You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships

You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships

by Deborah Tannen

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This warm, wise exploration of female friendship from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand will help women lean into these powerful relationships.

A WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK • “Celebrates friendship in its frustrations and its rewards and, above all, its wonderful complexity.”—The Atlantic

Best friend, old friend, good friend, bff, college roommate, neighbor, workplace confidante: Women’s friendships are a lifeline in times of trouble and a support system for daily life. A friend can be like a sister, daughter, mother, mentor, therapist, or confessor—or she can be all of these at once. She’s seen you at your worst and celebrates you at your best. Figuring out what it means to be friends is, in the end, no less than figuring out how we connect to other people.

In this illuminating and validating new book, #1 New York Times bestselling author Deborah Tannen deconstructs the ways women friends talk and how those ways can bring friends closer or pull them apart. From casual chatting to intimate confiding, from talking about problems to telling what you had for dinner, Tannen uncovers the patterns of communication and miscommunication that affect friendships at different points in our lives. She shows how even the best of friends—with the best intentions—can say the wrong thing, and how words can repair the damage done by words. Through Tannen’s signature insight, humor, and ability to present pitch-perfect real-life dialogue, readers will see themselves and their friendships on every page. The book explains

• the power of women friends who show empathy, give advice—or just listen
• how women use talk to connect to friends—and to subtly compete
• how “Fear of Being Left Out” and “Fear of Getting Kicked Out” can haunt women’s friendships
• how social media is reshaping communication and relationships

Drawing on interviews with eighty women of diverse backgrounds, ranging in age from nine to ninety-seven, You’re the Only One I Can Tell gets to the heart of women’s friendships—how they work or fail, how they help or hurt, and how we can make them better.

“At a time when the messages we give and get have so many more ways to be misconstrued and potentially damaging, a book that takes apart our language becomes almost vital to our survival as friends.”—The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101885819
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 287,818
File size: 722 KB

About the Author

Deborah Tannen is the acclaimed author of You Just Don’t Understand, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years, the New York Times bestsellers You’re Wearing THAT? on mother-daughter communication and You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! about sisters, and many other books. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, she appears frequently on national television and radio. She lives with her husband in the Washington, D.C., area.


Washington, D.C. metro area

Date of Birth:

June 7, 1945

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, New York


B.A., Harpur College, 1966, Wayne State University, 1970; M.A. in Linguistics, UC Berkeley, 1976; Ph.D., 1979

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Women Friends Talking

Kathryn and Lily, friends for over sixty years, hadn’t seen each other in several weeks. They both felt this was too long, so they arranged to get together. When Kathryn arrived at Lily’s home, they sat down and talked. And talked. And talked. They didn’t stop, and they didn’t get up, until two and a half hours had passed. They talked about books they were reading, their significant others, politics, movies, their children, their children’s children, and how their bodies and their living situations were changing with age Later, they exchanged emails. Lily wrote, “That was a wonderful and soul-­lifting visit, my dearest old friend. Will let you know about the movie.” Kathryn replied, “I felt the same way about our time together.” Her email ended, “Let me know about the movie, and if we go to the other one I will let you know about that. Take care, dear friend.”

Andrea recalls that she and her best friend in middle school, Joelle, walked home together every day. They could take a bus, but they usually chose to walk instead so they would have more time to talk. At one point, there was a chance that Joelle’s family would move to another state. The prospect of losing her friend filled Andrea with dread. “I won’t be able to live without her,” she felt. “If she moves, how will I survive?” That feeling is usually associated with a life partner or parent. But a connection to a friend can be that strong, too. A deep sense of loss can result when a friendship ends. As with a romantic partner, losing a friend means losing a language. No one else can understand the particular meanings of words that you shared, the references that made you laugh or nod in understanding. That loss is a testament to the power of conversation—­of talk—­to create a connection, a shared world.

