I Heard What You Didn't Say

by Deborah Tannen

The Washington Post, May 13, 2001

copyright Deborah Tannen

Today -- as on other holidays, birthdays, Sundays -- families gather. They eat familiar foods, laugh at old jokes, retell stories that they have all heard many times before, and enjoy the rhythms of talk that convey the comfort of home. But then, almost inevitably, something is said -- something that might seem innocuous to an outsider -- and the feelings of goodwill and good times run aground. A mother asks a daughter, "You put that much salt in the soup?" A grandfather mutters about a grandson's long hair. A sister asks her brother, "Are you still driving that old rattletrap?" A husband asks his wife, "Do you really need another glass of wine?" Suddenly the love and laughter give way to snapping exchanges or a full-blown fight.

Why does talk in the family so frequently leave us tied up in knots?

Through talk, we create and shape our relationships. Through talk, we are comforted; through talk we are hurt. We look to family members for come-as-you-are acceptance, but instead of an intimate ally, we sometimes find an intimate critic. A small remark can spark a big conflict because within the family, no utterance stands alone. Every remark draws meaning from innumerable conversations that came before. Consider this seemingly harmless comment, and the argument it triggered for one couple:

"This is recyclable," Helen says, brandishing a small cylinder that was once at the center of a roll of toilet paper.

"I know it's recyclable," says Samuel. "You don't have to tell me." He approves of recycling and generally practices it, but in a moment of haste, he had tossed the cardboard tube into the wastebasket. Helen has found it and wants to know why it is there. "You can't go through the garbage looking for things I threw away," Samuel exclaims. "Our relationship is more important than a toilet paper carcass."

"I'm not talking about our relationship," Helen protests. "I'm talking about recycling."

Helen is right: She was talking about recycling. But Samuel is right, too. If you feel like you're living with the recycling police -- or the diet police, or the neatness police -- it can take the joy out of living together. Sometimes you catch yourself wishing, for a fleeting moment, that you lived alone, in peace. In that sense, Helen's remark is also about the relationship.

Helen and Samuel could argue forever -- and get nowhere -- because they were focusing on different aspects of their conversation. Helen's concern, recycling, is the message: the literal subject at hand. Samuel's concern is the metamessage: the implication that Helen is always watching, always on the lookout for wrong moves.

Distinguishing the message from the metamessage (terms I have adopted from anthropologist Gregory Bateson) is necessary to ensure that family members work things out rather than working each other over. It's frustrating to have the same arguments again and again. But some arguments can be constructive -- if family members use them to articulate and understand the metamessages they are intending and hearing.

Here's an example of how a conversation can lead to an argument because of mixed metamessages: A couple is looking over the menu in a restaurant. David announces, "I'll have the steak." Irene says pleasantly, "Did you notice they also have salmon?"

David protests, "Will you please stop criticizing what I eat?"

Irene feels unfairly accused: "I didn't criticize. I just pointed out something I thought you'd like."

Irene's question is not, on the message level, a criticism. It could easily be heard as friendly and helpful. But David knows that Irene thinks he eats too much red meat, too much dessert and, generally speaking, too much. So when Irene makes a remark -- any remark -- about his eating, he is primed to hear it as criticism. The impression of disapproval comes not from the message, but from the metamessage, based on their shared history.

Irene uses a self-defense strategy that I call "crying literal meaning." Because she simply asked a question, she can deny that she intended any criticism. You could say that Irene was focusing on the message ("I just asked a question"), while David was focusing on the metamessage ("You shouldn't have steak"). But in another sense, both David and Irene are dealing in metamessages -- just different ones. David hears a metamessage of criticism, while Irene intends a metamessage of caring. She knows that David's father died young of a heart attack and that David has a high cholesterol level. She has good reason to want David to eat less red meat and to lose weight. She loves him and is looking out for him.

Here lies a central paradox of family: One blessing of closeness is having someone who knows you well and cares deeply about you. But the combination of knowledge and caring often leads to disapproval and interference. If you were doing everything right, you wouldn't need suggestions; but someone who didn't care about you wouldn't bother to point out what you're doing wrong.

One woman, upon hearing the title of my new book, "I Only Say This Because I Love You," laughed and said, "When you wear that dress, you look like a house." Then she explained -- she was quoting her mother.

We hold such nuggets of hurt like family heirlooms. We clutch them to our hearts, where the edges scrape, but we can display them to encapsulate and communicate the hurt we know we felt.

One key to understanding both the wonderful feeling of connection and the painful feeling of rejection that family entails is what I call alignment. Talk binds family members together, like the connect-the-dots patterns in a child's drawing book. When two people align through talk, the line between the dots is often straight and bold. But this bold alignment can leave other family members -- connected by dotted lines, crooked lines or no lines at all -- left out.

