Review. You re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Deborah Tannen (2006) Reviewed by Ashley M.

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1 Gender and Language G&L (print) issn G&L (online) issn X Review You re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Deborah Tannen (2006) New York: Ballantine Books, pp. 272 Reviewed by Ashley M. Williams Deborah Tannen, as Michael Billig (2000: 129) noted in his review of her 1998 book The Argument Culture, has a particular knack for writing best-sellers that can outstrip the celebrity biographies, cookery books and sex manuals that dominate the non-fiction book trade. Indeed, Tannen s latest addition to her oeuvre meant for popular consumption, You re Wearing That? a New York Times bestseller, is no different. Focusing on mother-adult daughter conversations and the tensions that can arise from these relationships, Tannen s goal is to help readers understand and overcome these problems. In addressing her readers, assumed to be women, she writes that: our deepest wish is to be understood and approved of by our mothers and daughters. We can get closer to that goal by listening to the ways we talk to each other, and by learning to talk to each other in new ways (p. 32). In privileging mother-daughter relationships, Tannen often mentions that these relationships are like any other, only more so and thus the tensions, disagreements and arguments involved are more intense, personal, and potentially damaging. As in her previous popular works, her evidence of the difficulties in these relationships draws heavily on recorded interactions, anecdotes, focus group discussions, interviews, literature, and more. Tannen also uses examples from her own relationship with her mother throughout, adding a personal and Affiliation American Studies, Department of English, University of Virginia, P.O. Box , Charlottesville, VA , USA G&L vol , equinox publishing doi : /genl.v2i1.123

2 124 Gender and Language poignant note to the book that serves as a memorial to her mother (who passed away during its writing). In Chapter 1 (Can we talk? Mothers and daughters in conversation), Tannen introduces the concepts of message and meta-message (the ignorance of which, as she has argued in her other popular works, leads to misunderstanding) and the power tensions resulting from mothers and daughters needs to have both connection and control. Chapter 2 (My mother, my hair: Caring and criticizing) focuses on what Tannen considers the Big Three, topics that are often the source of contention between mothers and daughters: hair, clothes, and weight. This focus suggests that gender role differences, particularly the importance placed on a woman s appearance, contribute to mother-daughter tensions. Tannen argues a mother who loves her daughter cares about how the daughter is perceived in society. Since society expects a woman to appear in particular ways, a mother criticizes her daughter in an attempt to influence her and ensure that her appearance is acceptable, thus creating tension. In Chapter 3 (Don t shut me out: The importance of being female), Tannen revisits the arguments she put forth in her other popular works, such as You Just Don t Understand (1990) and Talking 9 5 (1994), that women and men have different conversational styles. In particular, she stresses the importance of talk for women ( for girls and women talk is the glue that holds relationships together (p. 63). She argues that women work through relationships and problems with talk, whereas men do not as much. Since mothers and daughters are women in close relationship with each other, they talk more, leading to more problems to talk through. Chapter 4 (She s just like me, she s nothing like me: Where do you end and I begin?) lays out examples of what happens when mothers and daughters negotiate between considering themselves the same as or different than each other and the closeness and distance (both emotional and physical) that can result. Chapter 5 (Stop this conversation, I want to get off), the most intensely conversation analytic chapter, introduces theoretical concepts such as complementary and symmetrical schismogenesis (borrowed from anthropologist Gregory Bateson and applied to individuals) and Goffman s view of alignment to illustrate the tensions and disagreements that can result from mother-daughter conversations. In Chapter 6 (Wanted: Mother a job description), Tannen gives an extensive (although certainly not exhaustive) list of often conflicting responsibilities (including chief adviser, best friend, chief interrogator, and head of the PR department ) mothers have according to the expectations of society, mothers themselves, and their children a reminder of the pressures on mothers to be perfect.

