May 1, 2006

Mothers and daughters are separated by discord over clothes, weight and hair, says linguist Deborah Tannen

When people ask author and linguist Deborah Tannen, What is it about mothers and daughters and why do they have so many problems, especially since they are both women, the answer she gives them is, "Because they're both women."

Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, presented a public lecture on gender communication, "Can We Talk: Women and Men, Mothers and Daughters," in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium of Goldwin Smith Hall, April 20. She is also the author of The New York Times best seller "You're Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation," and the event, hosted by Cornell's chapter of the Mortar Board National Senior College Honor Society, included a book signing.

Published in January, Tannen's book tackles the complicated and intense relationship between mothers and daughters. As the title suggests, clothing is one of the three biggest things that countless mothers and daughters critique, the others being hair and weight, Tannen said. The major complaint that she hears most often from daughters is, "My mother is always criticizing me." The corresponding complaint from mothers is, "I can't open my mouth. She takes everything as criticism." Both are right, says Tannen, but each sees only her own perspective.

The content of the book stems not only from anecdotes but also from five years of research in which Tannen listened to and analyzed taped conversations between mothers and daughters.

Tannen explained that there is an ongoing search for the right balance of closeness and distance, which occurs in every relationship, but the struggle is especially intense between mothers and daughters. A lot of her friends say that their mothers or their daughters are their best friends, pointed out Tannen, but they are still mothers and daughters. And, something that can have one meaning to a friend can have a different meaning to a mother or daughter.

Tannen began her linguistics career as a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley, where her thesis was "Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends." The thesis (later a book) was an elaborate analysis of a taped discussion at a 1978 Thanksgiving dinner that compared New York Jewish conversational style with California, non-Jewish conversational style.

But Tannen wanted to write a book that her mother could read, which led her to write "That's Not What I Meant," which presented the idea of conversation styles to a general audience. A chapter on gender received much attention and spearheaded the writing of Tannen's most widely acclaimed best seller, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." That book focused on communication (or lack of it) between men and women. Translated into 29 languages, it appeared on best-seller lists from 1990 through 1994.

Graduate student Sandra Holley is a writer intern at the Cornell News Service.