Deborah Tannen's new celebrity -- The bestselling author of ''You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation'' talks about her success

By Meredith Berkman
Updated November 22, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

When Deborah Tannen sat down to write You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, she had one purpose: ”I just wanted to be listened to,” she says. Tannen has gotten much more than she bargained for. Her book, which examines the problems men and women have communicating with each other, has not only touched a very raw nerve in both sexes, but it has thrust Tannen into the forefront of sexual politics. Since the publication of the book, whose paperback version has spent six months on the best-seller lists, Tannen has emerged as the new guru of gender-speak.

This became most apparent during the Clarence Thomas hearings, when Tannen, 46, was called on by every news outfit from CNN to the Today show to NPR and asked if it were possible that Anita Hill Just Didn’t Understand what she claimed Thomas had said to her.

”That’s a reductio ad absurdum of my book,” says Tannen in a deliberate voice. ”Could the same conversation be understood differently by women and men? Yes, but not the kind Hill was describing.”

According to Tannen, senators who repeatedly asked Hill’s female friends why they didn’t advise her to report the alleged sexual harassment proved one of the main points of her book: A woman talks about a problem to share her feelings; a man assumes she wants a solution. That Hill did not sever her relationship with Thomas when she left her job was also consistent with Tannen’s findings — that women, unlike men, prefer to avoid confrontation.

The success of You Just Don’t Understand has also turned Tannen into something of a New Age Miss Lonelyhearts. She now receives hundreds of letters and phone calls from men and women who want her to tell them exactly why their mates Just Don’t Understand. ”I get calls from men whose relationships have just broken up, asking me to call their girlfriends and explain it’s not just him,” says the Brooklyn-born Tannen. ”The blame hurled back and forth between men and women is overwhelming.”

Though Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University (and a visiting lecturer at Princeton this year), her book falls somewhere between pop psychology and True Confessions. She combines easily accessible analysis with riveting anecdotes, at least some of which come from Tannen’s husband, Michael Macovski, a professor of English literature at Fordham University. ”There were times when I was (doing research) that I got angry at him and said, ‘That’s right out of my book!”’

If Tannen’s new celebrity has a disadvantage, it’s this: Suddenly dinner parties are uncomfortable because guests wonder whether their conversational gaffes will turn up in Tannen’s next book. Well ”I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’m nervous around you,”’ Tannen admits. ”And the truth is, I’m never off-duty.”