The Struggle Between Mothers and Daughters

Language guru Deborah Tannen explores the turbulent terrain of the mother-daughter relationship.

June 29, 2006  |  Daughters, do you feel that your mother is always criticizing you? Mothers, do you feel that your daughter shuts you out? Do you habitually bicker with each other, yet long for approval and understanding? In her newest book, “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters In Conversation,” linguist Deborah Tannen untangles the knots that daughters and mothers tend to get tied up in.

Tannen’s bestseller, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” brought gender difference in communication style to public awareness. A later book, “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War on Words,” explored why America seems to make everything a battle, a debate, or a war — and what that costs us as a society.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: In the new book, “You’re Wearing That?” you mention that you would often ask yourself, “Would my mother understand this? Read this? Appreciate this?”

DEBORAH TANNEN: My father would read my academic articles. My mother would be impressed, maybe, but she wouldn’t read that kind of thing. So I wanted to write things she could read and talk in a way that people like her would be interested in hearing.

MCNALLY: “You’re Wearing That?” grew out of a previous book, didn’t it?

TANNEN: My previous book, “I Only Say This Because I Love You,” was about adult family relationships. The reactions I got — in frequency, but also in passion — disproportionately focused on the mother/daughter relationship. In fact, many people told me they heard the title in their mother’s voice.

It kind of captures one of the central conundrums of that relationship. Mothers see their job as being helpful, taking care of us, being protective, but anything you do in that vein always implies criticism. If you weren’t doing something wrong, you wouldn’t need that advice, help or protection.

MCNALLY: Women tend to communicate about personal things more than men. A father may feel that his role is to protect and to care for, but he’s unlikely to do it as much in conversation. With a mother and a daughter, “You’re wearing that?” can almost never be heard as a neutral question, can it?

TANNEN: I talk about the big three — hair, clothes and weight. “You’re wearing that?” could stand for any comment about appearance. And it’s daughters turning that same critical eye on their mothers. Women are judged by appearance, and mothers and daughters feel that the other represents us to the world. Mothers, in particular, do get blamed if their daughters appear unacceptable in some way.

MCNALLY: But it’s not just about the Big Three. The same phenomenon occurs with life choices, career choices, relationship choices. Often these two adults are speaking out of their first relationship as a child and a parent, aren’t they?

TANNEN: It’s about much bigger things — how you raise your children becomes very loaded. Your choice of partners, lifestyle, all those things. Also tiny things. I cite one conversation where a daughter was making a salad and her mother said, “You’re gonna quarter those tomatoes?”

The daughter answered, “Something wrong with that?”

Mom: “Oh no, no, no. It’s just that, personally, I’d slice them.”

And the daughter’s thinking, “Can’t I do anything without my mother telling me to do it another way?”

We think we’re having a perfectly lovely conversation and then, suddenly, somebody says something and feelings are hurt. When your feelings are hurt, you react and then the other person’s feelings are hurt. Each one thinks the other introduced the note of contention into the conversation. No matter now old we are, we want to feel that our mothers think we’re great, maybe even perfect — even though nobody’s perfect.

And daughters are the only ones who can give their mothers the final stamp of approval that she was a good mother, which all mothers worry about.

MCNALLY: Your own mother died during the writing of this book. You write that you spent more and more time with her as she grew weaker. How did that experience influence the process of writing the book, if not the content?

TANNEN: I actually did the major writing after she’d died, when I think my emotions were much closer to the surface. The importance of that relationship was so present and real to me. I think it enhanced the book.

I would almost say I was at war with my mother, except I don’t want to use a war metaphor. We struggled when I was younger. I put quite a few examples in the book where she talked in ways that I was critical of.

But when I put an example in a book, I always have to show both speakers’ points of view. It forced me to look at conversations as my mother might have looked at them. It helped me understand her motives and took away some of the resentment and anger that I’d felt at the time.

MCNALLY: You say that the experience of caring for your mother toward the end transformed your relationship. My guess is that the writing of the book transformed your understanding of the relationship.

TANNEN: That’s a good way to put it. As our mothers age, and we do a lot of physical caretaking, many of us come to look at our mothers in a new way. Taking care of another person in that basic way fills you with a kind of love that I don’t think you feel in other context. I think it’s quite a bit like what mothers feel taking care of young children.

Writing the book “You Just Don’t Understand,” I noticed that women and men often walk away from a conversation having focused on different elements. Whenever we talk to each other, we’re negotiating how close or distant we want to be, as well as who has more power.

Women seem to focus more on the constant question, “Are we close or are we distant?” When I talk to women about their mothers and daughters, almost in the first sentence, every single one tells me, “We’re close,” or “We’re not close,” or “I want to be closer than I am, or closer than I was to my own mother.”

