A few months ago I read You're Wearing That by Deborah Tannen, a famous linguistic professor and researcher. At the time I thought it was kind of long and overly technical in parts and overly anecdotal in other parts. I would probably still say the same thing if we were chatting over coffee about it, but then I would tell you all the things I learned from it.
It's a book that sits with you and makes you think. You read it and then you see it play out in all of your interactions and you think, "Wow, it's so obvious, now that I know what to look for."
Some things I took away:
1. "The double meaning of connection and control"
Tannen talks about how speech that's intended to build connection can also feel like speech that's intended to control. There are messages (the obvious meaning) and metamessages (meaning that is taken from the tone, when, and why something is said) that impact the course of our conversations and these can be very difficult to balance in the mother/daughter relationship.
2. When I was a kid I had the habit of asking my mom to feel my head to check and see if I had a fever. It was an act of caring and connection that I repeated through my teens. Apparently, this is common behavior because women tend to share their "minor misfortunes" with their mothers in order to elicit a "metamessage of caring." I have noticed this in my daughters too.
3. Advice from a mother to a daughter is tricky business. Moms see their daughters as direct reflections of themselves so they think they need to help their daughters be the best they can be. Daughters often take this advice poorly because they think their mother is just criticizing them. The "big three" topics are hair, clothing, and weight and these should be approached very carefully or not at all. If Tannen had to add a fourth, she said it would be "how they raise their children." This list made perfect sense to me as both a daughter and mother.
4. She talked about a "disapproval sandwich" when a woman is "criticized by both their teenage...daughters and their older mothers." This is valid.
5. I loved the chapter when she describes why this book is about women. For women and girls, "talk is the glue that holds a relationship together--and also the explosive that can blow it apart." Tannen goes in detail about the ways boys relate (competition, action) and the ways girls relate (connection, talk).
6. The concept of how, in a group of three, there is often "alignment" between two people and the third is left out really struck me. I could see it actually happen when one of my daughters and my husband and I would talk. It was like only two of us could agree on any given topic. The metamessages, tone, and body language can contribute to the alignment too. This makes a complicated verbal dance into a tight rope walk over hungry alligators. I also saw it with my three daughters: two will align in any given conversation leaving the other out and being left out of connection is really frustrating for girls and women.
7. She gave some strategies for moms with teenage daughters (I have two currently and will eventually have 3 at the same time). When things start to escalate you can stop the conversation. Remind your daughter, "You don't have to like me, but you have to treat me with respect." Using humor is a trick most dads get instinctively, but moms can benefit from it too. Instead of trying to do more of the same while getting bad results we should try taking a left turn to move the conversation in a new direction. #helpful
|This Instagram is from when I was reading this book in the bath to relax after a "heated discussion" with one of my teens. |
These concepts and strategies are still rattling around in my head, helping me better identify healthy and unhealthy communication. I'm no pro, but I'm able to know when to just stop a conversation now, instead of pushing it into an argument.
If I could revise the book I would add a few bullet points at the end of each chapter for easier reference. I might also trim down some of the examples she gives that seem repetitive and I'd definitely reevaluate the chapter on emails and instant messaging...but it was kind of fun to see how far technology has come since 2006.
I'm happy to have read it and feel confident that this book has led me to improved communication with all the women in my life and a deeper understanding of the science behind things I had always taken for granted.