13 Jun 2017

Deborah Tannen: women and the power of conversation

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 13 June 2017

Friendships can be a source of enormous comfort… until they're not.

Linguist Deborah Tannen has been looking at the power of friendship and communication between women for her new book You're The Only One I Can Tell.

She talks with Jesse Mulligan about closeness, gossip and the perils of group emails.

Nothing to do with communication is true of all women or all men, but there are reasons why the image of one little girl whispering into the ear of another is iconic, Tannen says. 

For women, talking about personal things is a sign of closeness – "the pot of gold at the end of the relationship rainbow". 

"Girls and women often feel their friends are the ones they can tell things to while boys and men often feel their friends are the ones they can do things with."

Tannen says that when women told her that they had been hurt by a friend, it was often a result of feeling left out in some sense, leading them to feel the friendship was not as close as they'd believed.

Girls and women can get competitive about who is closer to a friend or relative, which is often demonstrated by who knows more and who knows first.

Some women arranged conference calls or sent group emails when they had an announcement to make to avoid hurting "the second one to know".

But ordering recipients' names on the 'to' line of a group email can be a minefield, Tannen heard.

"One person said 'If I'm the last you sort of see your person saying 'Gee, who I am leaving out?'"

And the 'Bcc' line is no escape.

"That implies "I'm sending this to so many people I can't even list them."

Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen Photo: supplied

The idea of 'gossip' has negative connotations, but that's only justified when you're talking against people.

Talking about people is a thing apart, she says – "it's showing interest in people's lives, it's showing caring."

Listening is such a big part of women's friendships that any sign a friend isn't really listening to you can be very hurtful.

Differences in conversational style are part of the problem – some people expect silence while they're talking while others don't mind a bit of interruption.

While an interruption can feel like something that's been done to you, Tannen reminds that it takes two, baby.

"When someone else seems to be running out of steam, seems to be kind of coming to an end [of what they're saying], you might start up, but not because you want to take the floor, because you really think they're finished. And there's an assumption that if they really don't want to stop, they won't … If they stop, they created the interruption, but they think you did because you started [talking]. An interruption requires two people's behaviour – one has to start, but the other has to stop."