City Visions: Deborah Tannen on how women talk to their friends and why it matters | KALW

City Visions: Deborah Tannen on how women talk to their friends and why it matters

Jun 5, 2017

 Host Joseph Pace and New York Times best-selling author Deborah Tannen discuss her new book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships.

How does communication—and miscommunication—between women impact their relationships? Do women use language to connect or to compete? And how is social media changing the way women relate?


Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University; author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships.  


Joseph Pace: ...what conditions women or girls…to relate through talk, as opposed to boys who, generally speaking, relate through activities?


Deborah Tannen: Yeah, I have to say, I observe human behavior and describe what I see, so I don't really have a basis to know why that happens. But it does start early, and certainly once we're going up among girls or among boys, you kind of pick up that that's the expectation. And we all know there are girls and boys who prefer to play with kids of the other sex. There may be an issue of sexual orientation, but maybe not, just what they're comfortable with. Sometimes it's a matter of having a lot of siblings of the other sex. But the tendency is for girls to pick up that this is how girl's friendships are maintained, and then as adults that feeling that you're not alone in the world because somebody cares about what's going on.


I'll mention in another conversation, a typical conversation that I wrote about in "You Just Don't Understand", that I think is kind of significant here. There is a kind of talk we call "troubles talk". So that's spending a lot of time just talking about things that are bothering you, and it's more common among women than men, and so it leads to this pretty frequent conversation where a woman might start telling a man that she is close to about some problem, and he makes a suggestion about how to fix the problem and she's frustrated that, "I wasn't looking for a solution," and he's frustrated. So, his feeling might be something like, "Why do you wanna talk about it if you don't wanna do anything about it?"


And at the time that I wrote that book and it was picked up, because I think it is a conversation that many people have experienced. It has almost become like a truism in our culture. The interpretation was, "She didn't want a solution, she just wanted to talk about it." I don't think that's true and I wouldn't put it that way now. What I think is that she didn't want the solution right off the bat. So, how might the conversation go if it were with a woman friend, a sibling? Then you might get, "Oh, so tell me what happened." "Oh, well, why did he say that?" "Then what did you say?" "And then how did you feel when he said that?" "And how did he react when you said that?" And after asking all these questions you get the information that you need to know what advice to give.


And furthermore, just having the conversation, asking those questions is a show of caring and of closeness. I often talk about message and meta message. So the message is the meaning of the words. The meta message is what it says about the relationship, that you say these words in this way at this time. So, there's a meta message of caring and of closeness that's communicated by asking the questions. So that's what I think is the misfire in that conversation that I described in the beginning.


JP: Between men and women?


DT: Right. It isn't that she didn't want a solution, it's that saying the solution right away shuts down the conversation.


JP: She wanted validation first perhaps?


DT: Well, no, the way I would put it is, she wanted to start a conversation like that, because the conversation itself is a comforting and satisfying thing. Having that conversation is what says, "We care about each other. You care enough to spend this time listening to me and asking me. I care enough to tell you." And you get that meta message of connection from having the conversation.


JP: So, the conversation is in and of itself worthy... It has worth and value.


DT: Right.


JP: Not just sort of where it gets you, so to speak.


DT: Exactly.


JP: You spend a lot of time in your book talking about how these conversations, as much as women are talking, it's not without a lot of twists and turns. I would say choreography perhaps, and a choreography that might be hidden from the women engaged in the conversation. Can you help break it down a little bit more how you understand, or broad categories of ways that women converse, and what are the interesting observations and potential pitfalls of those ways of communicating?


DT: Yeah. As I mentioned, some of what I said now is part of that, so troubles talk would be a common kind of conversation that is common among women, and then there are pitfalls. The fact that not everybody wants to have that kind of conversation all the time would be one. Another pitfall that comes with talking about something very personal is that there's always a risk that a person might repeat it. Somebody put it this way that I kind of liked, someone I interviewed said, "When I tell somebody something personal it's like saying here's a little piece of me. This means I like you." Well, once they've got a piece of you, there is a question what they're gonna do with it…There are actually a few women who said to me, "I don't have women friends. I don't trust women." It was often gossip that they were talking about. That they didn't trust women not to repeat their secrets. And actually quite a few said that one thing they really value about men friends is men don't repeat their secrets. I don't think it's that men are inherently more trustworthy than women, but that they have less to gain by repeating.


Among girls and women the tendency is for closeness to be kind of the goal, like the pot of gold at the end of the relationship rainbow. Closeness is valued. People said, when people told me a friend was a close friend it was a good thing. People sometimes said, "I wish we were closer." They rarely said, "I wish we weren't so close." Well, how do you create that closeness and how do you let others know that you are close? Well, by knowing their secrets. So girls and women can be quite competitive about who knows what and who knows first. If you have a group of friends and one of them knows something about another that that person hasn't told you, there can be a feeling of hurt. And girls can be quite competitive in wanting to kind of show off that they're close to someone in the group or to a popular girl. And the way they can show that is by saying, "She told me this. I know this about her that you don't know." So, that can be a pitfall of those kinds of conversations.