Language Behind the Love; When Mother Daughter Chat Is Fraught

Article excerpt

Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …