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'You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation'

I'm Nancy Beardsley, filling in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster we'll talk about communication -- and miscommunication -- between mothers and daughters.

Our guest is Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor who writes best selling books about how conversation styles affect relationships. She's written about dialogues among men and women, adult family members, friends and co-workers. Her latest book is called "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

Ms. Tannen says mother-daughter relationships are like other close bonds-but even more intense:

DEBORAH TANNEN: "In every relationship you have to balance how close or distant you want to be, but girls in particular are very focused on that closeness-distance dimension, as well as the sameness and difference. (They are) always asking, are we the same, or are we different? What I see in you, what does that say about me?

"And talk is the glue that holds the relationship together for girls and women, and less so for boys and men. So mothers and daughters talk more. They talk about more personal topics, which gives you more of an opportunity to say the wrong thing."

NB: "And in fact you found that a mother with more than one daughter is more likely to have flare-ups with the daughter she talks to more?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "Yes. The closer you are, the more opportunity to step on each other's toes. And women are much more focused often on appearance, and that's where you get what I call 'the big three,' and that's clothing, hair and weight, where daughters feel their mothers are criticizing, and mothers feel, 'I can't open my mouth. She takes everything as criticism.'

"And the caring and the criticizing really are communicated in the same words. So if the mother says, 'Do you like your hair that long?' or if she says, 'Do you think that skirt really fits you?' the daughter is going to hear it as criticism. In the first case, 'Your hair doesn't look good.' In the second, 'You're putting on weight.'"

NB: "And you talk about the way messages and metamessages work in mother-daughter communication. Would you explain what that means?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "The message is the meaning of the words, and we always agree on that if we speak the language, but the metamessage is what we think it says about our relationship that you say these words in this way at this time. Often between mothers and daughters, you're having a conversation that seems like an amiable chat, and then suddenly somebody says something and everybody's back is up.

"So when the mother says to the daughter about the granddaughter, 'She would look so pretty if she would comb her hair,' the metamessage the daughter hears is--first of all, she may be reminded her mother was always at her to brush her hair when she was a child, which reminds her that her mother didn't really approve of her because she was kind of a tomboy.

"And then there's the level that her parenting is being criticized. So she might snap something like, 'She's perfectly fine, Mom, leave her alone.' Now who introduced that note of contention? The daughter thinks the mother did by criticizing the grandchild's hair. But the mother thinks she may have made an innocent comment, and the daughter has changed it.

NB: "Given the years that shape these messages and their interpretation, how can mothers and daughters change the way they communicate to avoid some of these misunderstandings?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "Both need to recognize that caring and communicating are in the same words, so mothers can try to bite their tongues. One mother said her mantra is 'Don't advise, don't criticize.' But daughters can remind themselves that it really is a sign of love, and you're probably going to miss it when your mother is gone.

"Humor is very helpful. One family said, one time the mother was giving a recipe and she was so detailed the daughter said, 'You know, I think I know you should sift the flour without your telling me,' so whenever she feels her mother is giving her too much advice she says, 'It's like the cake recipe, Mom.' And then they laugh, because it's something they share, and that in itself makes them feel connected."

NB: "Did you find any differences among ethnic groups in the way mothers and daughters communicate?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "I did interview African Americans, Asian American women and white women of all backgrounds. And no, I didn't find that much difference. A woman wrote to me who grew up in Guyana. And she said her mother said to her word for word the title of my book 'you're wearing that?' in Guyanese the night before a party. And even though she thought the dress was fine, when her mother said that, she stayed up all night and made a new dress. So it does seem to be quite universal. I'm sure there are some levels of difference, but I found many fewer than I expected."

NB: Deborah Tannen, thank you very much. Ms. Tannen is the author of "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and you can find all of our segments posted at

Filling in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, I'm Nancy Beardsley.