If a friend who is part of your daily life moves away, a hole is left that is palpable every day. Paula and her neighbor Nancy became fast friends by running together every morning before work. When Paula stepped out to pick up the paper in the morning, she faced Nancy’s house. During the winter months when days were shorter and mornings still dark, seeing the light in Nancy’s kitchen made her smile. It filled her with warmth to know that her friend was up, too, also preparing coffee and breakfast. Then Nancy and her family moved. Paula felt forlorn. She wasn’t motivated to run before work if Nancy wasn’t going with her. To her surprise, she found herself regarding the woman who bought Nancy’s house as an interloper. Now if Paula steps out to get the paper and spies a light in the kitchen across the way, though she knows it makes no sense, she feels resentment toward the woman who is moving around in Nancy’s kitchen.

A friend—­just one single friend—­changed the life of a girl named Maya. At eleven, Maya had never had a friend. Though she badly wanted one, she simply did not know how to relate to other children. As her much older sister, Chana Joffe-­Walt, explained on the radio show This American Life, Maya had many of the traits associated with the autism spectrum: “sensitivity to touch, lack of eye contact, obsessive and intense interest in one topic, and difficulty with social emotional reciprocity, what many of us call conversation.” Having struggled her entire young life, Maya “had amassed a team of therapists” and “a series of diagnoses that all seemed to take her most obvious character trait and add the word ‘disorder’ to it.” Despite the efforts of these experts, Maya “stopped asking for playdates altogether. She stopped reading. She stopped smiling, and sleeping. And she was on edge all the time, especially at school. A kid would take her pencil or brush up against her at the bus stop, and Maya would blow up. She had to be physically restrained. She broke a window. She was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. She got hospitalized for a brief period.”

Then the miracle happened. Maya went to a horse camp, race horses being her obsession. And there she met Charlotte, who became her friend. Charlotte and Maya had playdates. They laughed together. They had sleepovers. Until then, children had kept their distance from Maya. But Charlotte told her mother, “Maya is perfect.” Maya’s life changed so dramatically that her family referred to BC and AC, life Before Charlotte and After Charlotte. Maya herself explained that through Charlotte she learned how to relate to other people: “Be more flexible. Not just talk about what you want to talk about all the time. Do other stuff that your friend wants.” After two years of their friendship, Maya at thirteen “feels the feelings that come when you’re a girl and you have a friend who makes you laugh, and thinks about you when you’re apart, and gets you.” Maya was transformed. She “no longer regularly gets in trouble at school. She now does her homework and washes her hair without a struggle. She has not had one violent incident AC. She makes eye contact sometimes. She asks, ‘How are you?’ sometimes. She does chores. That felt impos­sible BC. All of it seemed impossible BC.” A friend accomplished what a decade of experts and therapists couldn’t.

She Was There for Me

Having a friend means feeling less alone in the world. You have someone to talk to, someone to do things with, someone you can call on when you need something—­or, even better, who will come through without being called on. I heard accounts of friends volunteering help in vastly different contexts. When Aisulu Kulbayeva, a linguistics graduate student, talked to women in a village in Kazakhstan about their friendships, they told her of women coming through with help when needed, and of sharing what little they had. One woman, Valentina, explained that she has a niece who is also a friend. When either visits the other, she always brings something, like candy for the children. And if her niece’s husband has gone fishing, she will bring Valentina a fish. When Valentina’s father died, her niece came over as soon as she heard, helped at the funeral, and helped Valentina cook for the many guests who came not only for the funeral but also for traditional gatherings on the ninth and fortieth days following her father’s death. Switching to present tense, Valentina explained that during that time, in order to be there for Valentina, her niece “leaves all her household chores. The only thing she goes home for is to milk the cow.”

“She was there for me” is something many women said when telling me about friendships they treasured. Some of the most moving stories I heard were of friends who came through in difficult times, and they spanned the ages and stages of women’s lives. One woman recalled how her friends rallied around her when she faced a challenging life ­circumstance—­in the third grade. Her family was going through a difficult time that her classmates got wind of. Her close friends did not ask for details—­that in itself was a gesture of friendship—­and they worked as a team to protect her. If a too-­curious classmate seemed poised to ask questions that might be hard for her to deal with, her friends would move in and encircle her, so the inquisitive intruder could not get to her—­literally or figuratively. I heard many accounts of friends bringing over meals and providing rides to medical facilities when a friend fell ill. Several women told me of friends who lived in distant cities coming to help when they were recovering from surgery—­and staying for a week or more. A woman described how, following a painful divorce, her friends helped her turn the run-­down condo she moved to into a home: “They came over with their rubber gloves and their buckets. It was like the maid brigade. They showed up to get down and dirty and gritty, because I was sort of dysfunctional at that point. I could do stuff, but I couldn’t organize it.”

