I am not sure if Deborah Tannen, the great linguist, is responsible for the term metamessages, but in chapter two of her book, That's Not What I Meant, she provides examples of how our words have a literal meaning and an implied/inferred meaning. In fact, she posits that the implied/inferred meaning is the true meaning of the message.
When doing couples therapy a significant portion of the early sessions is spent educating the couple on what metamessages are, assisting them in becoming aware of what metamessages are communicated by their language and behavior, how the metamessage is interpreted by their partner, and how these interpretations influence how they relate with one another. An example I like to use is the common question often asked by women, "how do I look?" The literal interpretation of the question suggests that the wife is wanting to know her husband's honest opinion about the outfit she is wearing. The metamessage of this question is that the wife is asking not only about this outfit, but also what her husband's opinion is about: her overall beauty, his level of attraction to her, whether he may develop a "wandering eye" as a result, etc.
The metamessage isn't explicitly communicated, but the wife's response will be to the husband's response according to the metamessage. The problem being that men, as a result of differing communication styles, are often unaware of the metamessage or are unsure about which level of questioning they are responding to. Therapy teaches couples how to be more clear in their communication by teaching men how to better identify and understand the various levels of communication (i.e., metamessages), and by teaching women how to ask each question they are wanting an answer to. That is, women will learn to verbalize both the literal and metamessage meanings of their questions to their husbands. Leading to less confusion and opportunity for discord as a result of poor communication. It's the difference between taking an open book test versus taking a pop quiz.
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