When I first picked up Deborah Tannen's You're The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language Of Women's Friendships, my thought was, "Who would want to read this?" (I thought this with a mean-girl snarled lip and bitchy head flip, while up-talking.)
As someone who's written a book and an advice column on women's friendships, I feel like I pretty much know all I want to know about the topic. Something about the idea of this book made me feel very tired. I guess I see my friendships as fine, and the thought of putting more work into them makes me want to curl up into a fetal position with a bottle of sauvignon blanc.
Like many women, I have a partner, a kid, pets and a busy job, and I am all done making new friends. As one friend and I have said, "No new friends unless somebody dies." In other words, I'm too tired to work on my friendships.
But after starting to read it, I realised I had it exactly backward. It isn't the number of friends that's exhausting but the way we relate to them. All the dances we perform in our relationships, all the work – that is exhausting. The further I read, the more I realised that actually knowing what I was doing could make it less challenging and maybe even more enjoyable. See? Self-awareness isn't just for the kids.
Tannen, the author of the mega-blockbuster You Just Don't Understand: Women And Men In Conversation, interviewed 80 women from "nine to ninety-seven" and from backgrounds that included "African-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans and many different ethnic, geographic, economic, and religious backgrounds as well as sexual orientations and gender identities" to determine patterns and explore conversational styles.
She also used anecdotes from some of her students in the interactional sociolinguistics classes she teaches at Georgetown University. In addition, she drew on essays and novels by such writers as Rosie Schaap, Cynthia Ozick and Elliott Holt.
In one of the early chapters, "That's Not What I Meant!: The Invisible Influence of Conversational Styles," Tannen relays a story of four roommates who shared an apartment where the positioning of the refrigerator and stove meant everyone needed to take extra care to make sure the freezer door was closed. One roommate was particularly careless, and another was really bugged by it. The one who was irked approached a third roommate to discuss how to go about addressing this without hurting the offender's feelings.
They decided that instead of confronting the guilty roommate, the unhappy roommate would send a group text, making it seem like everyone was at fault. So she wrote: "Hey guys! I don't wanna come off as a bitch, but if every one (including me), could really make sure that we're closing the freezer, I would really appreciate it. It was cracked open when I got home and everything in the door was completely defrosted. RIP Gyoza." According to Tannen, the sender started with a disclaimer and ended with humor.
She believed she had figured out a way to resolve the issue considerately. Unfortunately, the other two roommates who were in on the plan rushed in to respond and diffuse, and blurred the message. One wrote "Aye Aye" and sent a picture of her cute baby nephew; the second sent a Bitmoji of herself saying "Will Do!" and responding that the photo of the baby was "totes ADORBS."
The fourth roommate, the delinquent, then started chatting about dinner plans and commenting on the baby. The next day she did the same thing with the freezer door. Message not received! Gyoza DOA!
This example of the way women communicate made my head spin off my body and into outer space. Why? Because I do this all the time and never realised it. A few days later I was talking to a friend about something she had done that wasn't okay with me; the minute she started apologising I was backpedaling into 2010. If the book delivered just this one lesson, it would be worth it.
But there is more. Tannen uses a story of French and American women to point out how friends from different cultures can get all tangled up by not knowing the other culture's norms. When a French woman complained that she was tired, another French friend offered to take her children for an afternoon to give her time to rest – and the tired woman complained that her American friend didn't offer to help.
Conversely, when the American friend complained that she was tired, and the French woman offered to take her children, she took offense – "As if I were incapable of taking care of my daughter and my work at the same time." Trouble abounds! Tannen also writes about the conversational differences and nuances with a friend who uses American Sign Language.
Tannen's book comes at a time when our friendships are challenged daily in new and ghastly ways, thanks in large part to the use of various social media and texting. (In the old days, you would sit and wonder if you were being left out; now you can watch in real time as your friends go to the ice cream parlor and post it on Instagram.)
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.