You’re the Only One I Can Tell- Deborah Tannen

Categories: Author post

On the 22nd of June, we publish Deborah Tannen’s You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, the illuminating and validating book which gets inside the language of one of most women’s life essentials – female friendships.

Below is an exclusive extract from the book:




Best friend, old friend, good friend, close friend, good strong friend, bestie bestie, go-­to core friend, close close friend, very very very very close friend, bff, my sweet angel from heaven: as I interviewed over eighty women about their friendships, and spoke casually about the topic with dozens more, I heard a seemingly limitless range of words and phrases that women used when referring to—­and thinking about—­the women friends they cherish. And explanations of why they cherish them were equally vast—­and inspiring: “Women friends are the people you turn to emotionally. They are the most sustaining thing in my life”; “I’ve been protected and defended and shielded by my women friends”; “My friendships with women are as essential as air”; “My women friends are my life.”

But I also heard comments like, “With women, throughout my life, the hardest part is getting to be friends at all. Once we cross the line and become friends, it’s great, but it hasn’t happened often”; “I find female friendships a difficult terrain to negotiate, to navigate”; “I don’t have women friends. I don’t trust women.” Though those who described more negative than positive experiences were in the minority, nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned ways that friends could frustrate or annoy, and told tales of heartache suffered when close friends disappointed or disappeared. Like all significant relationships, friendships among women can be the source of great solace but also of puzzlement and pain.

Conversations among women friends have much in common with the topics of my two previous books: You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, and You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. A journalist interviewing me about mothers and daughters once blurted, “Why are these relationships so fraught? After all, we’re both women!” She was thinking of my book You Just Don’t Understand, where I traced many conversational frustrations to differences in women’s and men’s ways of speaking. I had to think about that question for a moment. Then the answer seemed obvious: it’s because we’re both women. As I explained in that early book, girls and women, as compared to boys and men, tend to talk more—­more often and at greater length—­and to talk about more personal topics. All this talk can lead to more intimacy and closeness but also affords more opportunities to stir up emotions—­both comforting and troubling—­and to say the wrong thing.

Another way that women’s friendships resemble relationships between daughters and mothers and among sisters is the source of hurt feelings. Just as with those family relationships—­and in contrast to relationships among sons, fathers, and brothers—­when women told me about being upset by friends, it was often because they hadn’t been included in something or hadn’t been told something. This reflects the sensitivity, common among women, to feeling left out or pushed away. (Men’s sensitivities tend to lie elsewhere: to feeling put down or pushed around.)

In other ways, though, friendship is different from the family relationships I’ve written about. One big difference is the challenge of simply identifying who is a friend. When I asked women about their mothers, daughters, and sisters, they immediately knew who those were, and the number was limited. (Surprises in that regard—­learning that you have siblings you didn’t know about, or that the person you thought was your mother or sister really isn’t—­are the stuff of novels and life-­changing personal drama, even trauma.) But when I asked about friends, I heard of a dizzying array of relationships. Women spoke of friends they see or speak to every day, and of friends they haven’t seen or spoken to in years but still feel close to; they told me about friends they’ve known their whole lives, friends they met recently, and friends they’ve never met but have become close to through social media. And many women I interviewed, at one point or another, suddenly thought of someone they had forgotten but realized they should tell me about. A woman’s concept of what constitutes friendship could vary within a single interview. One described a “couples friend” she values, but later in our conversation, she said that she didn’t really have or need friends because she had her husband and the couples they see socially. In her first comment, the woman she sees as part of a couple is a type of friend, but in the second, “friend” seems reserved for someone she sees separately, one on one.

Despite how different the relationships with those called “friends” could be, hearing about them always gave me a window into a woman’s world at the time of the friendship. For many, having friends was synonymous with having a good life. That was certainly true for my mother. Explaining why the period between getting married and having her first child was the happiest of her life, she said, “We went out; we had friends.” When I asked about her childhood in Russia, she said she didn’t remember much, but she was happy because she had friends. And it was clear, from her words and also from her life, that not having friends meant not being happy. Each time she had to move—­from the house where she and my father had raised their children to a rented apartment, and later from the rental to a suburban condo—­she was deeply unhappy until she succeeded in making new friends. In their eighties, my parents moved to a senior residence. Whenever I spoke to my mother in the months after that move, she’d end the conversation by saying, “I still don’t have a friend.” And if I asked about a social worker my sisters and I had hired to help her adjust, she’d say, “I wish she could find me a friend” or, more bleakly, “She can’t find me a friend.”

