I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives [NOOK Book]


Why does talk in families so often go in circles, leaving us tied up in knots? In this illuminating book, Deborah Tannen, the linguist and and bestselling author of You Just Don't Understand and many other books, reveals why talking to family members is so often painful and problematic even when we're all adults. Searching for signs of acceptance and belonging, we find signs of disapproval and rejection. Why do the seeds of family love so often yield a harvest of criticism and judgment? In I Only Say This Because...
See more details below
I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
BN.com price


Why does talk in families so often go in circles, leaving us tied up in knots? In this illuminating book, Deborah Tannen, the linguist and and bestselling author of You Just Don't Understand and many other books, reveals why talking to family members is so often painful and problematic even when we're all adults. Searching for signs of acceptance and belonging, we find signs of disapproval and rejection. Why do the seeds of family love so often yield a harvest of criticism and judgment? In I Only Say This Because I Love You, Tannen shows how important it is, in family talk, to learn to separate word meanings, or messages, from heart meanings, or metamessages — unstated but powerful meanings that come from the history of our relationships and the way things are said. Presenting real conversations from people's lives, Tannen reveals what is actually going on in family talk, including how family conversations must balance the longing for connection with the desire for control, as we struggle to be close without giving up our freedom.

This eye-opening book explains why grown women so often feel criticized by their mothers; and why mothers feel they can't open their mouths around their grown daughters; why growing up male or female, or as an older or younger sibling, results in different experiences of family that persist throughout our lives; and much, much more. By helping us to understand and redefine family talk, Tannen provides the tools to improve relationships with family members of every age.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

From the time we're small, family talk forms our identity. Even when we're grown, our parents' and siblings' voices echo through our minds: "You're not wearing that, are you?" "Leave her alone, she knows what she's doing!" In this book, bestselling author and renowned linguist Deborah Tannen pieces together the complex messages embedded in our conversations. In doing so, she helps us to understand how familial talk affects us -- and how we can find more loving ways of communicating with one another. Tannen's study is at once learned, imaginative, and accessible: a must-read for both parents and children.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tannen's You Just Don't Understand set tongues wagging across the country in the early 1990s with its analysis of gender differences in speaking styles. Now the linguist and author of numerous other books turns her attention to patterns of speech within families. Though the subject is not as sexy as in her mega-bestseller, most readers are apt to hear themselves in these pages. For example, Tannen asserts, in many situations the mother serves as "Communications Chief" as well as chief critic. Drawing on sample conversations from an ongoing study at Georgetown University, from memoirs and from TV documentaries (including An American Family, which examined the Loud family of Santa Barbara in 1973 and reveals how little family interactions have changed in the past 30 years), she convincingly shows how threads of family history and emotion add weight and complexity to everyday exchanges. Each conversation, she argues, carries meaning both in its actual words and in the underlying relationship and attitudes it expresses (e.g., "I didn't criticize you. I just asked a question"). She also shows how speakers may use language for connection and control, influencing shifts in family alignment. Like its predecessor, this book is neither scholarly nor overtly self-help-oriented. Its advice is embedded in its examples, though occasionally Tannen offers explicit guidelines, such as rules for fair fighting: stick to the facts; avoid insults, sarcasm and exaggeration. Parents of teenagers may also find some good insights in Tannen's clear-sighted analysis of how clashing frames of reference undermine communication. Agent, Suzanne Gluck; first serial to Good Housekeeping and Modern Maturity. (May 10) Forecast: Tannen's 13-city author tour (including a May 14 appearance on the Today Show) will help ensure this book's visibility, but it's more likely to match the respectable (but not stellar) numbers for Talking 9 to 5, her book on workplace speaking styles, than those for You Just Don't Understand. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of 17 books (e.g., That's Not What I Meant!, You Just Don't Understand), Tannen (linguistics, Georgetown) returns to her first love, "the language of everyday conversation" among family members, using transcripts, anecdotes, and literary examples. With lively prose and genuine concern for people, Tannen brings linguistic concepts metamessage, re-framing, indirect request to bear on dozens of situations to help lay readers strengthen family ties. Her audience needs to realize that she blurs lines between linguistic science and art; she is also a poet, translator, and playwright, and she frequently dips into social sciences and philosophy. Discussions of connection and control, apology, and talking with teens draw on psychology more than linguistics, and Tannen's judgments are sometimes partial, in both senses of the word, and open to dispute. This is nevertheless a fine stimulant to conversation, constructive argument, and research. Essential for larger public and academic libraries, along with Suzette Haden Elgin's works (e.g., The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, 1987). E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588360090
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/31/2001
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 595,009
  • File size: 506 KB

Meet the Author

Deborah Tannen
Deborah Tannen is the author of You Just Don't Understand, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years, including eight months at number one, and has been translated into twenty-six languages. Among her many books are The Argument Culture, Talking from 9 to 5, and That's Not What I Meant! A linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she is a frequent guest on such radio and television shows as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, Good Morning America, CNN's TalkBack Live, and NPR's All Things Considered.
Read More Show Less
    1. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C. metro area
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 7, 1945
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harpur College, 1966, Wayne State University, 1970; M.A. in Linguistics, UC Berkeley, 1976; Ph.D., 1979

Read an Excerpt


“I Can’t Even Open My Mouth”

Separating Messages from Metamessages in Family Talk

Do you really need another piece of cake?” Donna asks George.