3 Ashley M. Williams 125 Chapter 7 (Best friends, worst enemies: A walk on the dark side) is dedicated to the negative aspects of the mother-daughter relationship. Tannen explains, Although I have tried to avoid the trap of demonizing mothers, I don t want to fall into the trap of romanticizing them either. To do so would be to deny the very real experiences of many women (p. 162). The chapter includes cases of abuse, anger, envy, and competition. Chapter 8 ( Oh Mom BRB : How and instant messaging are changing relationships) discusses how new communication technology can and is changing mother-daughter relationships, mostly for the better, by allowing women to think carefully about how to phrase conversations, to avoid tensions and arguments, and to communicate frequently about daily occurrences, becoming and remaining close, and equalizing the power between them. Finally, Chapter 9 (Blending intimacy and independence: New ways of talking) stresses the importance of balancing the protection and caring of an adult daughter with her desire for freedom and privacy, and of finding ways of talking to demonstrate this balance. Despite Tannen s careful use of language in order to avoid sweeping generalizations ( many women, more often, may, sometimes ), a reader could easily overgeneralize, and perhaps become confused. This gets particularly tricky in Tannen s characterization of mothers and daughters conversational styles as being similar and yet different. Their conversational styles are similar in that mothers and daughters, as women, use language in similar ways. At the same time, Tannen considers their conversational styles to be different because mothers and daughters belong to two different generations, and thus two different cultures, leading them to use language differently. Compounding this is the needed acknowledgement of different individual conversation styles. In balancing these seeming contradictions, Tannen writes: though all relationships between mothers and daughters share many characteristics each relationship is unique, so no easy solutions will work for all, as daughters and mothers try to find the amount of connection that feels right (p. 243). Tannen particularly stresses that both mothers and daughters should change by being aware of their own and others conversational styles, and of the importance of message versus meta-message in conversation. Tannen s chapter on modern communication technology has an especially fresh approach, going beyond the typical complaints in popular media about how modern technology is detrimental to the written language, and instead suggesting that new technologies can help to alleviate and even avoid conversational tensions. The suggested solution that I found most odd, even troubling, however, was the following:

4 126 Gender and Language rather than just sitting and talking, [mothers and daughters should] do something together. In other words, women can learn from men, for whom friendship is more often built on doing things together than on talking to each other, just as men can benefit from adopting some of women s ways of creating close relationships by talking more (p. 239). While this suggestion is different than the blanket claim that women simply talk more than men, and while studies have suggested that women rely on talk to build relationships while men do not, I still worry it treads dangerously close to the language myth that women talk too much (Holmes 1998). And although Tannen does cite the benefit of each gender learning from the other s relationship style, it seems unlikely that men will be reading a book that obviously targets women (and I m not sure that relationship troubles can necessarily be alleviated by shopping, as Tannen suggests soon after). Another limitation is that, as Tannen mentions in the introduction to the paperback edition of the book, her examples are mainly from middle class Americans. However, Tannen writes that she draws on examples from several ethnic groups from middle class America. These are not flagged as such in the text, perhaps to emphasize their universality. Additionally, she gives a few examples from countries other than the U.S. (e.g. Sweden and Oman), languages other than English (e.g. Spanish and Yiddish), and even a case or two (perhaps token) of lesbian mothers. Indeed, in her introduction to the paperback edition she mentions receiving and comments from women in other countries and other cultures with similar mother-daughter experiences and problems as those outlined in the book, suggesting that the tensions and solutions discussed are not restricted to middle class America. Still, the book is written from a middle class American perspective, with middle class American assumptions (perhaps including the idea that mothers and daughters should be best friends in the first place), and clearly targeting an audience of middle class American women. Despite these limitations, Tannen has once again succeeded in writing a popular book that resonates with her readers. As Tannen writes in her introduction to the paperback edition, many women who read this easily relate to the examples given, and Tannen cites the relief many feel that they are not alone in having conversational breakdowns and difficult relationships with their mothers or daughters. Tannen should be commended for educating the public, and more linguists should join her and the few others who have attempted to link linguistic research to people s everyday lives. Still more remains to be done to increase public awareness of the power of language ideology and myths targeting women s language use.

5 Ashley M. Williams 127 References Billig, Michael (2000) Review of The Argument Culture: Changing the Way We Argue and Debate. Journal of Sociolinguistics 4(1): Holmes, Janet (1998) Women talk too much. In Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (eds) Language Myths London: Penguin. Tannen, Deborah (1990) You Just Don t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Morrow. Tannen, Deborah (1994) Talking 9 5: How Women s and Men s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work. New York: Morrow. Tannen, Deborah (1998) The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Discourse. New York: Random House.

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