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Family & Relationship Issues

Review of "I Only Say This Because I Love You"

By Deborah Tannen
Random House, 2001
Review by Robert Anderson on Dec 18th 2001
I Only Say This Because I Love You

Deborah Tannen has written another great book. In I Only Say This Because I Love You, she confronts the communication problems that often arise in close relationships- between spouses, between genders, between parent and child, between siblings. The subtitle says it all -- How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives.

The way we talk in relationships is put under Tannen's fine discriminating ear as a conversational analyst. I will present the findings of her book under the three themes of "symptoms", "diagnosis" and "cure", for the book is an exemplar of linguistic therapy.

Talk in relationships and families can go in circles. We get tied up into knots, you argue about small insignificant things. They jump down my throat every time I open my mouth. He won't apologise to me, and she's demanding that I say sorry when I did nothing wrong.  My mother still criticises me and I'm fifty-two. She insinuated that I need to dress better….You try so hard to say something nice but your best intentions are thwarted. It's like giving someone a nice fragrant perfume, soap, or after-shave and they respond with the suggestion that you think that they smell bad. Your original message of care, embodied and symbolized in the gift is turned on its head and taken as a hint towards the correction of their ostensible aromatic malpractice. A hint that you never intended. You  gave you the soap because of your appreciation of  the  person and  not because of your olfactorial disconcertment.

These troubles and all the rest are the symptoms of the pathology of miscommunication for which we need no proof. The evidence is everywhere. And it seems sometimes that the closer we are to someone - the greater the chance of getting it wrong.

            Tannen's diagnosis is to understand the hermeneutics of conversation.  (Hermeneutics - the study of interpretation. Think of Hermes the messenger. Hermeneutics is about messages). We can no longer just interpret the single message conveyed by the speaker's words as the sole communicative act. There is something else going on. Knowing and being familiar with what else is going on seems to be the antidote to these communicative woes. It's the metamessage that lies below the message which has the greater effectual power for both good and bad.

            Now, many spoken sentences have metamessages. What's different in intimate relationships is the desires for connection and control.  Tannen discusses this in chapter three and it pays careful attention.

The cure seems rather simple: acknowledge that much of what we say and what we hear is potentially ambiguous. We then need to disambiguate by sorting out the message (the word meaning) from the metamessage (the heart meaning). The difficulty with metamessages is that sometimes the speaker knowingly creates them, sometimes they may be unconsciously created by the speaker, and sometimes totally made up in the mind of the listener.  And unless you are particularly good at reading other people's minds  -- chances are -- you'll misinterpret the metamessage. So the advice is to pay it more attention.

            This distinction between the 'surface' meaning and a more hidden or implied meaning in spoken communications is nothing new.  Linguists and philosophers of language have often used the distinction to explain how figures of speech work.  Irony, for example, relies on the distinction between what may be called the sentence meaning and the speaker's meaning. To understand the sentence or the words alone is to miss the point. The speaker's meaning or intention is the true meaning of the ironic phrase where the intention behind the sentence is the direct opposite of the surface meaning of the words.  Children below a certain age do not understand irony or sarcasm. They need to mature to the point where they can adopt the necessary hermeneutical framework to interpret correctly. This message is apt. We too need to adopt the necessary hermeneutical framework in conversations with people who are close to us.

            Another process to understand is the need for connection and control - the two things that drive our intimate conversations. Embedded within every communicative act in close relationships, and not found in other kinds of communications, says Tannen, is the dissonant sounds of  'I care, therefore I criticize'. Imagine this. A mother suggests to her daughter that she should watch what she eats. The daughter feels criticized and insulted by her mother because she is overweight.  Yet the mother only intends nice things for her daughter, reasoning, 'If I don't tell you, no one else will', I only say this because I love you. But metamessages, though they are audibly silent, speak louder than messages. They often appear critical and therefore bring forth the greatest reaction in the listener. This explains the puzzlement  we feel when we think we are  giving people good advice but it is taken the 'wrong way'.