“You bet I do,” he replies, with that edge to his voice that implies, “If I wasn’t sure I needed it before, I am darned sure now.”

Donna feels hamstrung. She knows that George is going to say later that he wished he hadn’t had that second piece of cake.

“Why are you always watching what I eat?” George asks.

“I was just watching out for you,” Donna replies. “I only say it because I love you.”

Elizabeth, in her late twenties, is happy to be making Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family in her own home. Her mother, who is visiting, is helping out in the kitchen. As Elizabeth pre- pares the stuffing for the turkey, her mother remarks, “Oh, you put onions in the stuffing?”

Feeling suddenly as if she were sixteen years old again, Elizabeth turns on her mother and says, “I’m making the stuffing, Mom. Why do you have to criticize everything I do?”

“I didn’t criticize,” her mother replies. “I just asked a question. What’s got into you? I can’t even open my mouth.”

The allure of family — which is, at heart, the allure of love — is to have someone who knows you so well that you don’t have to explain yourself. It is the promise of someone who cares enough about you to protect you against the world of strangers who do not wish you well. Yet, by an odd and cruel twist, it is the family itself that often causes pain. Those we love are looking at us so close-up that they see all our blemishes—see them as if through a magnifying glass. Family members have innumerable opportunities to witness our faults and feel they have a right to point them out. Often their intention is to help us improve. They feel, as Donna did, “I only say it because I love you.”

Family members also have a long shared history, so everything we say in a conversation today echoes with meanings from the past. If you have a tendency to be late, your parent, sibling, or spouse may say, “We have to leave at eight” — and then add, “It’s really important. Don’t be late. Please start your shower at seven, not seven-thirty!” These extra injunctions are demeaning and interfering, but they are based on experience. At the same time, having experienced negative judgments in the past, we develop a sixth sense to sniff out criticism in almost anything a loved one says — even an innocent question about ingredients in the stuffing. That’s why Elizabeth’s mother ends up feeling as if she can’t even open her mouth — and Elizabeth ends up feeling criticized.

When we are children our family constitutes the world. When we grow up family members — not only our spouses but also our grown-up children and adult sisters and brothers — keep this larger-than-life aura. We overreact to their judgments because it feels as if they were handed down by the Supreme Court and are unassailable assessments of our value as human beings. We bristle because these judgments seem unjust; or because we sense a kernel of truth we would rather not face; or because we fear that if someone who knows us so well judges us harshly we must really be guilty, so we risk losing not only that person’s love but everyone else’s, too. Along with this heavy load of implications comes a dark resentment that a loved one is judging us at all — and has such power to wound.

“I still fight with my father,” a man who had reached a high position in journalism said to me. “He’s been dead twenty-one years.” I asked for an example. “He’d tell me that I had to comb my hair and dress better, that I’d learn when I grew up that appearance is important.” When he said this I noticed that his hair was uncombed, and the tails of his faded shirt were creeping out from the waist of his pants. He went on, “I told him I’d ignore that. And now sometimes when I’m going somewhere important, I’ll look in the mirror and think — I’ll say to him in my mind, ‘See? I am a success and it didn’t matter.’ ”

This man’s “fights” with his father are about approval. No matter what age we’ve reached, no matter whether our parents are alive or dead, whether we were close to them or not, there are times when theirs are the eyes through which we view ourselves, theirs the standards against which we measure ourselves when we wonder whether we have measured up. The criticism of parents carries extra weight, even when children are adults.

I Care, Therefore I Criticize

Some family members feel they have not only a right but an obligation to tell you when they think you’re doing something wrong. A woman from Thailand recalls that when she was in her late teens and early twenties, her mother frequently had talks with her in which she tried to set her daughter straight. “At the end of each lecture,” the woman says, “my mother would always tell me, ‘I have to complain about you because I am your mother and I love you. Nobody else will talk to you the way I do because they don’t care.’ ”

It sometimes seems that family members operate under the tenet “I care, therefore I criticize.” To the one who is being told to do things differently, what comes through loudest and clearest is the criticism. But the one offering suggestions and judgments is usually focused on the caring. A mother, for example, was expressing concern about her daughter’s boyfriend: He didn’t have a serious job, he didn’t seem to want one, and she didn’t think he was a good prospect for marriage. The daughter protested that her mother disapproved of everyone she dated. Her mother responded indignantly, “Would you rather I didn’t care?”

