Is there any wonder that female friendship has become bedrock of some of the great stories in film, drama and literature? By turns messy, exquisite and complicated, female friendships may wax and wane, yet are likely to be the most enriching ones that a woman will ever enjoy.
According to the vast cultural messaging around women and their pals, the conceit remains much the same: the bond between two women is unbreakable, and can rarely be destroyed. Even on Love Island, where the main objective of the series is for contestants to find a heterosexual partner, the recent series was more an ode to the intensity of “girlmances” than anything else.
Yet there’s often a sharp edge to female friendships. They have been so romanticised in pop culture that we women expect plenty from them, and so they can become as fraught as their romantic equivalents. Doing them right is considered part and parcel of proper adulting, in the same way that marriage once was.
Where many men can hold on to pals for decades with uncomplicated, casual interactions, women often foster a white-hot intimacy with some of their closest friends. Conversely, they can treat each other with astonishing cruelty with the same sort of intensity.
Most of us are lucky enough to have a handful of “post bail at 4am” friends, but it’s likely, too that we have a trail of “exes” behind us. Some fell by the wayside. Some imploded. Some have infracted the “girl code”. There has been the social freezing out. The cruel chasing of someone you might have a tentative crush on. The competitive dieting. The passive-aggressiveness. The bitching that serves as a bonding mechanism. The hidden agendas.
And, in the age of social media where every micro-aggression feels like an all-out assault, there has also been the falling out that arrived clean out of nowhere. Research commissioned by US author Kelly Vane reveals that 88 per cent of respondents admitted there was an undercurrent of meanness and negativity that plagued some of their female friendships.
Yet according to a new book, these complications could well arise from the simple use of language. Previously, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen has done deep dives into the interactions between sisters, and mothers and daughters, but in her most recent research, she turns her attention to friends.
In You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, Tannen explores the distinctiveness of conversations between girlfriends. From a young age, Tannen asserts, little girls spend more time sitting and talking than their male counterparts. They learn early on that telling your best friend everything has a significance; it carries an element of social cachet.
Many of the book’s subjects profess the same thing: their friendships are among the most important relationships in their life. Even at that, they are not without complication.
So far, so familiar. Yet Tannen also puts forward an interesting and novel theory: that gossip and secrets can actually be good for female friendships.
“The role of secrets in their friendships helps explains why girls are often cliquey,” Tannen writes. “For girls, and women, closeness can be gauged and negotiated by who knows what secrets, and how and when they know them. As one young woman put it, sharing personal information is like a first step towards friendship.”
As to why someone might intentionally spill a secret to another, Tannen says: “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.”
In her research, Tannen also uncovered how girls are particularly sensitive to being left out socially. She has coined some acronyms that tend to colour female interaction: FOBLO (fear of being left out) and FOGKO (fear of getting kicked out).
These help to partly explain why gossip is so central to female friendship.
“Gossip has a bad rep, which gives women a bad rep,” Tannen observes. “Often, and more commonly, people talk about each other’s lives without putting them down: just talking about. This kind of gossip reflects an interest in other people’s lives, exactly what lies at the heart of academic disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. Being interested in a friend’s personal life is a show of caring; a way to create closeness.”
There is of course, such a thing as “bad” gossip, where women talk against others.
“It’s interesting: quite a few Irish women writers have written about that,” Tannen has observed. “There seems to be a particular risk of talking against in small communities.
“As adults, women must find ways through this minefield, balancing the desire on one hand, to share secrets in order to form friendships and to think through problems with the need, on the other hand, to avoid providing fodder for gossip.”
Social media has only served to amplify all of the above; the intimacy of friendship, the instances of social isolation and exclusion, and the dissemination of gossip. As one of Tannen’s interview subjects noted, “devices can ruin a friendship”.
“On the other hand, one of the positive things about friendships is you get this sense of connection,” Tannen told the LA Review of Books. “The comfort of feeling someone cares about you or cares what you’re doing. I love this line from one of the older women I interviewed being critical of young people using social media. She said, ‘All this stuff out there that nobody needs to know. I don’t care what somebody had for dinner!’
“But the truth is, we do care when it’s someone we’re close to. It’s this sense of connection.”
You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships by Deborah Tannen is out now via Virago Books.