Deborah Tannen's Theory

Categories: Theory

In contemporary society biological factors are no longer the sole components that distinguish men and women. Rather anything from clothing or hairstyles to make-up or accessories can indicate specific messages about an individual. According to Deborah Tannen, women are more frequently considered marked beings in our society while men have fewer clothing or style options and are therefore free to remain unmarked. Although Tannen argues that it is possible for men to remain purely "unmarked" her assertions do not hold up well in a changing world.

Because the term "marked" is a social construction, it is not possible to remain completely unmarked, as styles and trends repeatedly change with different ages, generations, and geographic locations.

In her study Tannen reveals that among four women and eight men present during a business meeting the women had several more features to observe compared to one another. However, Tannen's conclusions seem partially invalid for her findings are based on only one particular event. In a business-like environment, it is more likely to find conservatively dressed men with less notable markings than women.

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Even though women may not only be identified based on their apparent style but also how they choose to present themselves. (i.e. Baggy clothes vs. tight clothes, make-up vs. no makeup). In general, Tannen's findings appear questionable mainly because her approach when defining a "marked" individual seems limiting. For example, Tannen would call a man wearing a shirt a marked individual. However, it is quite common for men in Scotland to wear skirts.

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Without ever considering these geographic differences, Tannen makes bold assumptions based on her own biases.

When speculating a specific sub-culture such as the generational "rave"/dance culture, Tannen's argument holds no validity. Clearly both men and women in this culture wear similar styles of clothing and accessories that are in essence, uni-sex. While piercings and jewelry might "mark" a man in society such stylistic choices are considered quite common and acceptable among "ravers". Similarly women who wear baggy clothes and baseball caps are not "marked" as less feminine than those who wear tighter clothes and make-up within this sub-culture are.

According to Tannen, "each of the women at the conference had to make decisions about hair, clothing, make-up and accessories and each decision carried meaning…. men can choose style that are marked but they don't have to, and in this group none did." (231-2). Although Tannen makes the distinction between the style of men and women at a business conference, she fails to mention that their age and field of work influences what should be "marked vs. unmarked" and what styles appear appropriate vs. inappropriately.

Clearly, Tannen states that all four women are marked yet some are considered more severely marked and judged than others are. Specifically, the women with the long, blond, hair, dressed in tight clothing and heels were more severely marked in Tannen's eyes. However, Tannen never mentions that in another profession, such as the entertainment or fashion industry, the women style might be considerable less marked than an individual dressed more simple and conservatively.

In conclusion, the assumptions that Tannen makes in her article infer that men in society can remain unmarked. Although men are objectified and sexualized less than women this does not mean that they are not in the public eye. Tannen's view on today's "marked" society is based truly on her opinion. She omits geographical, generational and age differences when making her conclusion.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Deborah Tannen's Theory. (2016, Jul 21). Retrieved from

Deborah Tannen's Theory essay
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