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One author explores the intricacies of language in women's friendships, one secret at a time.

Women’s friendships can be so amazingly rewarding and yet so tough at the same time. I find that as I get older, it gets harder and harder for me to put myself out there and make new friends. Sometimes friendship comes easy, and other times it can be mystifying. However, there’s no denying that friendships with other women are important. According to a new book by Deborah Tannen, You’re The Only One I Can Tell: The Language of Female Friendships, we get an in-depth look at how women’s friendships work, and a reminder that these things can be a little tricky to navigate.

Tannen is no stranger to the study of dynamics in female relationships – she’s published other books about relationships between sisters and mother-daughter relationships, too. In a recent interview with Refinery29, when asked why she was focusing on women’s friendships this time around, Tanner stated that after sisterhood and mother/daughter relationships, women’s friendships came up so often in conversation during her studies. Often, interviewees said, “My female friends are everything to me,” or, “My relationship with my female friends is as essential as air.” But these women were not without problems – many women commented on things that they were experiencing in their friendships that were causing them stress.

Tannen has found that in women, language is a huge part of friendships and relationships – so much so that sometimes, much of what women friends talk about is other women friends. Tannen highlighted a difference between men and women: in men, a best friend is often somebody that you do lots of things with. In women, they consider their best friend who they can tell everything/anything to. Societally, the focus seems to be on communication for female friendships, and on action for male friendships.

Once pointing out the huge difference between relationship languages in men and women, Tannen got into the intricacies of women’s friendships with one thing we generally know about our best friends: all, or at least some, of their secrets. According to the book, secrets are demonstrative of different power dynamics between friends. For many people, the marker of a close friendship was someone you could tell your secrets to – things other people don’t know. But that leaves open the risk of them repeating your secret to other people – accidentally, or intentionally. And when you delve into intent, that’s where the power dynamics lie – girls and women are, “quite competitive about who knows what and who knows first, because that is a marker of how close you are, and we like to be able to show off how close we are to other women,” says Tannen.

Also interesting to think about is the dynamics of female friendships in the social media age. When you and your friends are constantly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube, interacting with one another, it almost forces people to keep in touch. But there’s a dark side to social media, as it can be the first place you find out that a vina has left you out, and FOMO is real. Maybe there’s pics or snaps from a party you weren’t invited to, or some inside jokes in the group chat. According to Tannen, “Girls punish girls by leaving them out. Boys don’t do that. They may mistreat their friends, but they don’t lock them out.” And being left out, or being kicked out? It can be devastating to women and the friendships they’re in, especially younger women.

Next time you’re trying to navigate the ups and downs of women’s friendships in this fast-paced technology age, remember this stuff! Power struggles exist in many different kinds of relationships, and women’s friendships are not immune. Be sure to check out Tannen’s book for more insight!

Will this new information influence how or what you communicate to your friends? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!


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