That’s Not What I Meant! – Book Interview


Here is an interview I had with Julie Skallman, Mn/DOT Division Director for State Aid, about the fifth book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships by Deborah Tannen.

Tang: Why did you pick this book?       

Julie: I am interested in learning about different communication styles and how to improve communication between people, especially people from different cultural backgrounds.

My daughter recently got married to a young man from India. I thought this book would be helpful in giving me some insight to be a better communicator and to be able to understand other people better. It’s very applicable to my personal life as well as professional life.

Tang: What did you like about the book?

Julie: The book uses real life examples that I can very well relate to. When I read some of the conversations used in the book, I could see myself or someone I know in there.

Tang: What new things did you learn from reading this book?

Julie: Being a woman and engineer, I like to be direct. Tell me exactly what you want me to do, and I will do it. So I can easily get frustrated with people who are not direct and don’t have the same conversational style as I have.

The book has a chapter on why we don’t say what we mean. It talks about two big payoffs to being understood without saying explicitly what we mean.

The first payoff is in rapport. Tannen says it is far better to get what we want, to be understood, without saying what we mean. It makes us feel the pleasure of being on the same wave length. This is the pleasure of those magical conversations when we say just a few words – or no words at all – and feel completely understood.

The second payoff is in self-defense. If what we want does not meet with a positive response, we can take it back what we meant. Indirectness provides a protective armor and avoids direct confrontation.

Now I see value in indirectness and have a better understanding of why some people use indirectness. I will get less frustrated with people who are not as direct as I want.

Tang: Give us another example of something you learned that is interesting and worth sharing?

Julie: Asking questions can be interpreted as either showing interest and appreciation, or being nosy and overbearing. Asking too many questions make some people feel interrogated, asking no questions make others feel ignored. On the other hand, some people welcome questions, because it shows you are interested in them and you make them feel important. And for people who value privacy, asking no questions shows that you respect their privacy. So there is a fine line here.

This tells us, when we ask people questions, it is good to consider what their cultural backgrounds and personalities are.

Tang: How has reading the book opened your mind and broadened your perspective in some way?

Julie: When we talk about differences and diversity in the workforce, we often think of immigrants and minorities, people who come from different countries and from different ethnic backgrounds. Yes, there is obviously a cross-cultural difference.

The book talks about cross-cultural communication between male and female. We could be growing up in the same neighborhood and even in the same house, and still have cross-cultural difference. So it made me think of diversity from a broader perspective.

Tang: How has this book changed your life in a positive way?

Julie: I grew up in a small town where I learned manners such as “Don’t talk in a loud voice,” and “Don’t interrupt conversations.” I have a relative who talks fast and interrupts others a lot. I used to think that she was rude and felt uncomfortable around her.

But now I realized that we are just different in how we use conversational signals – pacing and pausing, loudness, pitch and intonation.

Tannen says we almost never make deliberate decisions about whether to raise or lower our voice and pitch, whether to speed up or slow down. But these are the signals by which we interpret each other’s meaning and comments. When speakers have different habits about how and when to use conversational signals, it can cause frustrations and problems.

Because I am a soft speaker and don’t consider it appropriate to interrupt, I can come across as not assertive and indecisive in the workplace with people who are different. Now that I am aware of the different conversational styles and signals, I feel more comfortable to speak up and to get my points across.

Tang: Please share a quote from the book that you like.

Julie: “To many women, the relationship is working as long as they can talk things out. To many men, the relationship isn’t working out if they have to keep working it over. If she keeps trying to get talks going to save the relationship, and he keeps trying to avoid them because he sees them as weakening it, then each other’s efforts to preserve the relationship appear to the other as reckless endangerment.” (chap. 8, Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers, From Children to Grown Ups)

Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.

Julie: My mother was a voracious reader. So I grew up with reading. I usually read two books a week. I always have a book with me in my bag.

I enjoy reading science fiction, fantasy and mysteries. For me, reading is relaxing. It’s the best way to escape from the stressful reality.

Two of my favorite local Minnesota authors are Vince Flynn and John Sanford. I also like Janet Evanovich. She uses a lot of humor in her mystery books. If you need a good laugh, read her books.