On the other hand, a woman, Shirley, talked of an opposite experience. When her husband began showing the debilitating signs of Parkinson’s disease, Shirley said, “There were women friends—­women I thought were my friends—­who just disappeared.” Particularly disappointing was the reaction of a couple who had been among their closest friends for years. As Shirley’s husband’s illness worsened, the wife’s visits became more sporadic, and her husband’s stopped altogether. The wife told Shirley: “My husband can’t handle seeing your husband that way.” The hurt in Shirley’s voice was evident as she said, “We had to live with his Parkinson’s every day, and she’s telling me her husband can’t stand it for an hour.” The experience led Shirley to contemplate the meaning of friendship. “If a friend isn’t there when you need her,” she mused, “what is a friend?”

One woman answered this question by saying that a true friend is someone she could “call at three in the morning and say I need $100 for an airplane ticket.” The same wee hour came to the mind of a woman who told me that if a friend called her at three in the morning and said, “I need bail,” she’d reply, “Okay, can I come in my nightie? I’ll be right there.” These scenarios were hypothetical, but I heard many real-­life accounts of friends who jumped in a car or on a plane when a friend faced dire circumstances, such as that most unimaginable loss, the death of a spouse. One woman, when her friend’s husband died, flew across the country immediately and stayed to show her friend how to do the many things that he had done: write checks, balance a checkbook, shop for food and cook dinner. After returning to her own home, she called on the phone—­and continued to call every day for a year. Even when she was physically distant, she was there for her bereaved friend—­through talk.

The circumstances needn’t be cataclysmic for friends to come through by being there to talk. Another woman recalled a next-­door neighbor “who called me one day when her son had dropped a jar of mayonnaise and smeared it around all over the kitchen floor then put eggs in it because he was going to make a cake. And she just left the mess and came over. We drank coffee and commiserated with each other.”

It’s All Talk

“For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together.”

When my book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was published, I said this so often in interviews that my mother would tease me by chanting the sentence back to me. I’d always go on to add, “For boys and men, it’s activities that are central. For girls, your best friend is the one you tell everything to. For boys, your best friend is the one you do everything with—­and the one who will stick up for you if there’s a fight.”

Studies of children at play, such as Marjorie Harness Goodwin’s He-­Said-­She-­Said, found that girls and boys tend to play with others of the same sex, and to use language differently when they do. Typically, girls’ social lives are centered on a best friend, and they spend a lot of time sitting and talking, especially exchanging secrets. Boys talk, too, of course, but they tend to do it differently and for different purposes. Typically (though, obviously, not every child is typical; patterns should not be misconstrued as norms), boys use language to take center stage by boasting, telling stories, making jokes, or telling others what to do—­all ways of establishing their status in the group, and also ways of talking that girls find unacceptable in other girls. A boy who issues commands to others and gets them to stick is the leader. A girl who tries to tell others what to do is bossy, and the other girls don’t want to play with her.

Observing the ways children use language in same-­sex play sheds light on differences in how women and men tend to use language among friends as adults. Students in my classes observing their own conversations frequently describe contexts where the young women talk and the young men use action. Here’s an example provided by Erika Duelks.

Saturday night, after a party, a group of us went to Matt’s house to hang out before we went home to bed. I (and the other girls) proceeded to sit down on the couch and we began talking about the night: what we thought was fun, what we wished had happened, etc. I was in the middle of giving my friend Sarah advice about a boy when all of a sudden the coffee table was pushed out of the way and the guys began to wrestle, throwing each other onto the couch and pushing each other off chairs. It was funny for me to see my big guy friends wrestling as if they were five-­year-­olds, but it also struck me that this is how we chose to relax: the girls began talking . . . ​and the guys got up and started play-­fighting.

