Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and an expert on the role of communication in relationships. Her highly acclaimed You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, takes a deep dive into the nuances of female friends’ communications (and just came out in paperback in August). We know that having girlfriends to talk to contributes significantly to mental health, but we had some questions for Tannen about how girl time might help with larger issues facing women today.
Mary Rose Somarriba (MRS): What makes girlfriend communication unique compared to other forms of communication?
Deborah Tannen (DT): There are many different kinds of friends. So what I say about one kind of friendship may not apply to another. But many women told me they really value women friends because they can tell them exactly what they’re feeling, thinking, what’s going on in their life. Someone who’s interested in the little details, and the big stuff, stuff you really worried about, that you can benefit from talking through. And the feeling that if you really need them, they’ll be there.
MRS: What qualities did you find characterize the best kind of girl friends, or those with the highest quality relationship?
DT: What women told me is that they really valued the feeling that she gets me, and all my quirks, and I get her, and all her quirks. I can really be myself around her. So that feeling that the friend is accepting. And then for older women, it’s extremely precious to have a friend who’s known you for a very long time; that’s one of the things that much older women tell me that they really missed when old friends or gone (or if they move). That feeling that that person knows and accepts you is important, that she’ll take the time to listen when you want to talk. And talk herself when there’s something going on in her life.
MRS: How about introvert-extrovert combination friendships—what trends did you find there?
DT: The introvert-extrovert difference was actually more significant in this book focusing on female relationships, than in any other book I’ve written (male-female relationships, mothers-daughters, and so on). With female friendships, it got really significant—that basic difference that introverts lose energy from people, while extroverts gain energy from people.
The fact that a person who’s an introvert just needs time alone to recharge can hurt the feelings of an extrovert. The fact that introverts take a while to tell you something, can hurt an extrovert. The inverse is also true; if extroverts tell too much too soon, or take up too much air time in a group, it can hurt an introvert.
MRS: Research has revealed an inverse correlation between the time women spend with girlfriends and women having depression. How do you think girlfriend communication trends may factor into less depression in young women?
DT: I am not a psychologist; I study linguistics and how people talk. But I know psychologists have found that if people talk about their problems, the problems seem more manageable. And depression often, psychologists say, comes from feelings of loneliness. Nobody understands, nobody cares. So if somebody cares, knows what I’m going through, that would be an antidote to depression.
MRS: What role can good girlfriends play in a #metoo world? Do you think there’s an aspect of having someone to confide in that girlfriends allow for, that is helping women avoid hardships or exploitation from others?
DT: It’s interesting; there’s an assumption women have that if something upsetting happens they’ll tell their friends. That’s why people corroborate an accusation by asking if they told a friend. And people are often suspicious that if they didn’t tell a friend, that it didn’t happen.
The “you’re the only one I can tell” aspect of female communication, the sense of fidelity and trust could help. That feeling “I know what you mean, I know how you feel, the same thing happened to me,” is a huge element that helps. And that’s why depression might be better if you have friends. In fact I have to say that is one of the biggest responses I have to all my books. It’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that response to every book.
MRS: How does social media today affect female friendships?
DT: It’s a new challenge that friendships now have to integrate to social media. In a way it amplifies the best thing about friendship—you can stay in touch all the time. You can send a quick text, a message on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, whatever you’re using. But the risk is you can sometimes use those things and not have the phone-call or face-to-face conversation. For a friendship to flourish, you need to make an effort to at least some of the time have a more extended conversation.
Even good friends can have different ideas about what’s an appropriate medium for certain communication. One pair of friends were five years out of college; one was texting long messages about a problem in her life and was getting minimal responses. They were able to figure out they had different expectations of what to express over a text. One thought phone and text were similar, other though if it’s a huge issue, that’s something to take the time for a phone call for. After clearing that up, they could repair the misunderstanding and communicate better.