Service of Saying What You Mean—Or Not

September 28th, 2017

Categories: Communications, Families, Listen

I tend to say what I mean. I’m baffled when people who know me well consistently think I really want to do or buy or eat something other than what I’ve identified. That’s why Deborah Tannen’s op ed piece in The New York Times caught my eye. But her personal findings, described in her piece, surprised me given her conclusions in her life’s work as a linguistics professor, now at Georgetown.

She described a dinner party in which she asked her friend Tamara not to help clear the table and Tamara kept on doing so. In “My Mother Speaks Through Me,” she explained that the way she and her friend communicated—spoke and heard–was impacted by their “families’ styles.”

Turns out that Tamara’s mother would often protest that she didn’t want any help but once Tamara had completed a chore, her mother was always extremely grateful. So when Tannen said “No” Tamara heard “Yes.” In the household in which she grew up, Tannen’s mother meant what she said.

Tannen wrote that in her first paper—she’s been researching “how people speak differently across cultures” for 40 years—that confusion occurs “when one speaker means words literally and the other thinks they are hinting at something else.” She noted that a person with a direct approach hearing a fuzzy response might think the other person is “being manipulative, or even passive-aggressive.”

That’s why I was puzzled by Tannen’s surprise: “We both felt as if a light had been turned on. It never occurred to me that Tamara might think I didn’t mean it when I said I didn’t want her to help. And it had never occurred to her that I did.”

“Though my mother died in 2004,” wrote Tannen, “she is the one whose voice comes out when I speak, and whose speaking style shapes how I hear others’ words. The same is true for Tamara as I learned when our styles clashed.” She attributed the differences to the fact that her mother was born in Russia and Tamara’s in Germany. Tannen found it “deeply satisfying” to know that during the clearing of the dinner table she was speaking and Tamara was listening as their mothers would have.

When Tannen and her husband made Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ home, her mom would ask “did you leave any food on the shelf?” and who did they think would eat all that food? Her mother speaks through her today, she wrote. She parodies those words when her husband brings home far too many groceries.

I don’t think it is that simple or cut and dried. My mother’s hinting was closer to the way my husband communicates than the way I do. They might ask “Is there any Ketchup?” instead of “Please bring in the Ketchup.” I think my style is a closer match to my father’s. If he told me to bring his glass to the kitchen and I responded “in a minute dad,” my hesitation didn’t go over well. There was no doubt what he wanted and when—no silly sallying around. I, too, am impatient.

Does your mother speak through you? Do you hear your parents’ voices when you speak? Do you listen and hear the way they do or did?


4 Responses to “Service of Saying What You Mean—Or Not”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Simplicity suits, so saying what one means saves time, effort and invites respect, a sentiment not inspired by Tamara’s mother. And no, I don’t hear voices, and would be very unhappy, and possibly frightened, if I did!

    Ghost stories are great as long as no real people are involved!

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m with you, but as the linguistics prof. noted, some hear something other than what you’ve said, clear as ten bells as you may be.

    I think the op ed piece does a service to remind readers of that. I’m less convinced about my mother or father speaking through me.

  3. HB Said:

    I lived the first fifty years of my life in homes where it was customary for the seats for toilet bowls to be left up, and the next thirty plus in ones in which they are left down. Long ago, an authority on the subject explained to me, that had to do with whether a household was male or female dominated, which I understood and accepted. However, I thought that, before commenting on your interesting post, I would offend no one were I to consult Google the subject.

    As always, they have lots of juicy stuff to say including, of all things, a collection of “Images for toilet bowl seats left up or down syndrome.” I was most impressed with the extent to which that learned journal takes the subject seriously, but the other stuff posted on the subject only confirmed what I already knew or suspected. Toilet seats are just one more speck of a myriad of minutiae from tea leaves to tennis shoes with which we all differentiate ourselves from one other.

    When I speak, I tend to address most subjects crab-like because that is how I have always spoken. I start with the vague, even adding a touch of hyperbole to create dramatic interest, and progress to the specific when dealing with sensitive issues. This can lead to problems when conversing with someone like you, the straight shooter.

    Whether toilet seats or conversation, this is fine, but we all must realize that others may take offence at something we may say or do because that is how our culture has structured us to perform and is not intended to offend or harm. And that the mirror opposite is just as likely to happen when we look at them. We’ll all get along better if we do.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    It sure helps to know the speaking style of people close to you. Nevertheless, misunderstandings happen. “I didn’t invite you to thus and such because I knew you didn’t like the so-and-so’s” will enrage a person who, in the same situation would say, “I’m going to the so-and-so’s. You want to come?” or “I’d be more comfortable if I went alone to the so-and-so’s for this or that reason.”

    Feelings are very sensitive things. People are in a constant dash and aren’t always careful with those of others.

Leave a Reply