I think that physical closeness is one of the things that makes the relationship so rewarding. We have to keep in mind these are the best conversations, as well as the worst.

MCNALLY: I want to turn to an earlier book. Most of your work is about one-to-one communication, but “The Argument Culture” looks at the whole of society. You wrote:

“The argument culture rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done. The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate. The best way to cover news is to find people who express the most extreme views and present them as both sides. The best way to begin an essay — you point out how this is perpetuated in academia — is to attack someone or someone’s idea. The best way to show you’re really thoughtful is to criticize. The best way to settle disputes is to litigate them.”

What has come to you over the years about this?

TANNEN: I had delusions of grandeur that things would actually change because I wrote that book. It got quite a bit of attention from journalists, not all of whom were happy with what I call “agonism,” using a war-like approach. They don’t really see a way out.

It seems so self-evident at first blush to Americans: “Oh, of course, let’s debate. That’s the best way to learn something.” But it’s not the best way to bring out nuances or complexities. Often people who don’t have extreme views feel left out of the conversation.

The audience on cable for shows like “Cross Talk” is actually pretty small — political junkies. But the majority of people quickly get turned off because of all the yelling, and because the information is so confusing.

Global warming is a perfect example because producers think that they must always have two sides. Even print journalists feel you should always present the other side. Right after they tell you about the scientists who believe global warming is a significant problem, they quote others who say it’s not. You don’t see that the dissenters are a tiny minority, often funded by the fossil fuel industry. Too often people end up thinking, “Who knows what the truth is?”

MCNALLY: It works in other ways too. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, too few Democrats were willing to take a strong opposition position because they were afraid of how that might be perceived. So journalists only reported the pro-war side.

TANNEN: I think you’re right about that, but sometimes the Democrats say something that doesn’t get reported because it’s not punched up. It’s thoughtful, or nuanced, or complex. Politicians catch on quickly that if they want to get on the evening news, they’d better insult somebody.

MCNALLY: You also point out that extreme positions are less likely to lead to solutions or to learning. When I moderate panels, I say to the panelists, “I don’t want you to just repeat what you already know. I want everyone — even the panel — to learn something new today.”

TANNEN: When you have a debate format, you can’t acknowledge when your opponent comes up with a good idea. You can’t bring forth any ideas that might support the other view rather than your own. So all kinds of information gets suppressed. The goal is to win the argument.

We see this in classrooms too. If you ask, “What do you see wrong with the article you read?” you’ll get certain kinds of information. But other kinds of information may not come out, like how this relates to other things we’ve read, or what we should know about the background of this approach. There are so many nuances, so many ways of integrating ideas other than fighting over them.

MCNALLY: I’ve noticed folks in the Bush administration often use the technique of the “straw man” in order to have an argument even when the other side isn’t even there.

To defend illegal wiretapping, Bush will say, “There are some who believe that we shouldn’t investigate terrorist organizations.” Or about Iraq, “There are those who believe we should just get out tomorrow.” These people, who aren’t named and don’t necessarily even exist, basically embody the argument 180 degrees from his position. He pretends that the only choice is between those two extremes.

TANNEN: Worthless information can get out there, masquerading as the other side of a debate. Holocaust deniers have had more success in the United States than anywhere else because they masquerade as the other side.

Deborah Lipstat wrote a book about deniers, and TV producers wanted to invite the deniers to debate her. Of course, this would give them a national forum that they shouldn’t have because there’s nothing to debate.

MCNALLY: You quote John Dewey, “Democracy begins in conversation.”

In this debate format, most people find themselves going to one side or the other. Yet it’s likely that any solution that’s going to work in Iraq, or with Social Security or health care or global warming, is going to be some better-fashioned new idea that is neither A nor B.

TANNEN: Another part of the problem is the 24-hour news cycle. Nobody really has enough time to put together the shows or write the articles. They’re all running to stay in place. It’s very easy to put on a show by getting two people to fight with each other. There’s a fear that you might lose the audience if you don’t keep it at that level.

MCNALLY: The journalist or the producer has to do very little research.

TANNEN: It’s easy and you don’t have to think too much. Cross-cultural contrasts are often interesting. I had a student who studied talk shows in Japan, and she found that it was quite unusual for a show to have two experts. They would have one or they would have more than two. In fact, one that she studied had 13.

Can you imagine that in the United States? Having two makes it tempting, first of all, to put the extreme views in those two slots, and also for the two to stake out opposing positions. Of course, that’s a war metaphor — staking out positions.

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