As I interviewed women for this book, I realized that my mother was not unusual. An octogenarian commented, when she heard that someone died, “I wish it had been me because my friends are gone.” And a woman who told me that her mother, who was born in England, never adjusted to life in the United States, backed up that observation by saying that her mother never made friends here; she kept her friends in En­gland and lived for the times when she could go back and see them.

Some women said they liked having lots of friends, and some said they needed only a few, but almost no one said she didn’t want any. Those who told me they didn’t have women friends always said it with regret. One woman articulated what many others implied: after her husband died, she went ahead and built the house they had planned to build together, and she lived in it for two years, but then she sold it and moved. “It did not make me happy,” she said. “It was a perfect house, but it was just a house. I learned a very valuable lesson, that it’s all stuff except people and relationships.” That means relationships with family and also with friends.

In writing You’re Wearing THAT? I came to understand that love between mothers and daughters can be like romantic love. In writing this book, I realized that the same is true of friends. Two of the most moving books I have ever read are memoirs of friendship and the acute pain of a close friend’s death: Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home and Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty. These memoirs capture how friendship can entail the same deep satisfaction and sense of connection that we tend to associate with romantic love, and how a friend’s death can be as devastating as the loss of a life partner. In the same way, a first best friend can resemble first love, and breaking up with a best friend can be like breaking up with a romantic partner. A woman told me she had bad dreams for years about a close friend who summarily ended their friendship without saying a word; she learned she’d been cut off when an invitation to the friend’s wedding never arrived.

Jeanne Safer, a psychoanalyst, begins a book of essays about “love lost and found” with a personal experience: she received a voice message from someone whose disappearance, two years earlier, had caused her great pain. Hearing the voice brought a flood of conflicting emotions that reminded her of the terrible suffering she had experienced as a college student desperately in love with a man who broke her heart. But the phone message was not from a former lover. It was from a woman who had been her best friend, “the one woman in the world who spoke my language,” who told her, “I’ve never talked to anybody the way I talk to you.” Hearing this voice from the past plunged Safer into a state of emotional turmoil. She even found herself singing songs of grief about failed love affairs. Wondering why, she realized that what she was experiencing—­“the paralysis, the desperate attempt at self-­control, the justifications that couldn’t justify, the anxiety that a wrong move on my part could be fatal, the strangulated fury, the feeling that parting would be unendurable—­was exactly the same.”

A close friend can resemble not only a romantic partner but also a sister, a daughter, a mother, a mentor, a therapist, a confessor—­or all at once. UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor has shown one reason why friends are particularly important to women. For many years it was conventional wisdom, based on research conducted with men, that human beings under stress have two options: fight or flight. Taylor found that this is less true for women. In conditions of stress, her research shows, it is at least as common, maybe more common, for women to neither fight nor flee but to bond. Taylor calls this impulse “tend and befriend”—­tending to offspring and affiliating with others. And there you have the enormous role that friends can play in women’s lives.

Taylor’s research also helps explain why troubles with friends can be more distressing for women than for men. Many hours of women’s conversations with friends are devoted to problems with other women friends—­as are hours of their conversations with therapists. One woman remarked that 25 percent of her time—­costly time!—­in therapy is spent on her relationship with a friend. And the resulting damage can be not just emotional but physical. Carnegie Mellon researchers Rodlescia Sneed and Sheldon Cohen found that negative social encounters with friends were associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure—­for women but not for men.

