You’re the Only One I Can Tell – Deborah Tannen

The subtitle of this book is “Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships,” which begs the question – why did I read it?  The answer is that I actually got the book for my wife after reading a review of it in the Wall St Journal, but since she has a longstanding policy of never reading any book I recommend, I decided to read it myself.  My thinking was that it might help me understand communication with my wife better or perhaps help me with my own communication generally.  What it actually did was give me a glimpse inside women’s relationships and communications that chilled me to the bone.

In the introduction to the book the author says, “I do not doubt that some of what I write might also be true of friendships between women and men, and among men.  But friendships play a particularly large role, and a particularly complex one, in women’s lives. Men are often surprised by the depth of women’s friendships, the depth of their distress when those friendships go awry, and the sheer amount of time that women spend talking to—and about—their friends.”  [Note here – there’s definitely a bias in the book that women relate on a level unknown to men – since I’m not a woman, perhaps I shouldn’t dispute this – but since the author isn’t a man…]

The author talks about all different facets of women’s communications.  How women look for commonality in their conversations (the correct response to “I’ve eaten so much chocolate today!” is NOT, “Why did you do that?  That can’t be healthy.”  The correct response is, “When I start eating chocolate, I just can’t stop either!”), how women need to talk through their problems with others (the author calls this ‘troubles talk’), how important it is for friends to share (if a friend has a problem or event in her life that she doesn’t share with a close friend and the close friend finds out about it later, the friend who wasn’t told will feel almost as if the first friend lied – sharing is HUGE), and how women oftentimes use indirect communication and count on their listener to glean their meaning (“I’m really busy and I have tons on my plate, but if you need me to come over, I certainly can,” which means, “I can’t come over”).

She goes into different fears that women have in their relationships – FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBLO (fear of being left out), and FOGKO (fear of getting kicked out).  She says FOMO and FOBLO are exacerbated by technology and social media.  Now that we have phones and people communicate in so many different ways, women may check their phones continually for fear of mission out on something that’s happening (this would apply to more than women, obviously, and would probably apply more to younger people generally).  FOBLO is something that’s huge in our day and age because now you see on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook when your friends are having a party or outing and you weren’t invited.  As for FOGKO, this happens when a group of women/girls decides to kick out one of the friends in the group.  In this case, other women in the group may not want to kick out the unfortunate soul, but since they’re afraid of the same thing happening to them, they go along with the ones who want to make the change. Another issue she discusses is “poaching,” which takes place when one woman introduces friends to each other and the two new friends start doing things together without including the first friend who introduced them.  All these things point to the potholes inherent in female relationships.

Along with some of the anxieties and fears, however, she also talks about the closeness of female relationships and the importance to women of just getting together to talk (versus men, who – she says – mostly get together to DO something).  Friendships are indeed harrowing but they’re also a GIANT part of women’s lives and truly make life worthwhile.

It was interesting to read this book after reading When People are Big and God is Small, because just about every issue she discusses in the book would be solved if people decided they didn’t NEED anything from others and instead determined to LOVE them. Needs are what make relationships difficult.

I haven’t come close to touching on all the things she explores in the book (not surprisingly, as a man I found she went into a little too much detail and could’ve been more effective with fewer pages), so you should definitely get it if you think you’re interested.  With the exception of a few parts that I thought were a little tedious, it’s a good and interesting read.

My final thought on the book is this – before I read it, my biggest fear for my 14-year-old daughter who’s about to enter high school was boys.  Now, I’m MUCH more worried about her relationships with girls.  I have much praying to do.

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