As family members we wonder why our parents, children, siblings, and spouses are so critical of us. But as family members we also feel frustrated because comments we make in the spirit of caring are taken as criticizing.

Both sentiments are explained by the double meaning of giving advice: a loving sign of caring, a hurtful sign of criticizing. It’s impossible to say which is right; both meanings are there. Sorting out the ambiguous meanings of caring and criticizing is difficult because language works on two levels: the message and the meta- message. Separating these levels — and being aware of both — is crucial to improving communication in the family.

The Intimate Critic: When Metamessages Hurt

Because those closest to us have front-row seats to view our faults, we quickly react — sometimes overreact — to any hint of criticism. The result can be downright comic, as in Phyllis Richman’s novel Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham? One scene, a conversation between the narrator and her adult daughter, Lily, shows how criticism can be the metronome providing the beat for the family theme song. The dialogue goes like this:

Lily:Am I too critical of people?

Mother:What people? Me?

Lily:Mamma, don’t be so self-centered.

Mother:Lily, don’t be so critical.

Lily:I knew it. You do think I’m critical. Mamma, why do you always have to find something wrong with me?

The mother then protests that it was Lily who asked if she was too critical, and now she’s criticizing her mother for answering. Lily responds, “I can’t follow this. Sometimes you’re impossibly hard to talk to.”

It turns out that Lily is upset because her boyfriend, Brian, told her she is too critical of him. She made a great effort to stop criticizing, but now she’s having a hard time keeping her resolve. He gave her a sexy outfit for her birthday — it’s expensive and beautiful — but the generous gift made her angry because she took it as criticism of the way she usually dresses.

In this brief exchange Richman captures the layers of meaning that can make the most well-intentioned comment or action a source of conflict and hurt among family members. Key to understanding why Lily finds the conversation so hard to follow — and her mother so hard to talk to — is separating messages from metamessages. The message is the meaning of the words and sentences spoken, what anyone with a dictionary and a grammar book could figure out. Two people in a conversation usually agree on what the message is. The metamessage is meaning that is not said — at least not in so many words — but that we glean from every aspect of context: the way something is said, who is saying it, or the fact that it is said at all.

Because they do not reside in the words themselves, meta-messages are hard to deal with. Yet they are often the source of both comfort and hurt. The message (as I’ve said) is the word meaning while the metamessage is the heart meaning — the meaning that we react to most strongly, that triggers emotion.

When Lily asked her mother if she was too critical of people, the message was a question about Lily’s own personality. But her mother responded to what she perceived as the metamessage: that Lily was feeling critical of her. This was probably based on experience: Her daughter had been critical of her in the past. If Lily had responded to the message alone, she would have answered, “No, not you. I was thinking of Brian.” But she, too, is reacting to a metamessage — that her mother had made herself the point of a comment that was not about her mother at all. Perhaps Lily’s resentment was also triggered because her mother still looms so large in her life.

The mixing up of message and metamessage also explains Lily’s confused response to the gift of sexy clothing from her boyfriend. The message is the gift. But what made Lily angry was what she thought the gift implied: that Brian finds the way she usually dresses not sexy enough — and unattractive. This implication is the metamessage, and it is what made Lily critical of the gift, of Brian, and of herself. Metamessages speak louder than messages, so this is what Lily reacted to most strongly.

It’s impossible to know whether Brian intended this meta- message. It’s possible that he wishes Lily would dress differently; it’s also possible that he likes the way she dresses just fine but simply thought this particular outfit would look good on her. That’s what makes metamessages so difficult to pinpoint and talk about: They’re implicit, not explicit.

When we talk about messages, we are talking about the meanings of words. But when we talk about metamessages, we are talking about relationships. And when family members react to each other’s comments, it’s metamessages they are usually responding to. Richman’s dialogue is funny because it shows how we all get confused between messages and metamessages when we talk to those we are close to. But when it happens in the context of a relationship we care about, our reactions often lead to hurt rather than to humor.

In all the conversations that follow, both in this chapter and throughout the book, a key to improving relationships within the family is distinguishing the message from the metamessage, and being clear about which one you are reacting to. One way you can do this is metacommunicating — talking about communication.

“What’s Wrong with French Bread?” Try Metacommunicating

The movie Divorce American Style begins with Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke preparing for dinner guests — and arguing. She lodges a complaint: that all he does is criticize. He protests that he doesn’t. She says she can’t discuss it right then because she has to take the French bread out of the oven. He asks, “French bread?”

A simple question, right? Not even a question, just an observation. But on hearing it Debbie Reynolds turns on him, hands on hips, ready for battle: “What’s wrong with French bread?” she asks, her voice full of challenge.

