When women bring up a problem they are having, men tend to jump in with ideas about how to solve it, whereas other women are more likely to commiserate. Different approaches to “troubles talk” account for some of the most common frustrations and misunderstandings in everyday conversations between men and women. Deborah Tannen enlightened all of us about these matters in her 1990 runaway bestseller, You Just Don’t Understand.
Since then, Tannen has continued to write books about issues with everyday life conversations, such as You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives and You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.
Her latest book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships is based on interviews with more than 80 women, ages nine through ninety-seven and from diverse backgrounds. It is her contribution to our understanding of women’s friendships, “how they work or fail, how they help and hurt, and how we can make them better.”
Tannen describes her academic discipline as “interactional sociolinguistics, which uses a case-study method that allows for in-depth analysis of real-life examples.” That means that she takes examples of conversations described in her interviews, or by her students (she’s a professor at Georgetown University), or from her own life and considers in detail the possible dynamics at work.
Why, for example, would a comment that was offered in good faith be interpreted as an insult? Why is it that in some conversations, similarity between friends feels like “precious sameness” and deepens experiences of closeness, while in other instances similarity is nothing but trouble? Why do some conversations between women seem so supportive while others feel hurtful or competitive? And why is it that, for so many women, the conversations that never take place are just as significant as the ones that do?
Sometimes misunderstandings transcend the idiosyncrasies of a particular conversation and reflect broader conversational styles. An important example is the difference between women who have a style of “high-involvement” and those who instead value “high-considerateness.” The high-involvement types want talk to be incessant – that’s engaging to them and a sign of closeness.
Women whose focus is considerateness, on the other hand, believe that “being able to sit comfortably in silence is eloquent evidence of a close relationship.” When two women with these two different styles talk, they generate the kinds of conversational dilemmas that Tannen is so adept at dissecting. Each woman feels uncomfortable with the interaction, and is clueless about her own role in exacerbating the unease.
You’re the Only One I Can Tell isn’t only about women’s friendships, but that is the focus. Women and girls, as Tannen has argued in the past, “tend to talk more – more often and at greater length – and to talk about more personal topics.” That creates more opportunities for intimacy, but also increases the risk that something that is said will sound exactly wrong to the person who hears it.
Whereas men and boys, according to Tannen, are especially sensitive to “feeling put down or pushed around,” women and girls are particularly likely to feel distressed when “they hadn’t been included in something or hadn’t been told something.”
You are probably familiar with the fear of missing out (FOMO). Women can also be acutely sensitive to the fear of being left out of a particular event, or, even worse, the fear of getting kicked out of an important group of friends.
What Deborah Tannen can accomplish with her interactional sociolinguistics approach is important. It is also different from what other disciplines can offer. My training is in social psychology, with an emphasis on experimental research, hypothesis-testing, and trying to pin down causality.
When I read various sections of You’re the Only One I Can Tell, such as the one in which Tannen tries to untangle the interplay of closeness and competition, I felt proud of the work that social psychologist Abraham Tesser has conducted on that topic. He showed, in an elegant program of research on his self-evaluation maintenance model, how we can understand when friends will feel happy about each other’s accomplishments, and when instead they will feel threatened by them. You’re the Only One I Can Tell would have benefited from a discussion of that research.
Other research from psychology would also have been relevant. For example, I was heartened to see Tannen acknowledge that the loss of a friend can be just as significant as the loss of a spouse. But readers are offered no deeper understanding of why. I’d nominate research on attachment, showing that single people’s attachments to their friends often meet all the requirements of a full-blown attachment relationship.
Friendships may be especially important to people who are single. Research has shown, for example, that single people have more friends than married people, and that they do more to tend to their friendships, such as by staying in touch more or exchanging more help. Research has also shown that when couples move in together or marry, they become more insular. Tannen doesn’t cite any of those studies, though issues of relationship status are mentioned here and there throughout the book.
It is in the brief epilogue that Tannen gets to the heart of the matter about marital status and friendship. “Conversation among couples,” she notes, “is generally about impersonal topics.” In contrast: “When you talk to a friend as a single person, you can be present in a naked-soul way that is impossible when there is a person to whom you owe greater loyalty, whether or not that person is in the room.”
More telling than anything Tannen said explicitly about marital status and friendship was the meta-message communicated, probably unintentionally, by the stories she told about her own life when she was and was not single. The friendship experiences she described from times when she was single struck me as deeper, more meaningful, and more exuberant than the ones she described from her times as a married person.
Throughout the book, Tannen effused about her friendship of many decades with her friend Richard. But once she married and Richard did, too, “Richard and I no longer met one on one; we got together with our husbands.” That struck me as sad. Here is a celebrated scholar who has immersed herself in the study of contemporary friendship, and yet her ideas about friendship, and her practice of it in her own life, seem disappointingly conventional.
A spouse automatically is awarded greater loyalty than a friend, even if that friend has been extraordinarily close and has been in your life for much longer. And, once you marry, you no longer spend any time just with your friend; now you are a coupled entity and you socialize with other coupled entities.
Times are changing in ways that are making friendship more central to our lives than it has ever been before. More people are staying single. Even counting those who do marry, people in the U.S. now spend more years of their adult life not married than married. More and more women get past their child-bearing years without ever having any children. Families are smaller, and sometimes relatives live far away. People who do not have a spouse, or do not have grown children, or do not have any nearby relatives, cannot count on kin to be the center of their lives. Their friends have stepped into that role. That’s a profoundly significant development that is not mentioned in You’re the Only One I Can Tell, and does not seem to inform Tannen’s discussions.
But that’s not what Tannen does. She analyzes conversations, not societies. Her latest book on women’s friendships offers what readers have come to expect from her previous writings. There is a lot to ponder, and the chapter on social media seems especially fresh. I’d just like to see Tannen take a big step forward in her future writings and give the “socio” part of her “sociolinguistics” training a greater say. The social context of conversations is changing in meaningful ways. Tell us more about that and how it is reflected in the ways we all talk to one another in our everyday lives.
You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships
Hardcover, 282 pages