When talking to women about their friendships—­both in the extended interviews I conducted and in countless casual conversations I had while researching and writing this book—­I tended to focus on women friends, because most of the friendships women told me about were with other women. But sometimes women told me about friendships with men, and I include examples of those in this book. In many cases, those friendships were with gay men. My own best friend, as I describe in Chapter 8, is a gay man, as was the dear friend whose loss I write about in the epilogue. Close friendships between women and gay men are common and in many ways resemble the friendships among women that I describe, especially the role played by talk about personal lives. The woman who said she finds female friendships a difficult terrain to navigate went on to say that a lot of her closest friends are gay men. “I suspect,” she said, “that gay men are my girlfriends,” because “I find gay men very easy to be around.” And perhaps there is the added frisson of cross-­sex companionship without the complication of sexual possibility—­much as a lesbian told me that her closest friendships tend to be with gay men and straight women, since friendships with gay women can get complicated if one gets a crush on the other that is not reciprocated. I haven’t tackled here the intriguing nuances of women’s friendships with gay men; perhaps that will be a topic for another book. In this one, I just try to observe and describe patterns in friendships that I heard about from women who told me of their experiences, as well as my own.

All the examples I give of conversations and friendships—­except for occasional examples from novels and short stories—­are based on real ones. Most are from the interviews I conducted, while some are from ­casual conversations I had on the topic. Some are examples reported by students in my classes at Georgetown University, either in papers written for the class or in what I call field notes, where students describe interactions they took part in or observed, and analyze them using the concepts, theories, and methods they encountered in our course. To ensure that students feel no pressure to allow me to use their work in this way, I never keep copies of field notes when I grade them. If I come across a field note that I think I might want to cite in the future, I attach a photocopy to the original and return both to the student along with all the others. I keep no record of whose or which field notes I return with copies. Students who feel comfortable with the possibility that I might one day refer to their field notes in my lectures or writing can return the photocopies to me. Those who don’t, don’t. I can honestly assure them that I will have no knowledge or recollection of having been interested in a field note that I didn’t receive back.

Regardless of the source, for every example that I include, I always show the person I got it from exactly what I wrote, and the context in which it appears. I ask, first, if it’s okay to use it. If the answer is no, it’s out, no explanation needed. If the answer is yes, then I ask whether I got it right and if there is anything I should change for any reason: accuracy, privacy, comfort. After making any requested changes, I show the source my rewrite, and if that’s not quite right, I’ll revise it again, until exactly what will appear in print has been approved. In most cases, I use pseu­donyms or no names at all. Pseudonyms are always first names only. In the few cases where a source is identified with a specific example, I give her full name.

The examples I include come from girls and women of a broad range of ages (nine to ninety-­seven) and backgrounds: African-­Americans, Asian-­Americans, European-­Americans, and Hispanic-­Americans from many different ethnic, geographic, economic, and religious backgrounds as well as sexual orientations and gender identities. I sought this diversity to ensure that I heard a broad range of experience, not to characterize or compare groups of people. Comparison of groups requires survey methods, which narrow the focus of questions in order to get responses from a large number of subjects. Such studies might find, for example, that 60 percent of one group compared to 40 percent of the other respond in a certain way; such findings never describe every individual in the groups compared. My academic discipline and training are in a field called interactional sociolinguistics, which uses a case-­study method that allows for in-­depth analysis of real-­life examples. The goal is to discover and explain the subtle and complex workings of language in interaction. I therefore refrain from specifying the ethnic or cultural backgrounds—­or ages, professions, or sexual orientations—­of most of the individuals whose examples I use, unless those identities seem crucial to understanding the example.

Though I focus on women’s friendships, I do not doubt that some of what I write might also be true of friendships between women and men, and among men. But friendships play a particularly large role, and a particularly complex one, in women’s lives. Men are often surprised by the depth of women’s friendships, the depth of their distress when those friendships go awry, and the sheer amount of time that women spend talking to—­and about—­their friends. In writing this book, I tried simply to listen to the many women who told me of their friendships, and to uncover what is wonderful and what is challenging in a relationship that plays such an important part in women’s lives. The multiplicity of meanings encapsulated by the word “friend,” and the many different forms that friendship can take, made getting to the bottom of these relationships more daunting but also more fascinating. Figuring out what it means to be a friend is, in the end, no less than figuring out how we ­connect to other people. Understanding women’s friendships—­how they work or fail, how they help and hurt, and how we can make them better—­is the goal of this book.

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