“I Only Say This Because I Love You” by Deborah Tannen

The author of "You Just Don't Understand" turns her eagle eye on the stinging, maddening, sneaky ways that family members communicate.

Topics: Books,

Deborah Tannen is the professor of linguistics who gave a scientific imprimatur to the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” idea in the bestselling “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” Since then, she’s tackled the world of business-speak in “Talking From 9 to 5″ and taken a shot at our overly confrontational public conversational style in “The Argument Culture.” In her new book, “I Only Say This Because I Love You,” Tannen returns to her bread and butter: how people talk to each other in their intimate relationships. This time, she’s concerned with how families, especially parents and their adult children, communicate — or, more often, fail miserably to communicate, leaving battle scars where comforting bonds should be.

How to get along with the family is a problem that has launched countless blueprint-for-life self-help franchises. Like most of Tannen’s books, this one is clearly aimed at that market — it’s got a strong whiff of the cheery, studiously inoffensive, bullet-pointed formula about it. But that doesn’t mean that the wisdom in it is banal.

Tannen’s conclusions are based on carefully gathered empirical evidence and sound linguistic principles — and lest we forget that she’s not some self-appointed expert, she lets us see bits of her transcriptions and analyses of thousands of hours of tape-recorded conversations, showing us her painstaking method at work. And while Tannen will never be celebrated for elevating the self-help genre to something approaching the literary — check out Peter Kramer’s improbably elegant “Should You Leave?” if you don’t think that can be done — she does succeed in passing on some impressive, eminently useful insights into the kinds of wounds, dilemmas and impasses that have kept novelists in business for centuries.

So what if you have to wade through some painfully predictable metaphors (the family is a “pressure cooker in which relationships roil”; “the seeds of family love” sometimes “yield a harvest of criticism and judgment”) to get to the point. And so what if the names she invents to protect the identity of her study subjects tend toward the fossilized: Dick, Sally, Betty. Tannen’s central idea, and the way the book illustrates it in action, are worth it: When we talk to people close to us, we give and receive not only “messages,” the literal meaning of whatever words are spoken, but also “metamessages,” which communicate to us something about the relationship between the two speakers. That’s where we get into trouble when we talk to family members.

The book’s title captures a classic example of these dual levels at work: A mother who precedes a statement to her grown daughter with “I only say this because I love you” is getting ready to say something that the daughter will interpret as intrusive and critical, but that the mother will see as an attempt to help. Tannen quotes one women who says that whenever she hears that phrase from her own mother, “I know she’s going to tell me I’m fat.”

The mother thinks she’s expressing love and concern for her daughter’s health or well-being, but the daughter hears something more like “There’s something wrong with you.” The same goes for statements disguised as questions, such as “Do you really need another piece of cake?” or “Did you notice they also have salmon?” — asked by a wife who claims she’s “just watching out for” her husband. Many examples of weighted phrases Tannen points out are so automatic that we probably don’t even hear ourselves saying them. A seemingly innocent “I’m counting on you,” for example, sends the message that the request needs special reinforcement because the person being asked to pitch in cannot really be trusted.

Families are inherently hierarchical, and family members’ pecking order inevitably turns these seemingly innocuous messages into fightin’ words. Tannen calls this the “control continuum”: Equality among all family members is an ideal that can never be reached, and family members use their positions to jostle for the right to make demands and have them met. A woman in her late 20s is preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her family. As she gets together the ingredients, her mother asks, “Oh, you put onions in the stuffing?” The daughter explodes, accusing her mother of criticizing everything she does. The mother retorts, “I just asked a question. What’s got into you? I can’t even open my mouth.”

Who’s right? Well, both. The daughter is overreacting to a small comment, but the mother did imply a lack of confidence in the daughter’s ability to handle the dinner — as the person higher up in the hierarchy, the mother’s words carry extra weight. Most children want approval from parents, no matter how old they are. Tannen’s advice to parents is to accept that they have to act to some degree “like guests” in their adult children’s homes, but that they should think of that not as stifling themselves but as “acknowledging the special power you have as parents and choosing to wield it with discretion.”

Alongside the “control continuum” is the “connection continuum.” Family members have to figure out the right balance between closeness and distance –feeling “protected and safe” but not “overwhelmed and suffocated.” The two continuums frequently overlap, which is what makes it hard to decipher all the metamessages at play in a conversation. Often, what you may think is a gesture of connection (“Wait, I want to come with you, but I won’t be ready for half an hour”) can come across to the other person as a power move (“You may be eager to get going, but I’m going to make you wait”).

As in all of Tannen’s books, there are a lot of pointers in “I Only Say This” that sound like they could, if followed, actually help people get along better. “Pay attention to metamessages” is Tannen’s main piece of advice, and whenever possible “metacommunicate”: Be as explicit as possible about what you want to communicate to the other person. (What Tannen doesn’t acknowledge is that that requires knowing exactly what you want from other people, which is another skill entirely.) Don’t say “I’m counting on you,” say “I’m not completely confident that you’ll do it,” and the ensuing conversation will have a whole different tenor.

And keep in mind that “living together means coordinating so many tasks that it’s inevitable that family members will have different ideas about how to perform those tasks.” If you think your way is better, don’t have an argument, make an argument — string together coherent thoughts that attempt to bring the other person around to your point of view. But realize that the person may simply not care about the same things you do, and you may have to let some things go. In general, the book’s many examples suggest that those hostility-tinged rhetorical questions that don’t really allow for a dignified answer — “What are you, crazy?” “So I’m just like a stranger to you, then?” “What did I just say?” — are always a bad idea and should be purged immediately from your repertoire.

Tannen is also big on apologizing, which, she concedes, is something women care deeply about but men tend to strenuously avoid. Just do it, she says, in a chapter cleverly titled “I’m Sorry, I’m Not Apologizing.” She doesn’t subscribe to the view that women apologize too much, thereby conveying a lack of self-confidence. She thinks that apologies “work their magic in myriad ways,” including getting the person you’re apologizing to to admit his own fault.

There are also ways to get the same effect without the ritual humiliation that men seem to think an apology entails. Focusing on the effect of the action rather than on the intention — “I’m sorry it turned out that way” rather than “I’m sorry for what I did” — can be one solution. (It did seem to work when the U.S. tried it during the recent spy plane impasse with China: “I’m sorry for the death of the pilot” — though that seemed a bit weaselly, too). She also suggests explaining rather than excusing your actions: “An excuse is an explanation that implies you didn’t do anything wrong; because you had a good reason, it wasn’t your fault, or someone else made you do it. But an explanation that does not evade responsibility can be an effective element of a good apology.”

Every once in a while Tannen dips her toe into some deeper philosophical waters, as when she concludes the book with Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset’s idea of “exuberance” and “deficiency”: Everything we say is exuberant in that it conveys even more than we could have consciously planned to put there. Yet it’s also deficient in that there’s so much we yearn to say to other people that we never can. It’s especially true, and especially poignant, when it comes to the people in our families. One seemingly modest but potentially life-changing gift we can give them, then, is to try out Tannen’s style of careful, good-humored attention to the ways talking connects us.

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>