‘I Only Say this Because I Love You’, by the author, Deborah Tannen, deals with the prickly subject of relationships and how families are the source of the greatest amount of conversational misunderstanding in our lives. It’s a bit of a two-edged sword: our near and dear are also the fount of our greatest anticipated love and understanding. How many of us can lay claim to being crystal clear in our intra-family communications? All too often a compliment can mutate into an insult depending on the circumstances, the tone of voice and of course, the players involved.
‘Mmm, this is fish curry is excellent,’ mumbled my Uncle B, after his third helping, just like my mother used to make, although of course she used more tamarind.’ ‘If you compare my cooking to your mother’s just once more, I swear I’ll pour the rest of that fish curry on your head. I’m not surprised she used tamarind to excess, maybe that’s why your family is so sour,” his loving wife replied. ‘Arre baba, I don’t understand you,’ said Uncle B in tones of injured innocence, ‘here I am appreciating my wife’s cooking just like I’ve been told to in all those foreign magazines you waste so much money on and you’re flying off on a tangent and cursing poor mother.’
According to Ms. Tanner, it’s the metamessages - the gist we glean from the words used - that scramble our wires and leave us pissed off after a family reunion. That, and just anticipating what could be said, what should have been said, what is eventually blurted out and what remains hidden under the carpet along with the dust and detritus of modern living. Merely opening one’s mouth becomes a project fraught with risk in the context of our loved ones.
This is partly due to hero worship of one’s family from an early age and the larger- than- life aura given to their achievements, both noble and dubious. I remember a distant relative who would bore us to distraction with details of the various animals he had encountered and accounted for in the course of his chequered hunting career. This was of course back in the bad old days when such things were considered manly. As it turned out, our intrepid hunter was a bit of a paper tiger: his wife punctured his flights of fantasy by attributing them to an overdose of Jim Corbett and Khodays. His kills included the neighbour’s cow (silence was purchased with several black bucks) and an arthritic squirrel, rather like the dandy in the Saki story who loosed off a shotgun in the general direction of a peacock at a weekend hunting party. ‘You’re telling me it’s a tame bird; well that’s simply SILLY because it was awfully wild at the first few shots. Afterwards it quieted down a bit when its legs had stopped waving farewe
lls at the landscape,” he informed his host in a rather petulant manner on being told that he had shot the family pet.
To get back to families, apparently we overreact to their judgements because it feels as if they were handed down by the highest court in the land as ‘unassailable assessments of our value as human beings.’ With remarkable insight, Ms. Tannen informs us that we fear that when 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. A barbed remark from an acquaintance or a faceless stranger can be brushed off with equanimity; one’s armour is pierced when the wounding remark is from a loved one.
Some years ago, my writing career began amid the pots and pans as the food critic for the Asian Age. Being callow, optimistic and free from the cynicism affected by hardened professionals, I phoned my mother to give her the glad tidings and she was far from ecstatic. ‘Why food writing, dear?’ she sniffed, ‘why not real journalism, politics, or even business?’ ‘Aw shucks, Mom,’ I comforted her in the words of the late S.J. Perelman, ‘It’s no worse than playing the piano in a cat house’, but she felt I’d been unfairly treated. ‘Think of it as a stepping stone, son. And when you write nice restaurant reviews or recipes, they’ll have to give you the real stuff,’ she said. There is a compliment in there somewhere: I’m just not hearing it the right way.