“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.

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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.

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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.

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