The phone rings. It's your mother. You start to tell her about your slinky new pants, she asks if you've lost some weight. To her it's an innocent question; to you it's an insult. You jab ("I can't believe you said that!"), she jabbers ("Well, you told me you were on a diet..."), until you want to throttle each other with the phone line.
Linguist Deborah Tannen (You Just Don't Understand) has eavesdropped on such lethal exchanges between grown women who know each other too well to try to have a friendly chat. The "metamessages"—implications behind the spoken words—she decodes in You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House) are so familiar, it hurts when you laugh. What's new is her double perspective: She interviewed and taped anxious daughters who crave intimacy but reject intrusions into their lives, and guilty mothers who feel too powerful ("Words are like touch," says one. "They can caress or they can scratch"), but who are also unnerved when the balance of power shifts.
Tannen, herself the daughter of an exasperating mother, recommends lightening up, listening closely (even if it means keeping mum), and trying to feel the love. Hear, hear!