Solving the Mystery of Mother-Daughter Speak In her 1990 best-selling book, You Just Don't Understand, linguist Deborah Tannen argued that men and women speak different languages. Now she's taking on the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Solving the Mystery of Mother-Daughter Speak

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For those more interested in reading, we turn now to linguist, Deborah Tannen. In her 1990 best selling book You Just Don't Understand, she argued that men and women speak different languages. In her new book, Professor Tannen takes on the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.


The title of Deborah Tannen's book alone tells the story. It's called, You're Wearing That? The subtitle is, Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Tannen says the mother/daughter connection is the most intimate, complex, loaded relationship we have. Why?

Professor DEBORAH TANNEN (Author and Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.): Mothers and daughters are both women. They talk a lot. Talk is the glue that holds a relationship together, for women and girls more than for men and boys so the mother and daughter will spend more time talking and talk about more personal things. If you talk more, it also makes you closer, but it can be like making your way through a mine field, because the topics are so personal, it's easy to step on each other's toes, to say the wrong thing.

STAMBERG: I think we need Deborah Tannen to establish a few of your bona fides before we go any further. You are a daughter. You are not a mother. You are a linguist. You are not a psychologist, a psychotherapist, a counselor. So, although you do provide a few helpful ideas, this is not an advice book, and you're not going to solve every single problem that exists, and there are several.

Prof. TANNEN: Yeah. People tell me it's so wonderful to know I'm not alone. I hear the conversations that I had with my mother, and I'm so glad we're not the only ones. But I always try to get at the relationships through the conversations.

STAMBERG: Okay, so let's get to the title. You're Wearing That? And there's no daughter under the stars who hasn't heard that from a mother. So, what's encoded in that simple question?

Prof. TANNEN: For me, You're wearing that? focuses on one of what I call the big three. Mothers tend to scrutinize their daughters for clothing, hair, and weight. And I'll give you an example from my own mother. I went to visit her and she said, do you like your hair that long? And I laughed. My mother said, I'm not criticizing. Well, I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I let it drop. And then a little bit later, I said, mom, what do you think of my hair? Without missing a beat she said, I think it's a little too long.

STAMBERG: Yes, but this is so motherly. She turns it to you as a question, better than the aggressive, cut your hair.

Prof. TANNEN: Caring and criticizing are bought with the same coinage. Who else would care whether your hair is in your eyes, whether your skirt is a little too long or a little too short? On the other hand, when she's looking at the details over and over, it feels like she's scrutinizing you, like she's picking on you.

STAMBERG: Here's another example that I've copied out of the book of this sort of misunderstood exchange. This is not about how you look, it's about something else. And why don't you be the daughter, and I'll be the mother?

Prof. TANNEN: (Reading) I'm so worked up about the election. I can't stop talking about it. I've been volunteering to call voters in the swing states. I'm actually thinking of going down for a week to help get out the vote.

STAMBERG: (Reading) And the mother says, I love hearing you so passionate about something. Pauses a few beats, and then the mother says, you've been in such a funk lately, I can't remember the last time I've seen you excited about anything. I'm so happy!

STAMBERG: So what happened right there?

Prof. TANNEN: Okay, the daughter was sharing something positive. The mother first gives her praise, and then goes on to compare the present good state with a previous bad state, and that's what the daughter zeroes in on, and this is how she reacted.

Prof. TANNEN: (Reading) I can't believe you said that. Who cares if you're happy or not, this isn't about you. I should have known I can't tell you anything.

STAMBERG: Oh, golly.

Prof. TANNEN: It feels familiar, doesn't it? I think the daughter zeroed in on, this isn't about you, because she doesn't have the words to focus on the aspect of it that really hurt her, which is, you're reminding me of something negative. Often, mothers have to learn to just praise and stop there.

STAMBERG: To say, how wonderful you look. Oh, I love the way you did that. Gee, that was just terrific. And then be quiet.

Prof. TANNEN: And then leave it, and don't go back. For example, as one mother said, I'm so glad you're not wearing your hair in that frumpy way anymore.

STAMBERG: But Deborah Tannen, here's the problem at the heart of all of this. You are demanding that all of us be grownups most of the time, and somewhere, on some level, we're always children.

Prof. TANNEN: All of us have the experience, when we're with our mothers, we're 12-years-old again. And that can be both positive and negative. The positive is, we feel somebody is taking care of us in that way. I'll tell you, one of the most touching things that happened with my mother, because, toward the end of her life, as I was writing this book, she was nearing the end of her life, she was quite weak.

But I was visiting, and I had taken a nap on the couch, and I felt a kind of a rustle at my feet, and I saw that my mother had come in with her cane on one hand, and a blanket that she had carried in the other hand. And still, with her cane, she was, with the other hand, adjusting the blanket at my feet. It is such a precious memory, because she was still taking care of me, and still being protective, and I think that is often the wonderful thing about the mother/daughter relationship.

So, if we can hold onto that, and try to be a bit indulgent of the side of it that can seem encroaching, we can expand what's precious about the relationship, and be careful with the part that's perilous.

STAMBERG: Deborah Tannen is University Professor at Georgetown University. Her new book is called You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


And you can read, Can We Talk, the first chapter of Deborah Tannen's book, at

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