If you’ve ever wondered where you’d be without your BFF, Deborah Tannen’s latest book “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships” (Ballantine Books) is bound to resonate with you.
Based on interviews with approximately 80 women and girls of diverse backgrounds and ages, the book explores “the great role played by talk in [most] women’s friendships,” says Tannen.
The author of “You Just Don’t Understand!” and other best-sellers, Tannen will kick off the inaugural Festival of Jewish Literature on Nov. 8 with a presentation and book signing at the Soul Center at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville. The 11-day festival is co-sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop and Jmore, and related events will take place at host organizations and synagogues around the community.
In “You’re the Only One I Can Tell,” Tannen, 73, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, illustrates how women’s friendships are influenced by such factors as conversational styles, connections and competitions, group dynamics, social media and more.
For women, says Tannen, “Talk is the glue that holds the relationship together.” Women generally talk more, for longer stretches of time and about more personal topics than men.
She said they are likely to know a great deal about what’s going on in their friends’ lives.
In contrast, friendships between men are often based on “doing things” together, Tannen says, while rarely discussing personal lives.
One anecdote in “You’re the Only One I Can Tell” is about a man who’s surprised to learn from his wife that his weekly tennis partner is in the midst of a divorce. Although they play tennis every week, the two men never discussed their marriages, something that would have been “unheard of” for close women friends, says Tannen.
One of the most prominent features of female friendships is what Tannen refers to as “troubles talk.” A term coined by sociologist Gail Jefferson, troubles talk can entail such important matters as family and health crises or minor kvetches about traffic jams or time spent on the phone arguing with an insurance company.
Tannen says women tend to commiserate and empathize with their friends when listening to their problems, and typically follow up with questions. When a woman listens and asks for details of her friend’s troubles, she sends what Tannen calls a “meta-message” of caring.
Conversely, when women attempt troubles talk with men in their lives, it’s often an exercise in futility and frustration for both partners, says Tannen, charging that men are usually too quick to offer solutions.
“Offering a solution immediately cuts short the conversation, which sends the meta-message, ‘I don’t want to be bothered talking any more about this,’” Tannen says. “It’s not that women don’t want solutions, they just don’t want them right off the bat.”
Being communicative has many rewards, says Tannen, but sometimes it leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings between friends. From an early age, girls place a high value on their friends and can be competitive about being close to them. For example, many girls and women feel hurt when they aren’t one of the first to hear a friend’s news, she says. In fact, says Tannen, “My first title for the book was ‘Why Didn’t You Tell Me?’”
Girls also experience well-founded fears of being rejected by their friendship circles, says Tannen. “When girls want to punish another girl, they typically say, ‘You can’t come to my birthday [party],’” she says.
“Most of the women I spoke with had [been rejected] at some point, especially during junior high and high school,” says Tannen. “When girls reject another girl, they often accuse her of being ‘stuck up’ or ‘snobby,’ and it’s often because she stands out in a positive way.”
One woman told Tannen of a girl rejected by her circle. “She was cute and really good at sports,” the woman said. Another woman told Tannen that when her granddaughter won a spelling bee in second grade, the girl’s best friend said, “We can’t be friends anymore.”
Social media can make fear of being left out even worse, says Tannen. “Seeing photos [on Facebook or Instagram] of a party you weren’t invited to is harder than just hearing about it,” she says. “Social media ratchets it up and gives a false impression of how great a time everyone else is having.”
But Tannen doesn’t feel social media is all bad. “In some ways, it’s an extension of the kinds of things we’ve always done,” she says, “a way of staying connected.”
Despite the risks and challenges inherent in close relationships, Tannen says most women are passionate about their friendships. As one woman told her, “My friendships with women are as essential as air.”
For information, visit festivalofjewishliterature.org.
The first annual Baltimore Festival of Jewish Literature takes place from Nov. 8-Nov. 18. The festival includes author talks, readings, family programs and panel discussions, hosted by more than a dozen Jewish organizations. Cosponsored by the Ivy Bookshop and Jmore, the festival is chaired by Jmore publisher Scott Rifkin, M.D., Myrna Cardin, Barbara Shapiro and Gilbert Sandler. Most events are free and open to the public. Below is a list of events:
Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. (Ticketed reception at 8:30 p.m.) Deborah Tannen — “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendship” The Soul Center at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville
Nov. 10 at 5:30 p.m. Simcha Paul Raphael — “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” Har Sinai Congregation, 2905 Walnut Ave., Owings Mills
Nov. 11 at 9:30 a.m. Marc Dollinger — “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s” Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville
Nov. 11 at 3 p.m. Story Pirates (family event) Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills Tickets: $15
Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. From Old Pages to Baltimore Stages: A Conversation about “The Book of Joseph,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Indecent.” Jmore is a co-sponsor. Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore
Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m. Amy Davis — “Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters” Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation, 7000 Rockland Hills Drive, Baltimore
Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m. Deborah R. Weiner — “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore” Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St, Baltimore
Nov. 14 at 2:30 p.m. Panel Discussion: How Literature Can Connect Baltimore’s Diverse Communities: Bridging the Cultural Gap Through Fiction Friends of Pikesville Library, 1301 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. David Weinstein — “The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics” Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St., Baltimore Tickets: $10
Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. On the Same Page: A Community Read Featuring Dara Horn, author of “Eternal Life” Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville
Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. The Jewish Variety Show with Marion Winik, Jessica Anya Blau and Paul Goldberg, with music by Nani Matthews and magic from David London Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, Baltimore
Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. Children’s Programs Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road, Pikesville
Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. Jeremy Dauber — “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road, Pikesville
For more information about the Baltimore Festival of Jewish Literature, visit festivalofjewishliterature.org.