“Nothing,” he says, all innocence. “It’s just that I really like those little dinner rolls you usually make.” This is like the bell that sets in motion a boxing match, which is stopped by another bell — the one at the front door announcing their guests have arrived.

Did he criticize or didn’t he? On the message level, no. He simply asked a question to confirm what type of bread she was preparing. But on the metamessage level, yes. If he were satisfied with her choice of bread, he would not comment, except perhaps to compliment. Still, you might ask, So what? So what if he prefers the dinner rolls she usually makes to French bread? Why is it such a big deal? The big deal is explained by her original complaint: She feels that he is always criticizing — always telling her to do things differently than she chose to do them.

The big deal, in a larger sense, is a paradox of family: We depend on those closest to us to see our best side, and often they do. But because they are so close, they also see our worst side. You want the one you love to be an intimate ally who reassures you that you’re doing things right, but sometimes you find instead an intimate critic who implies, time and again, that you’re doing things wrong. It’s the cumulative effect of minor, innocent suggestions that creates major problems. You will never work things out if you continue to talk about the message — about French bread versus dinner rolls — rather than the metamessage—the implication that your partner is dissatisfied with everything you do. (Divorce American Style was made in 1967; that it still rings true today is evidence of how common — and how recalcitrant — such conversational quagmires are.)

One way to approach a dilemma like this is to metacommunicate — to talk about ways of talking. He might say that he feels he can’t open his mouth to make a suggestion or comment because she takes everything as criticism. She might say that she feels he’s always dissatisfied with what she does, rather than turn on him in a challenging way. Once they both understand this dynamic, they will come up with their own ideas about how to address it. For example, he might decide to preface his question with a disclaimer: “I’m not criticizing the French bread.” Or maybe he does want to make a request — a direct one — that she please make dinner rolls because he likes them. They might also set a limit on how many actions of hers he can question in a day. The important thing is to talk about the metamessage she is reacting to: that having too many of her actions questioned makes her feel that her partner in life has changed into an in-house inspection agent, on the lookout for wrong moves.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2001

    Communication is the key

    This book is written mostly about adult family interactions. The author uses anecdotes filled with dialogues to illustrate why we often hear criticism when the other person actually meant to express concern; how family members create alignments; gender roles; the dynamics of an argument; the power of saying 'I'm sorry'; and communication with young people. I recognized many of my family members, as well as myself, in the examples. Although I didn't find quick answers for improving my family's communication in this book, I did find new ways of hearing and understanding what's already being communicated.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2001

    Improving the Ways You Listen and Speak in Your Family!

    This book deserves more than five stars for its original, powerful ideas and suggestions for how to have closer, happier relationships in your family. This book is Relationship Rescue for the family! 'Why does talk in the family so frequently go in circles, leaving us tied up in knots?' 'When we talk to family members, we search for signs of love but become attuned to signs of disapproval.' Our reaction is to 'the meaning of the words spoken -- the message -- but also to what we think those words say about the relationship -- the metamessage.' So each message needs to be analyzed for message and metamessage in terms of both connection (on a continuum from closeness to distance) and control (on a continium from superior-inferior to equality). In this outstanding book, conversational analyst Deborah Tannen captures the verbal and mental essences of how to improve our family relationships. The book deals with those situations where the message is either positive or negative, and the overall impression (metamessage) is critical. These range from being praised for some menial accomplishment (with the implication that you are a loyal slave with little talent) to 'I care, therefore I criticize' (usually from Mom) to sarcasm (usually from a spouse or teenager, suggesting you must be an idiot). The book looks at relationships with spouses, parents and children (from both directions), siblings, in-laws, and extends the consideration to the full dimensions of one's lifetime. Perceptions change as we age, and adjustments are needed. A parent starts out as dominant, then the child wants equality (and no criticism), and eventually the child often becomes like a parent to parent who is in mental and physical decline. The book addresses how to improve both your speech and your listening. On the listening side, you are encouraged to focus on the metamessage and to find the most positive one. Where you could hear criticism, focus on the fact that the other person is expressing caring. Then address the unfortunate metamessage. Say something like, 'Why are you criticizing my driving?' There is usually another motive at work. Get it out in the open. The ventilation will improve the relationship. Usually, the motives have almost nothing to do with the literal message. On the speaking side, you are encouraged to avoid sarcasm, getting the other person to think exactly like you do (especially if they are a different sex and much older or younger), and sending derogatory metamessages (the worst is 'you are incompetent'). All of the text is drawn from recorded conversations, many from television series of families that you may have seen. I think this book will be most beneficial if it is shared with the other members of your family. In discussing it, you can agree on some better rules for conversational behavior. After you have finished enjoying this set of methods for avoiding and mitigating those painful moments, I suggest that you think about where you do the same things at work and with friends. Then, change your speaking and listening there as well! Make your caring the most important message you send! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)