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Mother/Daughter Talk: Q & A With Deborah Tannen

Women who visit Mother U are often interested in solving communication problems.  In this Q & A with Deborah Tannen, Ph.D, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of  the best-selling book,</i> You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation,<i> we asked for  help in decoding some of the mysteries of mother/daughter talk.  Of course if you want a more in-depth explanations and tips on how to change negative patterns, check out the book


Mother U: Why does the balance of power shift when a daughter becomes a mother, too?

Deborah Tannen: Perhaps most important, the daughter now controls access to the grandchildren, whom her mother probably adores.  It introduces a new fear: if she alienates her daughter, she might restrict that access or, worst case, cut it off entirely.

M.U: You mention that the most difficult dynamic between mother and daughter communication is that when a daughter feels like her mother is criticizing, her mother perceives it as caring–and both could be right. Should a mother ever offer advice to her grown daughters?  If so, what’s the best way for the mother to proceed?

D.T: In general, the goal unfortunately must be to bite her tongue whenever possible (even though, as one woman said, “it’s bleeding”).  Understanding why you can’t just offer helpful advice should help. But when it is a matter of heath and safety, a mother may feel it’s worth alienating her daughter to advise and repeat the advice. One woman told me she went so far as to call her daughter’s husband at work and insist he get his wife to a doctor.  It turned out she had a life threatening illness and her mother had literally saved her life.

M.U: Because child-rearing trends change, our research shows that this is an area in which mothers and daughters often disagree.   How can we–both mothers and daughters–prevent such disagreements from becoming arguments?

D.T: This is a huge source of strife. When a mother feels certain that her daughter is doing something that is not good for the children, it can tear her apart because children are innocent and defenseless, and the grandmother’s urge to protect them can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, this usually falls into the tongue-biting category as well, because this is a domain in which perceived criticism cuts especially deep.  No woman I talked to felt certain she had been a good enough mother, and whether or not she is a good mother cuts to the core of her sense of worth in her own eyes (as well as the eyes of the world).  In the end, the children belong to their mother, and the grandmother can express an opinion but after that, she should back off, or risk upsetting her daughter without changing her behavior.

M.U: You write that it’s important for mothers and daughters to do things together, rather than just talk.  Why is doing so important?

D.T: I didn’t suggest this across the board; I suggested it in cases where talk is leading to conflict, and when you find that conversations frequently turn into arguments. If that’s not the case, then go right ahead and talk your heads off; it’s how girls and women create closeness. But if that is the case, then doing things together (as men typically do) can create closeness in a less risky way.

M.U: You talk about how the new technologies can change the dynamics between daughter and mother–in particular, email, because unlike a phone call, each party can answer in her own time   What do you think about the potential for a “diablog” – cyber conversation – between mothers and daughters, related or not, as on Mother U?

D.T: Many people find it easier to express themselves in writing than when talking face to face. As I mention in my previous book, I Only Say This Because I Love You, one of my sisters, who tends to be reticent about self-revealing conversations, once commented that she finds writing more personal. I was puzzled but then figured out, it’s like writing in a journal; she doesn’t have to worry about others’ reactions on the spot.  So, yes, I think a diablog is very promising for some. One does have to be careful, though, because without tone of voice and facial expressions, it is possible to be misunderstood without opportunity to correct wrong impressions on the spot.

2 Responses to “Mother/Daughter Talk: Q & A With Deborah Tannen”

  1. So what does one do when you perceive your relationship with your daughter to have very open communication. When the mother requests that one thanksgiving be spent with her, I would order in all the food cooked from her favorite restaurant. The last 16 ye says:

    So what does one do when you perceive your relationship with your daughter to have very open communication. When the mother requests that one thanksgiving be spent with her, I would order in all the food cooked from her favorite restaurant. The last 16 years have been spent with her father. I received a scathing letter stating that since my divorce 16 yrs ago I have not been there for her. In the last 16 yrs I have made her bridalshower in my apartment, paid for her wedding, visit when she allows and babysits the kids, takes the daughter out for a mother daughter day and buys her new cloths, she has never visit me. i spent time sitting in her home listening to her problems with her mother in law. I have not criticized her her lifestyle of not cleaning her house, many cats, dogs, goats chickens. This has always been her style and who she is.She does not want to go forward to let me know how I have not been there for her. She will not answer if in 16 yrs does she have any nice memeories of us? At this time I am only texting, sending occ. email cards, if asked to visit I will stay in a hotel.

  2. Melinda Blau says:

    My heart goes out to you. In my experience, the only thing a mother can do in this case is to keep trying. Unfortunately, I think mothers, more than fathers, experience the biggest backlash in the post-divorce years. A family therapist once told me, “Children save it [meaning all their negativity] for their mothers!” Perhaps it’s because mothers offer less conditional love than fathers–and the kids know we’ll be there, no matter what. In any case, I also consulted Deborah Tannen, who agreed that your post was “heart-breaking, because it reminded me of so many mothers of grown daughters I’ve encountered whose hearts are broken because they aren’t close to their adult daughters in the way they had assumed they’d be.” I doubt if knowing that there are many mothers who suffer the same fate is comforting. I can only hope that in time, you and your daughter will reach a peaceful detente. Without knowing further details about your relationship, it’s impossible to offer more concrete advice. For what it’s worth, Tannen also agrees that “daughters seem often to blame mothers for divorce rather than, or more than, fathers.” Be strong and hang in there.

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