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***You're Wearing THAT?

Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation

by Deborah Tannen

Reviewed April 24, 2006.
Random House, New York, 2006.  272 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (MCN 306.874 TAN).

Even though I don’t have any daughters, I am, of course, a daughter myself.  I liked Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand enough that I wanted to see what she had to say about mothers and daughters in conversation.

Much of the book is more about describing mother-daughter conversations than about helping improve them.  Like the academic she is, Deborah Tannen describes the different types of communication that exist.  However, by showing the many situations that exist, she is able to draw conclusions that can help you improve your own relationships.

Much of what she discusses involves metamessages—the meaning behind the exact words spoken.  “When someone cries literal meaning, it is hard to resolve disputes, because you end up talking about the meaning of the message when it was the meaning of the metamessage that got your goat.  It’s not that some utterances have metamessages, or hidden meanings, while others don’t.  Everything we say has metamessages indicating how our words are to be interpreted:  Is this a serious statement or a joke?  Does it show annoyance or good will?  Most of the time, metamessages are communicated and interpreted without notice because, as far as anyone can tell, the speaker and the hearer agree on their meaning.  It’s only when the metamessage the speaker intends—or acknowledges—doesn’t match the one the hearer perceives that we notice and pay attention to them.”

“And therein lies another reason that anything said between mothers and daughters can either warm our hearts or raise our hackles:  Their conversations have a long history, going back literally to the start of the daughter’s life.  So anything either one says at a given moment takes meaning not only from the words spoken at that moment but from all the conversations they have had in the past.  This works in both positive and negative ways.  We come to expect certain kinds of comments from each other, and are primed to interpret what we hear in that familiar spirit.”

Even without daughters, the discussion on giving advice is applicable to all female relationships, even those with husbands or sons.  (This echoes what I read in Love and Respect.)  Many women, myself included, show their concern and caring by giving advice or asking if the other person has taken care of all the little details.  But that is often heard as criticism, as if you don’t think they are grown-ups who can take care of themselves.

“The complaint I heard most often when I talked to women about their mothers was ‘She’s always criticizing me.’  The complaint I heard most often when I talked to women about their grown daughters was ‘I can’t open my mouth.  She takes everything as criticism.’  Each of these complaints is the flip side of the other.  Daughters and mothers agree on what the troublesome conversations are; they disagree on who introduced the note of contention, because they have different views of the metamessages their words imply.  Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring:  she was only making a suggestion, trying to help, offering insight or advice.  Most of the time, both are right.”

“To the daughter, the criticism causes her outburst.  But to her mother, the outburst comes out of the blue, because she believes in her heart that her intention was not to criticize, much less to wound.  So she feels wounded by what she perceives to be her daughter’s surprise attack.”

Later, the author mentions, “I was amused when, more than once, a mother told me of something she disapproved of about her daughter but assured me that she never said anything, yet the daughter told me in a separate interview that her mother frequently mentioned that very point.  It is likely the mother never ‘said’ anything on the message level, but the daughter ‘heard’ it loud and clear on the metamessage level.”

“Protection is a two-edged sword, and this accounts for many mismatches between daughters’ and mothers’ perspectives.  Where a mother sees protection and connection, a daughter may see a limit to her freedom and invasion of her privacy.  It is hard for daughters to understand the depth of their mothers’ desire to protect them, and it is hard for mothers to understand that their expressions of concern can undermine their daughters’ confidence and seem like criticism rather than caring.”

More succinctly:  “The message of protection may carry a metamessage of lack of confidence.”

Another topic she brings up reminds me of Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Intimacy.  “The term I use for this mutually aggravating spiral is ‘complementary schismogenesis.’  A schism is a split, and genesis is creation, so ‘complementary schismogenesis’ means creating a split in a mutually aggravating way….

“Symmetrical schismogenesis could refer to a situation where one person becomes annoyed and raises her voice, and the other raises hers in response.  In the end they are both shouting, each reacting to the other by intensifying the same behavior:  raising voices.  In contrast, complementary schismogenesis would describe a situation in which the first person becomes annoyed and raises her voice, and the other lowers hers in order to communicate that a raised voice is unacceptable.  This makes the first one angry, because the lowered voice seems to imply a lack of emotional engagement.  So she speaks even more loudly, which makes the other speak even more softly.  In the end one is shouting and the other is whispering, or has even retreated into silence.  That’s complementary schismogenesis, because each one’s reaction to the other results in increasingly exaggerated forms of the opposing behavior.

“When symmetrical schismogenesis occurs in conversation, speakers usually know perfectly well what is happening.  Both are talking in ways they recognize and understand, although they may be doing more of it than usual.  But complementary schismogenesis can be baffling.  The other person’s ways of speaking make little sense to you, and your own ways of speaking aren’t having the effect you intend, yet you can’t think of any other way to deal with the situation….  These are the conversations that can be maddening, especially when they occur over and over, like a perennially playing tape loop.”

Here’s one of the examples she gives of complementary schismogenesis:  “Consider again the situation in which a mother seeks more closeness and the daughter feels her mother is too intrusive, too needy.  The solution may be paradoxical:  if the mother did not seem to be desperately seeking connection, her daughter might seek more.  If the daughter expressed more concern for her mother’s health, her mother might dwell on it less.  Conversely, if the mother never volunteered information about her health, her daughter might inquire about it.  If the daughter volunteered more information about her own life or asked more about her mother’s, her mother might ask fewer questions, and so on.”

She talks about strategies for keeping complementary schismogenesis from taking over a conversation.  “Simply understanding how it works…is the first step off the merry-go-round (or should we say misery-go-round) that can turn pleasant talk into familiar arguments between mothers and grown daughters.  If you don’t understand what’s driving the conversations that are causing you grief, it’s hard to know how to turn them in a different direction.  It’s easy to blame the other person, and to feel you are reacting in a justified if not inevitable way to an obvious provocation.  But I am continually impressed by women who tell me that once they understand the processes, they begin to see the conversation from the other’s point of view and to realize they have the power to respond differently.  A small change in the way they respond can avoid conflagrations and improve conversations—and consequently relationships—with their daughters or their mothers.”

Many of the relationship books I’ve read lately have stressed that if one person changes something, the relationship will have to change.  Deborah Tannen makes the same point here.  “When we find ourselves having one of our least favorite conversations and feel trapped in it, seeing no way out, it is helpful to remember that if we speak differently than we usually do, the other person will have to react differently, too.  I can’t guarantee that the outcome will always be as satisfying as it was in these examples, but at the very least it will remind us that we have it in our power to change the paths that conversations take.”

She sums up, “I have tried in this book to explain why conversations between mothers and grown daughters can be among the most comforting but also the most hurtful we’ll ever have.  I have tried, too, to show how understanding why this is so, and seeing conversations from the other’s point of view, can minimize the hurt and maximize the healing.  Although what works for one mother-daughter pair may not work for another, there are principles that can provide guidance for all.”

Deborah Tannen has succeeded admirably in this interesting and helpful book.

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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