That relationships between women are complicated might be the grand understatement of the century — and yet, it's completely true. Whether we're talking about you and your very best bestie, your sprawling college crew, or the close knit circle of girls you grew up with, the ins and outs of female friendship can be tricky to truly understand, explains socio-linguist Deborah Tannen.
She should know: She's literally written the book on the subject. In You're The Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships, Tannen's latest nonfiction tome, which was released this month and tackles exactly what the title suggests, the author delves into the essentials of why conversations between girlfriends are so distinct from other types of personal connections in our lives. We spoke to Tannen about what spilling a secret means among women, why sometimes gossip can be a good thing, and the ways that even little girls ice each other out with the silent treatment. She also gave us a good rule of thumb for preserving your BFF status — read through to the end for her bona fide expert advice.
As a linguist and a writer, you've tackled a lot of specific relationship dynamics in the past. Why the language of female friendship now?
"My last book was about sisters, and before that there was mothers and daughters, so the third and final all-women relationship that plays such a huge part in many women’s lives is friendships. Many women that I interviewed — over 80 formal interviews, plus everybody I ran into during the time I was writing — said things like 'my women friends are my life' or ‘my women friends are the most sustaining thing in my life’ and 'my female friendships are as essential as air.’
"But I also heard about problems with women friends. One woman commented that a significant part of her conversations with her therapist are about a particular friend who she has problems with. Talk is, of course, a huge part of women’s friendships and close relationships — and much of what women friends talk about is other women friends."
I think most women are aware that the conversations among all-female circles are special. But what's really behind the difference between language used by women with friends and the way men use language?
"Way back in [my book] You Just Don’t Understand, I traced it to the way that little girls and little boys use language with their same-sex best friends, and how they tend to play with their same-sex best friends. It seems to be pretty common across many cultures of the world that little girls spend more time sitting and talking — that their social life focuses on their best friend. Something I used to say is: Your best friend is the one you tell everything to, for girls and women; whereas, for men, your best friend is the one you do everything with. The focus is on talk for girls and women. The focus is on activity for boys and men. That seems to trace back to childhood. It begs the question: Is that socialization they learn from other boys and girls, or is that inborn? There’s nothing in my training that would equip me to answer that question. My guess would be that it’s an inextricable combination of both."
"'Friend' means something different to different people. One thing about that word is that it can cover so many different relationships: people you’ve known your whole life; people you’ve just met; people you talk to, you see socially, you email with; people you’ve never met, like only online friends. But definitely, there are certain tendencies that go with life stages: Friends can really be the focus of your life in middle school, high school, college. If you’re married, if you’re working, if you have children, then you’ve got another focus of your life, and your friendships become less of a pressure cooker."
One thing you write about in the book is how secrets between women can be demonstrative of different power dynamics. Can you break that down?
"Put it this way: A woman said to me, 'When you tell someone personal information, it’s like, ‘Here’s this little piece of me. That means I like you.' So now they have a piece of you. The question is: What are they going to do with it? The comfort of being able to tell someone your secrets — things about you other people don’t know — for many people was a marker of close friendship, as in, ‘Close friends know things about me no one else would know.'
"But that does leave you open to the risk of them repeating your secret to other people, for a whole host of reasons: It could be an accident, because they didn’t know it was personal. But it could also be intentional, and there’s two reasons that could be. One is: Girls and women are quite competitive about who knows what and who knows first, because that is a marker of how close you are, and we like to be able to show off how close we are to other women. In some cases, it’s just the women in your circle. But in others, it could be someone with high status and you want to show that you know them; showing that you know their secrets could be a good way to show that you’re close to them, and your status goes up, which can sometimes be why somebody might repeat a secret. Second: There’s always the risk that they get mad at you, which was especially the case in stories I heard from middle school and high school, where intentionally girls decide to turn on someone and then start spreading rumors about her, some of which may be true, and some of which are not."
How has technology shifted female friendships, and specifically the way that women engage with one another?
