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Metamessages in Family Talk

Excerpted from I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults
By Deborah Tannen

Why does talk in families so often go in circles, leaving us tied up in knots? In this illuminating book, Deborah Tannen, the linguist and and bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand and many other books, reveals why talking to family members is so often painful and problematic even when we’re all adults. Searching for signs of acceptance and belonging, we find signs of disapproval and rejection. Why do the seeds of family love so often yield a harvest of criticism and judgment? In I Only Say This Because I Love You, Tannen shows how important it is, in family talk, to learn to separate word meanings, or messages, from heart meanings, or metamessages – unstated but powerful meanings that come from the history of our relationships and the way things are said. Presenting real conversations from people’s lives, Tannen reveals what is actually going on in family talk, including how family conversations must balance the longing for connection with the desire for control, as we struggle to be close without giving up our freedom.

This eye-opening book explains why grown women so often feel criticized by their mothers; and why mothers feel they can’t open their mouths around their grown daughters; why growing up male or female, or as an older or younger sibling, results in different experiences of family that persist throughout our lives; and much, much more. By helping us to understand and redefine family talk, Tannen provides the tools to improve relationships with family members of every age.

Chapter 1
I Can’t Even Open My Mouth

“Do you really need another piece of cake?” Donna asks George.

“You bet I do,” he replies, with that edge to his voice that implies, “If I wasn’t sure I needed it before, I am darned sure now.”

Donna feels hamstrung. She knows that George is going to say later that he wished he hadn’t had that second piece of cake.

“Why are you always watching what I eat?” George asks.

“I was just watching out for you,” Donna replies. “I only say it because I love you.”

Elizabeth, in her late twenties, is happy to be making Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family in her own home. Her mother, who is visiting, is helping out in the kitchen. As Elizabeth prepares the stuffing for the turkey, her mother remarks, “Oh, you put onions in the stuffing?”

Feeling suddenly as if she were sixteen years old again, Elizabeth turns on her mother and says, “I’m making the stuffing, Mom. Why do you have to criticize everything I do?”

“I didn’t criticize,” her mother replies. “I just asked a question. What’s got into you? I can’t even open my mouth.”

The allure of family – which is, at heart, the allure of love – is to have someone who knows you so well that you don’t have to explain yourself. It is the promise of someone who cares enough about you to protect you against the world of strangers who do not wish you well. Yet, by an odd and cruel twist, it is the family itself that often causes pain. Those we love are looking at us so close-up that they see all our blemishes-see them as if through a magnifying glass. Family members have innumerable opportunities to witness our faults and feel they have a right to point them out. Often their intention is to help us improve. They feel, as Donna did, “I only say it because I love you.”

Family members also have a long shared history, so everything we say in a conversation today echoes with meanings from the past. If you have a tendency to be late, your parent, sibling, or spouse may say, “We have to leave at eight” – and then add, “It’s really important. Don’t be late. Please start your shower at seven, not seven-thirty!” These extra injunctions are demeaning and interfering, but they are based on experience. At the same time, having experienced negative judgments in the past, we develop a sixth sense to sniff out criticism in almost anything a loved one says – even an innocent question about ingredients in the stuffing. That’s why Elizabeth’s mother ends up feeling as if she can’t even open her mouth – and Elizabeth ends up feeling criticized.

When we are children our family constitutes the world. When we grow up family members – not only our spouses but also our grown-up children and adult sisters and brothers – keep this larger-than-life aura. We overreact to their judgments because it feels as if they were handed down by the Supreme Court and are unassailable assessments of our value as human beings. We bristle because these judgments seem unjust; or because we sense a kernel of truth we would rather not face; or because we fear that if someone who knows us so well judges us harshly we must really be guilty, so we risk losing not only that person’s love but everyone else’s, too. Along with this heavy load of implications comes a dark resentment that a loved one is judging us at all – and has such power to wound.

“I still fight with my father,” a man who had reached a high position in journalism said to me. “He’s been dead twenty-one years.” I asked for an example. “He’d tell me that I had to comb my hair and dress better, that I’d learn when I grew up that appearance is important.” When he said this I noticed that his hair was uncombed, and the tails of his faded shirt were creeping out from the waist of his pants. He went on, “I told him I’d ignore that. And now sometimes when I’m going somewhere important, I’ll look in the mirror and think – I’ll say to him in my mind, ‘See? I am a success and it didn’t matter.'”

This man’s “fights” with his father are about approval. No matter what age we’ve reached, no matter whether our parents are alive or dead, whether we were close to them or not, there are times when theirs are the eyes through which we view ourselves, theirs the standards against which we measure ourselves when we wonder whether we have measured up. The criticism of parents carries extra weight, even when children are adults.

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