You're the Only One
I Can Tell
Inside the Language of Women's Friendships
By Deborah Tannen
304 pp. $27.
Reviewed by Julie Klam
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. But after starting to read the book, I realized I had it exactly backward. It isn't the number of friends that's exhausting, but the way we relate to them.
Deborah Tannen, 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 various ethnic, geographic, economic, and religious backgrounds, "as well as sexual orientations and gender identities," to determine patterns and explore conversational styles.
In one of the early chapters, "That's Not What I Meant!: The Invisible Influence of Conversational Styles," Tannen tells of four roommates' sharing 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. Two others decided that instead of confronting the guilty roommate, one would send a group text, making it seem like everyone was at fault. 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. But the other two roommates in on the plan rushed in to respond and diffuse, and blurred the message. 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.
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 realized it. A few days later, I was talking to a friend about something she had done that wasn't OK with me; the minute she started apologizing, I was backpedaling. If the book delivered just this one lesson, it would be worth it.
Our friendships are challenged daily in new and ghastly ways, thanks in large part to social media and texting. 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.
Julie Klam's fifth book, "The Stars in Our Eyes: The Famous, the Infamous, and Why We Care Way Too Much," will be published in July. This review originally appeared in the Washingon Post.