Deborah Tannen stands next to a wedding photo of her parents in the living room of her home in Virginia Image Credit: NYT

I was looking forward to having my friend Tamara over for dinner last year, since she had hosted me and my husband many times. But it didn’t turn out as I’d expected. Tamara kept trying to help in various ways, like retrieving items from the kitchen or clearing items from the table. Each time, I told her to please sit down, that I didn’t want her to help. But then she’d be up again.

At one point, when she rose from the table and made it into the kitchen, I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. It was done good-naturedly, with humour, but I was genuinely rattled: I felt that she was insisting on being a co-host in my home.

Normally I would have laid my frustration to the vagaries of human behaviour and said nothing. But because Tamara is a good friend — and because I was writing a book about women’s friendships — the next time I saw her, I told her how I’d reacted.

Tamara was surprised, but she also recognised her behaviour and its source. She told me about a recent dinner at her parents’ home. When the dinner ended, she got up and cleared the table, though her mother told her not to. She washed the dishes, as her mother chastised her, saying, “Stop it!” Then she cleaned the kitchen, to the tune of her mother’s admonitions that she shouldn’t. And when she was done, her mother said, “Thank you.” Then she added: “You never listen to me. And I’m so glad you don’t.”

From her mother, Tamara learned that “I don’t want you to help” really means “You are a guest and shouldn’t help so I appreciate it all the more when you do.” My mother tended to say pretty much what she meant, so growing up, I had learned to take her and others at their word.

Though my mother died in 2004, 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.

Tracing our ways of speaking, and listening, to our families’ styles, we both felt as if a light had been turned on. It had 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.

For the past 40 years, I’ve researched how people speak differently across cultures. And here I was, having missed exactly what I’d written about. The very first paper I published was about the confusion caused when one speaker means words literally and the other thinks they are hinting at something else. And indirectness is a key example I use in cautioning that what is sometimes attributed to psychological, even pathological, motives may simply be differing linguistic styles. Those who expect requests to be expressed directly, for example, may perceive someone being vague as being manipulative, or even passive-aggressive.

Indeed, one of the most common dynamics I have found among female friends is frustration when one misconstrues what the other meant. For one thing, women tend to talk more, both more often and at greater length, and about more personal topics. In addition, from the time they are little girls playing with other little girls, they learn not to make outright demands, so they avoid the damning label “bossy”. And misunderstandings are especially painful among women who treasure the sense that a friend “gets” them.

How relatively direct or indirect we tend to be often varies by culture. But Tamara and I are both Jewish, and our mothers were both born in Europe — Tamara’s in Germany, and mine in Russia. I have observed in my research that the relative directness I learned from my mother isn’t so much Jewish as East European, in contrast to the relative indirectness more common among German Jews.

Tracing my style to my mother’s reminded me of other ways that my mother speaks through me. I sometimes intentionally borrow her voice to mock myself. My husband and I always used to make Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ home in Florida, a precious tradition that I keenly miss.

My mother always thought my husband bought and prepared too much food. When we’d return from shopping and empty the bags of groceries in her kitchen, she’d exclaim, “Who’s going to eat all that!?” and “Did you leave anything on the shelf?!”

It’s handy, now, to echo those exclamations, mimicking and exaggerating her tone of voice and intonation, when I want to tell my husband he’s bought too much but disguise it as a good-humoured parody of my mother, and remind us of a time we both cherished.

It was deeply satisfying to realise that it was our mothers who were speaking and listening when Tamara came to dinner in my home. I was grateful to be reminded that whenever I open my mouth to speak and my ears to hear, my mother is still with me.

–New York Times News Service

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.