If the boys were acting like five-­year-­olds by roughhousing, Erika and her friends were also acting like five-­year-­olds—­five-­year-­old girls—­by sitting and talking.

I’ve often asked audiences, “When did you last communicate with your closest friend?” Most women raise their hands to indicate “this morning,” “yesterday” or “within a week.” A few women’s hands go up to show “within a month.” But many men, and very few women, raise their hands to indicate it has been a year or more. When I ask this question in conversation, men often say, “I haven’t spoken to him in a year—­but if I needed him, he’d be there.” If talk is the glue that holds a relationship together, you have to talk to your friend to maintain the friendship. If friendships are focused on activities, then there’s not much to gain by talking to friends who aren’t there.

Journalist Jeffrey Zaslow was intrigued by the close friendships he saw his mother, sister, wife, and daughters enjoying—­and sometimes suffering from. Like an anthropologist who goes to live among members of a different culture, Zaslow followed a group of women who had been friends for forty years, to figure out what drives their friendships. As he recounted in his book The Girls from Ames, he quickly realized that talking about their personal lives was key to their friendships—­and completely different from the kind of talk he and his friends engaged in. “I’ve been playing poker with a group of friends every Thursday night for many years,” he wrote in his introduction to the book. “About 80 percent of our conversations are focused specifically on the cards, the betting, the bluffing. Most of the rest of the chatter is about sports, or sometimes our jobs. For weeks on end, our personal lives—­or our feelings about anything—­never come up.”

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

1 Women Friends Talking 3

2 That's Not What I Meant!: The Invisible Influence of Conversational Style 39

3 "We're a Lot Alike," "We're Very Different": The Importance of Being-or Not Being-the Same 77

4 The Same-or Better?: Connection and Competition 101

5 FOBLO, FOGKO, and the Safe Embrace of Women in Groups 122

6 Too Close for Comfort: Cutoffs, Poaching, Drama! 147

7 "Like" It or Not; Women, Friendship, and Social Media 182

8 My Friend, My Sister, My Self: What It Means to Be Close 219

Epilogue 247

Acknowledgments 251

Notes 257

Index 265

Reading Group Guide

1. Were there parts of the book, or points made in the book, that particularly struck a chord with you? Which were they, and why?

2. Were there parts of the book, or points made in the book, that shed new light on an experience with a friend you had in the past? Which were they, and how?

3. Have you ever experienced FOBLO (Fear Of Being Left Out) or FOGKO (Fear of Getting Kicked Out)? Does having a word for it change how you think or feel about it?

4. Did the concept and examples of conversational style shed light on any conversations you’ve had, with friends—or with anyone else?

5. Do you engage in troubles talk with friends? Is troubles talk different with different friends? What do you value most about troubles talk? Can you think of a time that you were sorry you engaged in troubles talk?

6. Has your sense of friendship changed over time? Have friends filled different roles or different needs at different stages of your life?

7. Did you recognize the concept of poaching? Does having a name for it affect how you think about it?

8. Have you ever experienced a cutoff? Did the friends tell you why they were cutting you off? Have you ever cut friends off? Did you tell them why you were cutting them off? If not, why not? If you did, how did that play out?

9. Have you ever been a member of a trio? Did you recognize any of the challenges about this constellation, such as FOBLO, shifting alignments, or any other?

10. Do you have both women and men friends? Are there differences between these friendships?

11. How much time that you spend with friends is devoted to doing things and how much to talking? Does this differ with different friends?

12. Which social media do you use to communicate with friends? How does this affect your friendships?

13. When you say someone is or isn’t a close friend, what do you mean by “close”? Do you have different ways of being close to different friends?

14. Do you have close friends who you feel are very much like you? Some you feel are very different from you? How does their similarity or difference affect your friendship?

15. Do you feel that competition is a factor in any of your friendships? Are there ways this has been helpful or hurtful? Were your thoughts about this affected by Tannen’s take on how connection and competition can be confused, or inseparable?

16. How many friends do you have or want to have? Has this changed at different times in your life?

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