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January 23, 2003 - Deborah Tannen: Fast Talk - 2003-01-22

Broadcast on "Coast on Coast": January 23, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- some fast talk with linguist and author Deborah Tannen.

RS: Recently, she wrote an article in the Washington Post that criticizes a trend in American TV and film toward faster dialogue. Hollywood apparently thinks fast talkers sound smarter -- not to mention more like the young people producers want to appeal to.

AA: But Deborah Tannen says faster is harder for a lot of people to understand. She says that all over the world, speakers from some regions tend to speak more slowly than those from other regions. Research has found that those who speak slower are stereotyped as stupid. But fast talkers can seem pushy.

TANNEN: “You can see this in the United States, where people from New York City in particular and the Northeast in general tend to speak somewhat more quickly, and it’s one of several things that I think leads us to be perceived as aggressive when we speak to people from other parts of the country. The Midwest would be an example of a place where people speak somewhat more slowly. New England would be another example, and the South would be another example.

"Although the particular manner of speaking will be different in each part of the country, those three parts are similar in that they would speak more slowly than people from the Northeast. But that’s not to say a New Englander and a Southerner are alike in other ways. We have I guess, a stereotype of a taciturn person from New England. We don’t think of the Southerners as being taciturn. They’re very verbal; they talk a lot. But they don’t get to the point as quickly as a person from New York might get.”

RS: “So would the fast-paced speech that we’re hearing on TV and on radio and among teen-agers, would you consider this a fad?”

TANNEN: “It seems that all of us, the older we get, the slower we speak. In the past, teen-agers might aspire to sound serious like adults. Now we’ve got adults trying to sound like teen-agers. And we’ve got the media -- the television, the advertisements, the movies -- trying to be cool and make everybody think that this is a person I want to be like by sounding more like teen-agers.

"There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal where they were reporting on this fact that dialogue on television now is faster. They interviewed the producer of a very popular cable show called ‘Gilmore Girls.' And the producer said whereas traditionally one page of a script would be a minute, they figure twenty to twenty-two seconds. And they reported that they might redo a scene 30, 35 times trying to shave off just a couple of seconds and get it right.

"In fact, I’m wondering if many of your listeners who listen to American shows might not be having more trouble and wondering ‘maybe it’s my English?’ Since my article came out, I’ve been receiving dozens of letters and e-mails from people saying ‘I thought it was me, I thought I was losing my hearing, I thought I was getting old and couldn’t think anymore.’”

AA: “Well, the irony is that the American population is getting older -- ”

TANNEN: “Yes! Yes!”

AA: “And yet the TV industry is aiming for the folks with lots of money -- which actually, the older folks have the money -- but they’re aiming for the younger folks.”

TANNEN: “You are so right. And all the people that are writing to me are asking why, why are they forgetting us and playing to the kids when we’re the ones who have more money, more disposable income to spend. But it shouldn’t be all about money, anyway.”

RS: “Do you have any suggestions of how to cope with someone who speaks rather quickly.”

TANNEN: “One thing I would say is, we all have to overcome our hesitance about interrupting a person and telling them we’re having trouble understanding. As many non-native speakers know, often when you have trouble understanding, the person will just speak louder. But I would really encourage people if they are having trouble to say something. It won’t be taken as an insult. It’s really taken usually as a compliment. It means I really want to understand what you’re saying.”

RS: Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Her last book, "I Only Say This Because I Love You," examined the speech patterns in family relationships. She also wrote the best-seller "You Just Don’t Understand," about how men and women communicate.

AA: To help you better communicate in English, go to our Web site, You can download audio files and scripts. And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.