Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
What Kind of Girl Talk Girl Are You?
By Roxanne Fequiere
The origin of our disagreement is now lost to me, but I can remember its denouement as if it were yesterday. Me, introverted and conflict-averse, perched uncomfortably on my friend Sarah’s bed as we hashed out whatever had gone awry between us. She, candid and straightforward, telling me how offended she was at the negative character judgment I had put forth. Timid as always, I’d tried to temper my statement with the word “apparently.” As in, “it seems to me;” as in, “just my opinion, I could be wrong.” Unfortunately, Sarah had taken my “apparently” to mean “evidently.” As in “obviously;” as in “without a doubt.” We went back and forth about it until I felt physically exhausted, ending our conversation with an uneasy truce. It wasn’t until a few days later that I felt as if the storm had actually passed. We apologized to each other again, admitting that we’d both made mistakes. “We just got really hung up on semantics,” Sarah said.
At the time, I couldn’t believe that a single word could drive such a wedge between us, but in retrospect, I think my disbelief was actually rooted in the realization that I myself could be so misunderstood. I made a habit—still do, actually—of reading entire novels into single sentences uttered by others, parsing potential meanings and subtexts, weighing the possible motivations behind each nuance, whether written or spoken aloud. Surely, all of this analysis had served to make me an agile communicator, one whose meaning couldn’t possibly be misconstrued. Of course, if Sarah felt the same way about her own communication style, then our stalemate was inevitable.
Deborah Tannen’s extensive background in interactive sociolinguistics has yielded a number of books that “discover and explain the subtle and complex workings of language in interaction,” from mother-daughter relationships to workplace conversations and public discourse. Her latest title, You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, is a welcome deep dive into the subject of how platonic lady love is communicated amongst its participants. The topic is a massive one, but Tannen’s research is grounded in case studies, and there are (at times painfully) relatable anecdotes throughout to ground each concept that she puts forth. My impasse with Sarah was just one of countless interactions with friends—good, bad, and ugly—that came to mind while making my way through Tannen’s insights. From the struggles that can arise when a trio of women are close friends to the pleasantly hyperbolic language of ladies texting each other, it’s all there.
You’re The Only One I Can Tell wasn’t a book that I sought out; rather, it jumped out at me from one of the table displays that greet you when you walk into a Barnes & Noble. Intrigued by the subject matter posited by the title alone, my first instinct was to snap a photo of the cover and send it to a friend. This exchange occurred months ago, and I’d be hard pressed to dig it out from under what I’m sure are hundreds and hundreds of digital missives swapped since, but I know she expressed some mixture of enthusiasm and encouragement. After all, it was our shared interest in books, womanhood, and friendship that led me to text her in the first place.
The satisfying sameness of shared interests, experiences, and temperament is a concept discussed at length throughout Tannen’s work. At one point, she describes two video clips that she uses during speaking engagements to demonstrate how “treasuring ways you’re the same…play[s] a special role in girls’ and women’s relationships.” The first video depicts four preschool-age boys discussing how high they can hit a ball. Each one claims that they can hit a ball higher than the last one who spoke—up to there, up to the sky, up to heaven—and so the last speaker essentially “wins” when he says that he can hit a ball “all the way up to God.” In the second video, two little girls are drawing together when one says, “Did you know my babysitter…has already contacts?” Her playmate responds: “My mom has already contacts, and my dad does, too.” It’s a subtle one-upping of the original statement, but sameness is the emphasis here, right down to the syntax quirk that the second speaker adopts from the first.
And then: “To this the first girl laughs with appreciation”—no inclination to name three adults in her life that wear contacts, for instance—“and they both go back to drawing. But then she looks up again and exclaims in delight, ‘The same?!’ Whereas the boys took pleasure in topping each other, she is taking pleasure in being the same.” Same. Me af. Accurate. This. Mood. Literally Me. So many of our modern quips are shorthand for the validating sweetness of similarity, as expressed so adorably by the exuberance of a preschooler. It’s the moments in which sameness seems to disintegrate that tensions rise: I would never, so how could you? Though You’re The Only One I Can Tell isn’t presented as a how-to, I found myself with plenty of actionable takeaways by book’s end. Personhood is a complex and mutable thing, and any friendship worth having should be able to adapt to each participant’s. It’s just that it’s often easier said than done—or understood.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.