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Birds & Bees

Finding Words to Keep Family on Speaking Terms


Why do grown women often feel criticized by their mothers, while mothers feel they cannot utter a word to their daughters? Why does a wife feel attacked when her husband asks her to keep the drain open in the sink? Why is it so hard to get an apology from a family member? Why do adult children still compete for their parents' love?

Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen takes on these questions and the workings of family conversational styles in her latest book, "I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partners, Sibs, and Kids When You're All Adults" (Random House, 2002). Tannen, author of the bestselling "You Just Don't Understand ... ," which explored the mechanisms of gender differences in conversation, spoke at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Los Angeles on Wednesday. About 80 people ignored the final NBA championship series game to hear her.

"The family is the source of our greatest comfort but also our greatest pain," said Tannen, who used taped conversations of families with adult children living at home that were logged and then analyzed for the purposes of her two-year study. "Instead of intimate allies, sometimes we find the intimate critic. We often accuse people of making power plays in conversation but we are far less likely to think of a comment as [an attempt at] connection." All conversations, writes Tannen, are driven by the forces of connection and control, intertwined and often conflicting elements woven through much of family conversation. "We use talk to get closer to each other or to put distance between us," she writes, and the words people choose help to gain dominance or show respect.

"Any close relationship is a delicate blend of connection and control," Tannen said by phone a day after her Los Angeles event. (She was already in Seattle for her tour.) "But connection and control are expressed in the same words. When a mother says to her daughter: 'Those pants don't flatter you' she is thinking 'connection': 'I love you, I say this because I care about you and want to help.' But the [adult] daughter will think her mother is trying to control her and her appearance." Or criticize her. The modus operandi "I care, therefore I criticize" is at work in some families, Tannen writes. The person offering "suggestions or judgments" often does so in the spirit of caring. But the person being asked or told to do something differently hears, with what he or she believes is utter clarity, a criticism.

Tannen writes about a young woman from Thailand who recalled that her mother would end talks with her daughter with this justification: "I have to complain about you because I am your mother and I love you. Nobody else will talk to you the way I do because they don't care." Emotions are the currency of family relationships, Tannen writes. But the key to plumbing the source of hurt and conflict in a remark is separating the messages from the "metamessages." The message is the literal meaning of the words, which two people usually can agree upon. ("Can you take out the trash?" is not, for example, up for interpretation.) But the metamessage is the implied meaning embedded in the context, tone of voice, how it plays in the history of the relationship and the fact that it is said at all. Metamessages are the "heart meaning," laden with emotions that trigger people's intense reactions.

About a year ago, Tannen and her older sister took their 93-year-old father and their mother, 90, to an elegant restaurant. Their father's filet mignon was tough and Tannen could see he couldn't chew it. "You don't have to eat it," Tannen yelled, because of his hearing impairment and because she was sitting some distance away. "We can send it back." After a few rounds of this, Tannen's sister snapped: "I can't stand it. You are driving me crazy. Leave him alone." Tannen was angry and hurt that her sister yelled at her in a nice restaurant. "I was fuming for about a day," she said. "All I wanted her to do was say she was sorry and admit some blame. A day later, we talked and she kept justifying why she had snapped. She kept going on and on about why I was bothering her. Once I said, 'I can understand why you felt annoyed,' and told her that I loved her and felt [her behavior] was a temporary lapse and that it hadn't made me forget how wonderful she was, she apologized."

That conversation drove the other to exaggerated forms of antagonistic behavior. This can happen especially when one person is fixated on extracting an apology and the other is equally adamant about not apologizing. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called this "mutually aggravating spiral" complementary schismogenesis, writes Tannen. (A schism is a split, and genesis is creation).

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