amounts to different languages. Deborah Tannen jumps into this swamp of difficulty with relish.

Having previously explored the conversational styles that gag and bind the sexes in private, she now turns her attention to the world of work and to the linguistic codes we use there, which seem to rise like breezeblock and bruise us. Deborah Tannen is soothing and brisk as Mary Poppins, sorting out her squabbling brood with calm good humour. She's scrupulously fair to men, bending over backwards to understand them, which we're supposedly brought up to do, and she has clearly listened hard, long and well to all her interviewees, each with a tale of woe to tell. The reported misunderstandings are so rife you start to wonder how deals ever get struck at all. The fantasy flits across your mind that Janet and John should maybe quit, take up meditation and move out of the city.

For those of us determined to make a go of it in the corporation, however, this is a handy primer. It uses vignettes as its main didactic tool for surveying why conversational style enacts the double standard, why we still want to police so harshly traditionally "masculine" and "feminine" ways of doing and talking, with suitable punishments for those who swap between guys 'n' dolls modes, and why it's so hard to understand and respect the way that the opposite sex goes about things. Tannen proves - according to her evidence, anyway - that gender is still a major structuring influence in most offices; that, in most office conversations, women still struggle between trying to talk like one of the boys and being put down for doing so; and that many men are very uncomfortable about being expected to dominate meetings and don't know what to do about changing things.

The terrain is rocky and arduous and Tannen maps it well. The very least she achieves is to let us all admit we've all encountered the problem. That's saying something, since current wisdom holds that it doesn't exist: it's you who have or are the problem if you raise it. Anyone, male or female, who's ever burst into tears of rage in the office loo after being confronted by a powerful linguistic ritual he or she can't understand, let alone control, will find solace within these pages.

Tannen's message is upbeat, even idealistic. Let's learn to listen to each other. Let's learn the techniques of translation. Let's respect the other's different style while confidently asserting our own. I admire her maturity and niceness, both qualities I conspicuously lacked while reading her book. I kept frothing with inarticulate wrath and hurling the book across the room. It reminded me all too vividly of my young days as a part-time temp: the hidden agendas, the paranoia and put-downs, the backstairs gossip, the patriarchal assumption that a pen was a penis, the way that some feminists blethered on and on and insisted that all women felt exactly the same about everything. This book made me remember with what relief I backed away from office life into the garret, why I decided that poetry was the language the sexes needed for talking to each other because it let in the un- conscious, not so much a breath of fresh air as a dangerous, perfumed, beguiling zephyr, that encouraged you to say too much or struck you speechless. It didn't waft easily through offices.

Tannen doesn't discuss unconscious problems between the sexes at work; it doesn't fit into her model of describing what goes on. Yet the Freudian notion of childhood dilemmas and desires constructing our adult certainties surely has some place here. For example, feminists often find it hard to believe men who insist that they perceive women as hugely powerful. The feminist sees the underpaid harassed worker-mother scuttling between housework and office job. The man may be remembering the omnipotent goddess who cradled him then cruelly weaned him, who pushed him away to be consoled by the fantasy of becoming a Real Man. These images clash and confound in the boardroom as much as in the bedroom. Men expect matriarchs in the nursery, not in the boss's office, perhaps. These muddles may underlie our different perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment, may confuse any attempt to be fair.

Tannen is good on harassment, dealing as equally as she can with what she calls "the different legs of this elephant". She points out: "The aspect of sexual harassment that taps into women's fears is the specter of assault, verbal or physical, by a man from whose clutches they cannot easily escape...The aspect that holds power for most men is the possibility of a false charge...For their part, many women are insulted by men's concern, which they hear as an accusation that women are manipulative liars...In other words, each group tends to dismiss the other's deep fears as unlikely to occur. Their own fears, however, thrive on the awareness of possibility."

She goes on to produce one of the most sympathetic and perceptive readings of David Mamet's provocative play Oleanna that ever delved under the surface of political correctness and came up smiling. Her prose plods at times, but her book is a worthy one, marshalling complications with affection and assurance and leaving us to draw our own conclusions - gender-inflected or not.

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