Here's a personal example that explains alignment and how it works: There was a time in my life when my mother was obsessed with my unmarried state. If she called to tell me she enjoyed a visit to my home, she would end by saying how bad she felt when she and my father drove away and left me standing alone. On hearing I was planning a trip with my best friend, she would try to convince me to go to Club Med instead, hoping to enhance my chances of finding a husband. Time and again, I'd forbid her to raise this issue, and she would try to comply. But then she would relapse, I'd get angry, she'd say that I was too touchy, and the cycle would start again.

Finally, we reached a point where she was restraining her remarks most of the time, and I relaxed. But there was a fly in the ointment: my oldest sister.

My sister would tell me that our mother had been moaning about all the time I spent working rather than husband-shopping, and that she had defended me, explaining to my mother that I was happy with my life, had gobs of friends, loved my work -- and that I was more likely to meet my life partner at an academic meeting than on a beach in Tahiti. (This turned out to be prophetic.)

Alignment explains both why my sister spoke this way, and why it caused me pain. My sister told me about her conversations with our mother to align herself with me. She was letting me know that she understood my situation (which she did). I believe she thought this knowledge would make me feel better. But it made me feel worse. When my mother didn't mention my singleness for a while, I'd forget that she worried about me. But when my sister mentioned it, the sinking feeling that my mother disapproved of the way I was managing my life came flooding back.

Worst of all, a scene took form in my mind: my mother and sister having an intense telephone conversation about me. They had created an alignment between them -- a bold, straight line of connection -- while I was relegated to the margins, an outsider, a problem to be talked about. This alignment was more vivid to me than the one my sister intended.

Understanding alignment can explain why family members are unexpectedly angry or hurt. Like metamessages, alignments can be stealth weapons. They can wound, but the source of damage is hard to locate, because their meaning resides not in the words spoken but in the impact of those words.

For example, Eve was upset with her husband, Tom, about something he had said. But she wasn't sure her reaction was justified, so she repeated his remark to two friends. They agreed with her, and she used their support as evidence in talking to Tom.

"I don't think your remark was very constructive," she told him, "and Mindy and Gail agree."

Tom found himself confronted not only with Eve's complaint, but with the vision of Eve and her friends huddling like football players plotting strategy against him. He felt blindsided.

Tom would prefer that Eve not tell her friends about their quarrels, but that would clip the wings of her friendships, and cut off one of her sources of comfort and insight. Eve can't understand why Tom objects, since she regards discussing problems as one of the main reasons people have friends. She wishes Tom would talk more to his friends about such things.

Seeing this impasse in terms of alignments helps explain their reactions. In Tom's view, when Eve talks about him to her friends she is redrawing her alignment from him to them. In Eve's view, talking to her friends about Tom lets them know that he is central in her life, so she is reinforcing her alignment to Tom. If he understood this, Tom might try to accept the value of Eve talking to her friends about him. Eve, on the other hand, might take her friends' advice into account and be bolstered by it, but she might avoid unnecessary conflict if she spoke only for herself when talking to Tom.

If we become aware of alignments, we can use them creatively in defusing family disputes. A woman told me how she managed to align with both her daughter and her husband in the same conversation -- much to her daughter's delight. "We were driving in the car," the woman told me, "and my husband was hounding our daughter about something. She was digging in her heels, and he was repeating himself. Suddenly he turned to me and said, 'Why don't you support me in this?' I told him, 'I supported you the first six times you said it, but now you're going too far. I think you made your point and should let it drop.' My daughter loved that."

By agreeing with her husband on the substance of his complaint, but siding with her daughter in regard to his insistence and repetition, this mother -- this wife -- was able to display the dual allegiance that being in a family so often requires.

Why does the word "family" carry such weight? Because it provides a foundation for everything else we are or do. If we can fit into our families, we feel, we can fit into the world.

A woman in her sixties recalls that from the time she married and moved into her own home, her parents refused to ring the doorbell when they visited. Bells, they felt, were for strangers. Family just walks in. So when her parents found the front door locked, they walked around the house, trying all the doors so they could enter as they should -- like family. Though the woman and her husband saw this as an intrusion, I see the image of parents walking around the house searching for an unlocked door to their grown daughter's home as a metaphor for family: You want to be treated as if you belong there.

Understanding metamessages and alignments can help minimize the times when we feel like strangers in our own family, and can provide a language for us to talk about what makes us feel hurt or left out. With this knowledge, we can use talk -- the heart of family gatherings -- to untangle the knots of family relationships instead of getting tied up in them.