"I think social media ramps up both the positive and the challenging aspect of relationships — it’s just a new take on processes that have been there for a long time. Girls and women tend to want to be in touch with friends; your friends want to know what’s going on in your life. If something major is happening, and your friend doesn’t know about it, either she finds out she isn’t as good a friend as she thought she was, or she’s just going to feel hurt that you didn’t tell her.
"In a way, being constantly in touch through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, is just an extension of that feeling that you have to keep in touch — that you can’t just disappear for 10 years and then come back. In general, the ability to be in constant touch is an extension of what used to be done by phone conversations. It’s pretty typically that women are in more frequent conversation now, but not as extended. I don’t think people are forgetting how to be friends —my students tell me they still pick up the phone when it’s appropriate, that they know which conversations they feel they should have by phone. But there are differences, too.
"I was intrigued by this example that two women gave me: They were friends ever since college, but since migrating to texting rather than phone calls, one of them was kind of hurt because she had a problem and she felt the answers she was getting from the other friend via text were sort of minimal. So she registered a complaint and her friend said, 'Well, I really didn’t think that texting was an appropriate medium for opening my heart.' But her friend did. Which is all to say: Friends can have very different ideas about what is the appropriate use for media. So that’s one of the things that has been ramped up."
"And then there’s a thing that has been ramped up that’s been mostly negative, and it’s that girls and women are particularly sensitive to being left out. There’s reason for that: Girls punish girls by leaving them out. Boys don’t do that. They may mistreat their friends, but they don’t leave them out — they don’t lock them out. We’re often hurt to know about things that we weren’t invited to or just things going on that we weren’t part of; that’s always been there. But now you don’t just have to hear about it, you have to see it. You see pictures, and sometimes it blindsides you — you weren’t expecting to suddenly see a picture on another friend’s page of a dinner party, with other friends, that you weren’t invited to. And so you feel that stab of being left out. That’s why I coined the acronym FOBLO: Fear Of Being Left Out."
You had a couple of those — I believe FOGKO was another. Can you tell me about that one?
"FOGKO is Fear Of Getting Kicked Out. I heard many stories about girls — mostly middle school and high school but older ages, too — of when an entire group locks somebody out. They just sort of turn on a girl in a group, stop talking to her, stop inviting her to parties: persona non grata. It’s really devastating. Sometimes I’d hear from a woman in the group who thought it was unjust, but did not speak up; and then I heard from a young woman who recalled that she did speak up and the group kicked her out, too.
"That’s what we’re afraid of, because girls do kick out girls and turn on them. The fear is always there. Groups of women are scary. It’s formidable on the outside, for people trying to get in. But it’s scary on the inside, too, because of that fear that you’ll get kicked out."
Last but not least: Once and for all, when is it okay to gossip about your girlfriends?
"There’s a stereotype that women gossip, as well as a general agreement that gossip is bad. But talking about other people is not always bad: It shows an interest in people. I quote Margaret Meade, who said that anthropologists have to be interested in gossip, that’s what life's about. Gossiping is a kind of philosophizing, a way to think about the challenges people face, how they confront those challenges. 'Talking about' is not inherently bad — it’s often positive.
"'Talking against' is the kind of talk that gets confused with gossip — that’s complicated, especially if it’s made up, or if it’s stuff that you shouldn’t be repeating, or it has malicious intent. It’s interesting: Quite a few Irish women writers have written about that; there seems to be a particular risk of talking against in small communities. But, I think, for women of every age, it’s important to keep in mind the idea of conversational style. When you get a negative impression, it might just be a different conversational style. For example: A woman who told a friend her mother was in the hospital and her friend never followed up with, 'How’s your mother doing?' The woman whose mother was ill confronted her friend, who said, 'In my family, we learned you never ask personal questions like that; you let the person bring it up.'
"So what was showing up as not caring was actually a way the friend was showing caring. The more we look outside of our immediate circles, the more we’re going to encounter people with different conversational styles. So being aware of that is really important."
You're The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language Of Women's Friendships by Deborah Tannen is available now.