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  • You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation
  • Susan Gass
You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation. By Deborah Tannen. New York: Random House, 2006. Pp. 272. ISBN 1400062586. $24.95.

In You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation, Tannen shows herself, once again, to be a master of the anecdote, weaving one after the other into a fabric of [End Page 439] understanding how conversation works to create intimacy and distance. T’s keen ability to interpret the meanings behind conversation, that is, to understand the metamessage, is the warp of the fabric, and her ability to use anecdotes and snippets of conversation to create the pattern is the weft. Together, the fabric is a masterful portrayal of how mothers and daughters relate to one another, both positively and negatively, through conversation.

The book is not intended to be an academic text, but rather a book for the general reader. In the preface, she explains why she has taken this direction in her work. Her rationale was simple: ‘I wanted to write books that my mother could read’ (7). By this she intends the general reader, or those ‘who would never pick up a scholarly book’ (7). With this goal in mind, she has brought to the general community an understanding and appreciation of language and how language can shape relationships and how relationships are created and maintained through the medium of language. To this end, the book, like her others, is successful. In my view, making language, in a very general sense, relevant to everyone’s daily life is a major achievement. As I was preparing to write this review, T gave a general lecture on the topic of this book. I decided to take my mother, not a linguist, to hear her. If my mother (a psychologist) is an indication of the success of T’s mission, that is, to bring to the public an understanding of the nuances of conversation, she has admirably succeeded. Although my mother has never been, nor is, a ‘You’re wearing that!’ kind of mother, she was certainly able to relate to many of the issues raised in that talk.

The issues, however, as T points out early in the book, are ones that extend well beyond mothers and daughters. Nonetheless, she does claim, as she has done in previous work, that ‘[t]alk typically plays a larger and more complex role in girls’ and women’s relationships than it does in boys’ and men’s. Daughters and mothers, more than sons and fathers, tend to play out and negotiate their relations through talk . . . Talk is the glue that holds a relationship together—and also the explosive that can blow it apart’ (62–63). Despite this, I found myself relating to many of the conversations, although not necessarily as reflections of conversations with my mother. For example, her description of a woman whose daughter was a ‘private child’ was not removed from my own relationships with my children. And T brings these understandings to the fore through metaphors that allow the reader to get a clear glimpse into not only the particular relationship at hand, but also into one’s own relationships (e.g. the comparison between a mother-daughter relationship and a ‘well-protected castle’ that could only be entered when ‘the drawbridge [was] mysteriously lowered’ (20).

The book is divided into nine chapters, with an afterword, a notes section, and references. Each chapter is devoted to a particular topic or mode of conversation (e.g. conversations and comments about a daughter’s hair, expressions of intimacy and independence, using email and instant messaging). Within each of the topic areas, T presents actual snippets of conversations or, at times, recollections of conversations in order to shed light on the complex mother-daughter relationship.

Throughout this book, T makes the reader aware of the difference between the actual words we use and the metamessages that often lurk behind those words: caring, criticizing, inclusion, exclusion, alignment, complaining, and rejection, among others.

T artfully draws on work from sociology, anthropology, psychology, psychotherapy, and linguistics, in one instance cautiously making connections between human and...


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pp. 439-442
Launched on MUSE
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