Once we, as speaker and listener, are aware of these distinctions, we can frame and reframe words to minimize such offensive metamessages. One example of reframing is to metacommunicate - to talk about ways of talking and to talk about any metamessages conveyed.

That is the theory. The chapters of the book are applications of the theory to particular kinds of relationships - gender, spouse, mother-daughter, teenager- parent, and so on.  The chapter on Apologies was the best I thought. This chapter explains 'Why Women Apologize More Than Men and Why It Matters'.  It would be worthwhile reading for anyone in more formal roles such as politics where apologies are often demanded by disenfranchised people.

            Apart from the message/metamessage distinctions, framing and reframing, and metacommunicating, other concepts employed by Tannen include the differences between ‘rapport’ and ‘report’ speak and complementary schizmogenesis (where conversations just get worse and worse).  Most of these have been discussed in Tannen's other works, and few of them she attributes to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. (Readers familiar with Neuro Linguistic Programming may know that he also gave some inspiration to the founders Richard Bandler and John Grinder). What seems to be new in Tannen's new book is the section on connection and control, (chapter three).

            Apart from a lack of a lot of new material, what I did find a difficult in the book were the anecdotes used as examples of particular communication problems.  They are from real people and conversations. Tannen states this in the introduction.  But I get so lost in narratives and names - forgetting who was who and who said what  - that I have to go back to the beginning of the dialogue to start over.  After reading a chapter I feel like I've met so many new people at a party that I have to lie down and rest to relieve my exhaustion. But that is just me, and perhaps Tannen could not convey her points in any other way. I personally, preferred the preface and last chapter where she discussed the concepts used. Knowing the concept is enough for me to begin putting her good advice to work but it may not be enough for all readers.

Another desideratum that would make the book more useful are suggestions on how to put her cure into practice. While I say that knowing the concept may be enough for some people to begin to put her advice to work, the state of awareness needed to be sensitive to what is going on between speaker and hearer, between message and metamessage, is a difficult skill to attain. It's a kind of unconscious competence that cannot be realized after reading a book but only by practicing it everyday.  In making the book more practical I do not suggest that it should become a 'how to' book. It could never work. Unlike body-language, (another species of metamessage), we cannot follow simple directions to interpret conversational metamessages. Perhaps we can reason if we are silly enough, "this book on body-language says that when a woman plays with her hair, she is flirting with me, the woman sitting opposite me is playing with her hair, therefore, she is flirting with me, therefore, I'll ask her out".  But spoken metamessages are at least one step removed from the already intangible languages of the body. This makes it even harder to give simple instructions on what conversational metamessages mean. The skill is borne from having a particular form of life and not just a process of following laws and directions.

My advice from what I can glean from Tannen's book is this. If you are a bit tired of  neo-concept formation by prefixing the Greek 'meta' to old and more familiar terms then forgive me for giving you another.  The answer to good communication truly does seem to work when you can adopt the 'meta-stance' -- of seeing and hearing something from another point of view.  But remember to come back into your own body otherwise your conversational partners may wonder where you are. To associate enough to maintain rapport in a conversation, and at the same time, to dissociate enough to be aware of everything that's going on would be a great gift to have. If I had the skills of Tannen as elaborated in her new book, I’m sure the consonance between message and metamessage would be so close that I would more frequently be understood correctly and that will correctly understand.

Finally, another review which was critical of I Only Say This Because I Love You dismissed it on the basis that good relationships can never boil down to just words. Perhaps not, but another linguistic theory called the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, (well worn and often debunked), claims that to a large degree, it is our language that determines reality and that it's not so much the common-sense view that reality determines our language. Given the evidence that bad conversations frequently generate aggravated relationships then choosing our words more thoughtfully and maintaining more positive interpretations of other people's words should ensure better relationships within our families. Relationships may not come down to mere words but mere words can make relationships excel. For this reason I would recommend Tannen's book to anyone who is in one.


© 2001 Robert Anderson


Robert Anderson is PhD student in philosophy at Macquarie University, Australia.  His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion.

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