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.