by Deborah Tannen
Random House, 2001
Review by Robert Anderson on Dec 18th 2001
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
person and not because of your
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
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
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
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, Im sure the consonance between message and metamessage would be so close
that I would more frequently be understood correctly and that will correctly
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
Robert Anderson is
PhD student in philosophy at Macquarie University, Australia. His interests include epistemology,
metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion.