Women’s Friendships: As Parsed by Deborah Tannen

Having a friend means feeling less alone in the world. Deborah Tannen, You’re the Only One I Can Tell

Deborah Tannen‘s new book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships reports on interviews she conducted with 80 diverse women from ages 9 to 97.

Although the broader topic is communication in women’s friendships, some of the subtopics covered are as follows:

  • closeness
  • listening effectively
  • support
  • similarities to romance
  • ghosting

To read more about closeness in women’s friendships, check out Tannen’s recent New York Magazine piece. An excerpt:

To some women, ‘close’ meant a relationship where they saw their friends often; to others, closeness meant always picking things up as if no time had passed, even if they got together infrequently. Most often, though, it referred to the types of conversations they had, and the bond those conversations helped to create. Conversation, I found, typically plays a central role in women’s friendships, an avalanche of talk that can make those friendships as complicated as they are deeply gratifying.

One type of conversation is “troubles talk,” as linguists call conversation about worries. Which isn’t highly satisfying if your friend doesn’t actually know how to listen, “an act that’s more complex than just showing interest in what you’re saying. Close friends understand your words in the way that you meant them — and, most rewarding of all, give you the sense that they understand you.”

On the other hand, many friends measure the comfort level in their bond by the ability not to have to talk. Or by the level of support they receive when truly in need. Tannen states (New York Times), “Nearly everyone who told me how important friends were said that some who came through were not the ones they’d expected to. But the flip side of that coin can be among the harshest blows when illness strikes: the disappointment when friends you thought you could depend on let you down.”

Interestingly, women’s friendships can be as intense as romantic relationships. Megan Garber, The Atlantic, reviewing You’re the Only One I Can Tell:

…Friendships, like romance, can be fraught because of the same interplay between confidence and confusion that can make romance both exciting and, occasionally, excruciating…The love in the platonic relationships Tannen describes, just like their romantic counterparts, can be passionate, and comforting, and life-defining, and occasionally heart-breaking.
And also: confusing. A recurrent theme…is the extent to which misunderstandings can both complicate friendship and, in the rough manner of romance, make it more exciting…

As with romance, friends too can be ghosted when things go awry, Tannen points out in a recent Time article:

Why cut someone off without saying why? For one thing, explaining opens a conversation, implying you want to work things out, which you don’t. But there’s another reason, too. Many of us find it hard to say anything negative outright, so we swallow our hurt—until it chokes us. Ghosting means still not saying anything negative.

And sometimes friends are ghosted because of a third party’s interference. For instance, “When young adults live with parents or guardians, the adults may demand a cutoff, because they disapprove of a friend, or — though they probably don’t think of it that way — because they envy the attachment and feel displaced by it.”

In conclusion, “Tannen’s book comes at a time when our friendships are challenged daily in new and ghastly ways, thanks in large part to the use of various social media and texting,” Julie Klam (Washington Post) points out. “At a time when the messages we give and get have so many more ways to be misconstrued and potentially damaging, a book that takes apart our language becomes almost vital to our survival as friends.”

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