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FEATURES | spring 2006

The Profound Language of Mothers and Daughters

Deborah Tannen’s new book, You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House, 2006), is her latest bestselling dissection of how people communicate—and miscommunicate.

A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Tannen first won acclaim with her book That’s Not What I Meant! (Ballantine Books, 1986), an explanation of how regional, ethnic and cultural differences in our speech can affect our relationships. Next, she tackled communication between the genders in the popular You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (William Morrow & Co., 1990).

Her subsequent works have focused on family relationships in adulthood, and on men’s and women’s differing styles of communication in business. Tannen’s latest looks at the most precious, yet fraught, communication women can have: in the mother-daughter relationship. It is dedicated to Tannen’s own mother, Dorothy who died as the book was being written.

Ms. sent Tennessee Jane Watson to McLean, Va., to talk with Tannen—a friend of Watson’s own mother, the late USA Today editor Nancy Woodhull. Their conversation begins with Tannen recalling how Watson’s mother helped support the linguist’s work.

Deborah Tannen
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgettown University and author of You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House, 2006) Photo: Rebekah A. Meek

Deborah Tannen: Your mother had a carton of my book That’s Not What I Meant! in her office, and gave one to everybody who came in. Did you know that? Then she called me and asked if I could help USA Today write headlines in a way that could appeal to women. I said no, I didn’t want to use my knowledge for commercial purposes— but she kept at it. She invited me to be interviewed for a video about women and news, and I was happy to do that. Then when You Just Don’t Understand was published, I called your mother and told her, “My agent says I have to get publicity.” She said, “Call me tomorrow at 10.” I did, and she rattled off a list of journalists I should send the book to. Every single one did either an essay or a piece for television. She was very generous.

Tennessee Watson : I miss that vibe. I think that growing up around my mom, I expected to find a lot more women like her
who had the desire to network and help each other.

DT: Nancy used to say, “Do something to help another woman every day.” I’ve tried to do that.

TW: I’m interested in your perspective as a feminist: Do you view the idea of mothers and daughters working on their relationships as a feminist cause?

DT: I do. Although my books wouldn’t be called “feminist linguistics,” they are feminist in spirit and purpose. I point out that when styles typical of women and styles typical of men come into contact, women end up in the one-down position. In my new book I show that mothers get dumped on because they’re women—many daughters treat their mothers more callously than they would anyone else, and mothers are often the lightning rod in the storm of family emotions because women are easier targets. Plus, we expect more of mothers than we do of fathers, and more of daughters than of sons.

TW: Can you separate your role as a linguist from your politics?

DT: Not really. My no-fault approach entails explaining and defending women’s ways of speaking, which often are denigrated and devalued. For example, many women tend to make decisions by indicating their preferences indirectly, to avoid direct confrontation. It works fine when everyone shares that style, but Americans associate indirectness with dishonesty. I often say I’m out to make the world safe for indirectness. Here’s another example. Women tend to say “I’m sorry” more than men, and women even put themselves down for it: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I always apologizing?” I point out that they often use “I’m sorry” not as an apology but as an expression of caring: “I’m sorry that happened.” Although I’m writing linguistic theory, not political theory, it helps explain why women are often put down and held down. My book Talking From 9 to 5 shows how women’s styles of speaking often lead to their being seen as less competent and confident than they are. Others have explored the psychology and politics, while the role of language is often overlooked. So that’s what I see as my mission.

TW: Why do you write for a general audience?

DT: I want to help individual people in their lives, which is what feminism is all about. It breaks my heart to hear the depth of people’s suffering. I knew that women get together and complain about how their mothers make them miserable. I didn’t realize that mothers get together to complain about how their daughters make them miserable. One woman told me, “My daughters can turn my day black in a millisecond.” My passion is figuring out why this happens because, one, I am an observer of human behavior at heart, and two, I believe people can really be helped by understanding what’s going on. That’s the most wonderful thing for me, when people say how much my books have helped them. I was inundated with letters in response to You Just Don’t Understand, and now I’m getting emails like that about You’re Wearing THAT?

TW: You don’t pitch a particular approach to dealing with relationships, but you give people the observations they need in order to decide how they want to reshape and change their relationships.

DT: That’s right. Journalists always want me to give tips, to tell people what to do. But tips don’t help because what works with one person won’t work with another. If you understand what’s going on, why people respond as they do, then it’s almost automatic to speak differently in order to get
a different response.

TW: Do academic feminists want more analysis of patriarchy in your books?

DT: Some do. But the majority of academics tell me they find my work useful and applaud my getting the word out beyond the academy.

TW: It doesn’t matter whether or not our conversational styles emerge out of our socialization within patriarchy—isn’t your point just that we communicate differently, for whatever reason, and it’s important to be sensitive to that?

DT: Yes, and it goes beyond that, too. Understanding communication and how it works gives you more options to make changes, not only in personal relationships but in society as well.

TW: It was interesting for me as an activist and a feminist to read your observations of conversations between mothers and daughters, and to understand the unique intensity in those relationships. They are sacred in that respect. But at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the idea that the volatile nature of mother-daughter relationships might be symptomatic of something else in our society.

DT: Absolutely.

TW: I struggle with trying to figure out when women should embrace the volatility and intensity and when we should fight for fundamental changes. As an activist, I think working on our personal relationships is just as important as working on the big-picture issues.

DT: I think of myself as an activist, too. I was there when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I took part in last year’s March for Women’s Lives. I’ve consulted pro bono with politicians. To me, writing books that anyone can read is activist. I also hope people like you will take what I write in whatever direction they want.

TW: I’m always hungry for the action. I always look for the fight.

DT: But now, where is the front line?

TW: I think we need to fight for people to understand that women are not overly emotional, irrational people, but that we have all these different factors and pressures we deal with in our lives.

DT: We ricochet between “For everything good in my life, I have my mother to thank” and “Everything wrong with my life is my mother’s fault.” This tendency to demonize mothers is part of the anti-woman mood of our culture. Putting mothers on a pedestal is part of that, too. So if daughters and mothers understand each other and see that longer view, maybe they can give each other a break. On the other hand, my chapter “A Walk on the Dark Side” could have been even darker. Some mothers do awful, horrible things to their daughters.

TW: Relationships between mothers and daughters seem to be the ultimate example of internalized oppression.

DT: I think you’re right. Certain theorists believe that the family is a microcosm of society. And all the injustices of society get perpetrated through the family.

TW: It makes thinking about, and talking about, relationships between mothers and daughters that much more important, and more feminist, even if there isn’t an explicit feminist message in your book.

DT: But there is an implicit one. Part of the reason the book is getting this overwhelming response is that there was a hunger for it. Here is this relationship that is so fundamental to women’s lives, and yet there isn’t much out there to help women understand the day-to-day conversations and interactions that are causing them pain.

TW: Did writing this book cause you to reflect on the fact you don’t have kids?

DT: No, I never wanted kids so it was never an issue. I know a lot of women who wanted kids and didn’t have them, so they had to come to terms with that. But I never did.

TW: I have this hypothesis that my mom and I would have continued on the same positive trajectory as we started [Nancy Woodhull died of lung cancer at age 52, when Tennessee was just 16], and that if she were still alive our relationship would be a lot different from that of most mothers and daughters. But I don’t have any proof.

DT: You can’t be sure, but probably it would have. And you’re going to find that your relationship with her continues to evolve for the rest of your life.

Tennessee Jane Watson is an audio documentarian at the
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. She is also a
social activist with a particular interest in Latin America, where
she has traveled extensively.