January 31st, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; mother/daughter communication; Deborah Tannen's new book

beckyzoole commented (with links):
"I've recently noticed two articles about Deborah Tannen's new book on the way mothers and daughters communicate, and I wondered what your thoughts were."

The two articles were "Oh, Mom. Oh, Honey. Why Do You Have to Say That?" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/21/AR20
06012100092.html , and a Susan Stamberg comment followed by an excerpt from the book -- titled "You're Wearing That?" -- at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5170927 .

I've read both articles carefully, and (because I haven't yet read the book) was glad to find that one included a sizable excerpt. So far as I can tell from this limited sample, my reaction to You're Wearing That?:  Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation would be the same as my reaction to her previous books for the general public, and is easily stated, as follows: The language behavior of the set of American-English-speaking adult women as I perceive it does not correspond to the language behavior of the set that Professor Tannen writes about. I felt that way about the women she described and discussed in You Just Don't Understand; I still feel that way. The closest I've ever come to one of those women was not in my personal life but in what I saw reported by the mass media about Monica Lewinsky's language behavior; it seemed to me that the things Lewinsky was alleged to have said and written were the sort of things that women in the Tannen books are alleged to say and write. I found them equally astonishing. I do sometimes see women demonstrate that sort of language behavior in tv sitcoms; I assume it's not controversial to say that the language behavior in tv sitcoms ordinarily differs drastically from language behavior in the real world. [And in the spirit of full disclosure I should mention, while I'm here, that the language behavior of the set of adult American-English-speaking men I know doesn't correspond to that portrayed in the Tannen books, either.]

Here are two brief samples -- a quote from the "Oh, Mom. Oh, Honey" article (also written by Tannen), and my summary of a section of the excerpt.

1. From the article:

"This I knew: Because a mother's opinion matters so much, she has enormous power. Her smallest comment -- or no comment at all, just a look -- can fill a daughter with hurt and consequently anger. But this I learned: Mothers, who have spent decades watching out for their children, often persist in commenting because they can't get their adult children to do what is (they believe) obviously right. Where the daughter sees power, the mother feels powerless."

From the excerpt:

[While talking to her husband, Joanna absentmindedly tears at a hangnail and "a tiny droplet of blood appears." She holds out the wounded finger for her husband to see. When all he does is tell her to put a Band-Aid on it, she wonders "why she showed him so insignificant an injury" and then realizes that it's what she would have done if she'd been talking to her mother at the time, and that she could have counted on her mother to react with a sympathetic and caring response. The mother, Tannen explains, "would be responding not to the wound but to Joanna's gesture in showing it to her." ... "The tiny drop of blood is an excuse for Joanna to remind her mother 'I'm here' and for her mother to reassure her daughter 'I care.' "] Professor Tannen goes on to say that "Many women develop the habit of telling their mothers about minor misfortunes because they treasure the metamessage of caring they know they will hear in response, though, like Joanna, they may not notice until they get a different response from someone else."

The excerpt ends with an account of a woman calling home from college to report that she has the flu, getting her father instead of her mother, and ending up "slightly hurt" because his reaction wasn't the sort of sympathetic concern that her mother would have provided.

I have the utmost respect for Tannen; she is a Superstar Linguist and a celebrity, and her books outsell mine many times over. However, the language-world in her books is as unfamiliar to me as the planet Pluto.