Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Among her many books is You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which spent nearly four years on the New York Times best-seller list. “Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle Over Hair” is from Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, forthcoming from Algonquin Books in September. Tannen's most recent book is You Were Always Mom's Favorite! 


Recent Articles

Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle Over Hair

While men's hair can often be neutral, women's hair is fraught with questions of sexuality, professionalism, and identity. 

Maria Evseyeva/Shutterstock
This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here. “Do you like your hair that long?” my mother asked, soon after I arrived for a visit. I laughed. Looking slightly hurt, she asked why I was laughing. “I’ve been interviewing women for the book I’m writing about mothers and daughters,” I explained, “and so many tell me that their mothers criticize their hair.” “I wasn’t criticizing,” my mother said, and I let it drop. Later in my visit I asked, “So Mom, what do you think of my hair?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “I think it’s a little too long.” I wasn’t surprised by any of this, because my mother always thought my hair was too long. I’d taken to getting a haircut shortly before visiting my parents, sometimes the very morning before I boarded a plane to Florida. But that never made a difference. I could count on her telling me...

We the Government

When we recall the now-famous incantation, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” we focus on its content: John F. Kennedy invited Americans to become active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, American democracy. But the word that stands out for me is the personal pronoun “your.” How different jfk's message would have been had he exhorted Americans to ask what they can do for “the” country. In the word “your” resides the personal connection between citizens and nation that has broken down, replaced by an adversarial stance of citizens toward their government. Presidential historian Robert Dallek cites a comment someone made to Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR's death: “I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government.” Here, too, the personal pronouns leaped out at me: “my” government, hearing him speak “to me.” In their...

Let Them Eat Words

I'm one of many Democrats who watch in frustration (mixed with a touch of awe) as Republicans win with words, even as the labels they devise for their policies distort or belie the facts. Take the repeal of the estate tax. An "estate" sounds like a large amount of money. Indeed, before President Bush persuaded Congress to legislate a phase out of the estate tax, only the largest 2 percent of estates were subject to this tax. But change the name to "death tax" and many more Americans become sympathetic to repeal. After all, everyone dies. Death is bad enough without being taxed. How many would get all worked up about an exceedingly rare abortion procedure (that the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated represents less than one-fifth of 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States in 2000)? But attach the name "partial-birth abortion" and a second-trimester fetus becomes a half-born baby. Legislation to outlaw the vaguely described medical procedure then becomes another...