- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006


By Deborah Tannen

Random House, $24.95, 272 pages

Over a decade ago, Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” landed on bestseller lists and remained there for nearly five years. With this breakthrough hit, Ms. Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, touched a nerve and validated what many of us believed we knew all along: Men and women speak different languages. Well, you may have muttered then, did we need a book to tell us that?

Now with “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation,” Ms. Tannen has turned her attention to same-sexed talkers, creatures who do speak the same language but misunderstand each other nonetheless. And now we ask: Is this a surprise? And, again, do we need a book to enlighten us about this?

For now, at least, let us hear from Ms. Tannen about why we do.

“The relationship between mothers and daughters is the literal ‘mother of all relationships.’ It is among the most passionate of women’s lives, the source of the deepest love and also the deepest anger — even hate — that most women experience. It brings us face-to-face with reflections of ourselves and forces us to confront fundamental questions about who we are, who we want to be, and how we relate to others both within and outside our families.”

So far, so good. We agree that the relationship in question is important, but how can a book help it improve?

Ms. Tannen writes, “Improving communication between mothers and daughters, much like breaking down barriers between women and men, requires, above all, understanding: seeing the situation from the other’s point of view. In this book I provide that understanding as well as concrete suggestions for improving mother-daughter conversations and therefore relationships.”

And in truth, she does. In a reader-friendly style, Ms. Tannen shares examples of mother-daughter relationships that are affecting and interesting. She writes:

“As a professor of linguistics specializing in sociolinguistics, I use a case-study method in my research. Reflecting the ‘linguistic’ part of sociolinguistics, I base many of my findings on close analysis of transcribed tape-recorded conversations. Reflecting on the ‘socio’ side, I also analyze conversations I am party to or overhear, much as some sociologists or anthropologists — like fiction writers — become observers and analysts of the interactions around them. Many of the examples I present are reconstructed from interviews I took part in, overheard, or was told about.”

And so, Ms. Tannen is off. Weaving her way through mother-daughter land mines such as hair (too long, too short), home (does a mother have the right to rearrange furniture in a daughter’s house and vice versa) and the natural “dark side” of the relationship (“In many versions of [“Snow White”] the evil queen is the girl’s biological mother, not a stepmother”), Ms. Tannen covers a lot of ground.

While the author does not back away from difficult issues such as separation and competition, anger and jealousy, this book is to its core a joyous one in which the mothers and daughters may struggle but never seem to wander far from love.

If the book stumbles at all — and this is just a personal preference — it is in those instances where Ms. Tannen goes for sociological coinage over what seems to be her natural talent for the straightforward. So readers learn that a “metamessage” is the implication of what someone says. And they learn that “complimentary schismogenesis” is another way of saying “a mutually aggravating spiral,” which basically means that an argument has just gotten out of hand.

Because this book is about mothers and daughters it is no surprise to find that women garner the lion’s share of the author’s attention, but men are not ignored here. They are loving fathers and husbands who tend to say little and smartly stay out of the way of the pyrotechnics.

The gentlest parts of the book are those in which the author recalls her own mother, who died while Ms. Tannen was writing this book. And as the mother of a son and a daughter, I was particularly engaged by her chapter “Wanted: Mother a Job Description” in which she begins by noting that “Nearly every mother I talked to said at some point that she worried about ways she had not been a good mother,” and ends by pointing out that the “her job description continually changes.”

In the middle of this chapter she offers the following observation that speaks volumes to mothers of adolescents:

“In order to protect her daughter and guide her, a mother needs to know what her daughter is up to. But sometimes she will think that what her daughter is up to is not wise. If she expresses this view, her daughter may regard her mother’s reaction as disapproval, and will therefore be inclined to withhold such information in the future. One mother told me that she confronted this dilemma by refraining, as much as possible, from offering advice; instead, she asked a lot of questions. She took the approach, Don’t tell ask.”

Or there is this mother/daughter interaction which gave the book its title;

“Lorraine was spending a week visiting her mother, who lived in a senior living complex. One evening, they were about to go down to dinner in the dining room. As Lorraine headed for the door, her mother hesitated. Scanning her daughter from head to toe she asked ‘You’re not going to wear that, are you?’

‘Why not?’ Lorraine asked, her blood pressure rising. ‘What’s wrong with it?’”

In the course of this delightful book, Ms. Tannen does not judge who’s wrong or who’s right. But she will remind you in clear and vivid writing what is precious in our mother daughter relationships. And that is one reason among many to read this book.

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