Although she has lectured worldwide in her field, and written or edited numerous academic publications on linguistics and interpersonal communication, she is best known for her general-audience books on interpersonal communication and public discourse. She became well-known in the United States after her book You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation was published in 1990. It was on the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years and was subsequently translated into 29 other languages. She has since made numerous appearances on major television and radio shows. You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, her latest book, was also on the best seller list.
She is the author of several popular books about the way people in social situations talk to each other. By studying these interactions, she attempts to help others to understand them and so get along better in relationships.
Tannen, however, is primarily a linguist, and thus her works arguably have more relevance to the furthering of a theoretical understanding of talk and social interaction than they do to the practical improvement of day-to-day relationships. Her major theoretical contribution, presented in her book Talking Voices, is a poetics of conversation. She shows that everyday conversation is made up of linguistic features such as repetition, dialogue, and imagery, that are traditionally regarded as literary.
She attended Hunter College High School. As an undergraduate, Tannen also attended Harpur College, which was later incorporated into Binghamton University, and as a graduate student, Wayne State University. She then continued on to earn her Ph.D. in Linguistics from UC Berkeley in 1979.