Deborah Tannen’s new book, You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House, 2006), is her latest bestselling dissection of how people communicate—and miscommunicate. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Tannen first won acclaim with her book That’s Not What I Meant! (Ballantine Books, 1986), an explanation of how regional, ethnic and cultural differences in our speech can affect our relationships. Next, she tackled communication between the genders in the popular You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (William Morrow & Co., 1990).
Ms. sent Tennessee Jane Watson to McLean, Va., to talk with Tannen—a friend of Watson’s own mother, the late USA Today editor Nancy Woodhull. Their conversation begins with Tannen recalling how Watson’s mother helped support the linguist’s work.
TW: I’m interested in your perspective as a feminist: Do you view the idea of mothers and daughters working on their relationships as a feminist cause?
DT: I do. Although my books wouldn’t be called “feminist linguistics,” they are feminist in spirit and purpose. I point out that when styles typical of women and styles typical of men come into contact, women end up in the one-down position. In my new book I show that mothers get dumped on because they’re women—many daughters treat their mothers more callously than they would anyone else, and mothers are often the lightning rod in the storm of family emotions because women are easier targets. Plus, we expect more of mothers than we do of fathers, and more of daughters than of sons.