Deborah Tannen is, arguably, the world's foremost authority on human conversation, but in her current offering, she talks too much and says too little.
Beginning with her "You Just Don't Understand," which was on the New York Times bestseller list for three years, and continuing with "I Only Say This Because I Love You," and "That's Not What I Meant," Tannen carved out a niche on the self-help shelves by writing about what happens when lovers, family members and/or co-workers talk to one another, and why they so often fail so completely to actually communicate.
But Tannen's successful formula loses potency in "You're Wearing THAT?", an overly long and unscientific dissection of the unique and often highly charged conversations that take place between mothers and daughters.
"The smallest remark can bring into focus the biggest question that hovers over nearly all conversations between mothers and daughters: Do you see me for what I am? And is who I am OK?" she writes. "When mothers' comments to daughters (or, for that matter, daughters' comments to mothers) seem to answer in the affirmative, it's deeply reassuring: all's right with the world. But when their words seem to imply that the answer is NO, there's something wrong with what you're doing, then daughters (and, later in life, mothers) can feel the ground on which they stand begin to tremble . . ."
This contention is hard to refute, mostly because it is so patently obvious. Tannen's thesis is hardly a revelation; this territory was covered far more thoroughly, thoughtfully and evocatively in Nancy Friday's "My Mother, My Self" and Adrienne Rich's "Of Woman Born," both of which were written in the '70s.
In fairness, Tannen never professes to have that wide a scope. But the scope she does have is too narrow; she spends the majority of the book focused on traditional hot-button topics of clothes, hair and the motherhood/work conundrum.
"You're Wearing THAT?" is full of amusing anecdotes from a slew of pseudonymous sources recounting the sorts of frustrating, sad, joyful and idiotic conversations all women have had with their mothers and all mothers have had with their daughters.
These stories are entertaining to read. There is something comforting in seeing yourself or someone you know on every page. Is it bred into us to talk on the phone more often to our moms than our dads? Does estrogen make us all worry at some point that we have been bad mothers?
But as momentarily interesting as these points might be, they don't really tell us anything new, and there is certainly no need for Tannen to repeat them in countless, infinitesimally different variations. As the Talking Heads sang in "Psychokiller," "say nothing once, why say it again?"
Tannen's section on how technology is changing the way mothers and daughters communicate -- an opportunity to present some fresh ideas -- is also stale stuff. There are no bombshells here. Nothing that will make anyone reach for the Valium the way some self-help books can. Not even anything that will make for compelling cocktail party conversation for anyone, with the possible exception of Tannen herself.
Barbara Sullivan is a News features reporter.
You're Wearing THAT?
Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation
By Deborah Tannen
Random House, 248 pages, $24.95