A second grader named Julia assured her friend Shannon, “Me and you never get in fights hardly.” If discord does arise, she went on, they resolve it by talking it through: “I mean like if I try to talk to you, you’ll say ‘Talk to me,’ and if you try to talk to me, I’ll talk to you.’ ”
I came across this conversation in the early 1980s when the researcher who recorded it invited me to participate in his study of children talking to their best friends. I was fascinated to hear such young girls articulating a conviction I had encountered frequently among women. I heard the same notion while interviewing over 80 girls and women for a book about women’s friendships: that talking is the best way to solve problems between friends, and to deal with emotional upset in general.
Like all human relationships, friendships can be the source of great solace – but also, at times, of annoyance, frustration, and even pain. Talk can play a major role in the solace and the pain, especially for women. Women friends, as compared to men, tend to talk more – more often and at greater length – and about more personal topics. Many of the women I interviewed told me how talk could help, but some also told me of ways it can hurt.
A kind of talk that many women particularly value is troubles talk. As one woman put it, “A friend is someone who I can call when I am upset, who can help me process something that is going on with me.” And among the troubles that friends may talk about are problems with other friends. Such problems can have physical as well as emotional consequences. Carnegie Mellon researchers Rodlescia Sneed and Sheldon Cohen found that negative social encounters with friends were associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure — for women, that is, but not for men. So resolving problems with friends has special urgency for women.
The belief that the best way for friends to resolve conflicts is to talk about them is not new. The 19th century poet William Blake expressed a similar view: “I was angry with my friend/I told my wrath, my wrath did end./I was angry with my foe:/I told it not, my wrath did grow.” But, based on the women I talked to, I would say that, in some cases, telling a friend you’re not happy with something she said or did can also make wrath grow.
One woman, for example, told me of a new friend who accused her of “flaking” on her. The woman told me that she apologized to the friend, but she also made a mental note to be cautious about this friend in the future. One of her concerns was, “Is this person too fragile?” Another was, “I don’t want this aggression.” These concerns might at first seem paradoxical: Isn’t being fragile the opposite of being aggressive? Not necessarily. Telling someone that she hurt your feelings is, after all, an accusation, and that is a kind of attack. That’s why registering a complaint can become a cause for complaint in itself.
Here’s another instance where, a woman told me, talking it out did not resolve an “issue” but instead constituted one. The source of hurt was one that is common among women friends: learning that someone else knew something important before you knew. The woman told me that a friend protested, “Why did you tell another friend that you gave birth, before you told me?” The new mother had a good reason: When she went into labor, she called the friend who was going to watch her older child while she went to the hospital. So the complaint didn’t inspire contrition. Instead, it inspired her to distance herself from the one who registered what struck her as a groundless complaint.
Even between close friends, it isn’t always best to talk things out. For one thing, it’s tempting to justify what you said or did by repeating the opinion or accusation that prompted the problem in the first place. And some people find the prospect of talking things out distasteful — even repugnant. In extreme forms, it’s what’s often referred to, especially in middle school and high school, as “drama.” In the view of some, a friendship, like a romantic relationship, is working so long as you can talk things over. But to others, it isn’t working if you have to keep working it over.
Much of the talk that many women cherish is not about conflict but about other causes of distress. At times of major life challenges such as illness, death, breakups, miscarriages, or other losses, friendship comes into its own, including the balm of talk. A woman told me how much it meant, when her husband died, that a close friend called her every day for a year. And I heard of how precious were friends who were willing to listen while a grieving friend went over and over what they wished they’d done differently, not cutting them off with the reassurance, “You did all you could.”
But if some find it soothing to talk about their pain, others – or the same people at other times – feel that talking about it brings the pain back; they’d rather escape it by avoiding talk. Sometimes what’s soothing is just being there. In the Jewish tradition of shiva, friends and family gather to comfort someone who has lost a loved one, but they do not initiate conversation. The comfort they offer is their presence; visitors should not speak unless the bereaved speaks to them first.
Many of the women I interviewed referred to the kinds of conversations they have as a litmus test of friendship. But some explained friendship in terms of activities. For example, telling me why a particular friend was close, one woman said, “We traveled together, we went places together, we cooked together, we went shopping together.” And, while many said of close friends, “We talk about everything,” some said that the need to talk about everything could be burdensome.
Several women told me that they prefer friendships with men precisely because, in their experience, with men you don’t always have to talk. One woman recalled that when she was going through a painful divorce, she treasured the friendship of a man who was going through the same thing at the same time. Knowing they were sharing this pain was a comfort – and so was not having to talk about it. They just rode their bikes together until they were exhausted.
It can be a revelation to try responding to something in a way that we previously regarded as unthinkable. For some that might mean taking the scary step of telling a friend when something she did bothered you, and giving her the chance to explain herself, apologize, and try not to do it again. But for others, it might mean taking the equally scary (for them) step of not talking about it. Sometimes words can heal the wounds caused by words. And sometimes, so can silence.
Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You Just Don’t Understand.”