I found recently a book that seems to explain so much about what I’ve never really understood. About how girls and women communicate. Even if I was born and raised as one, I never just naturally grasped the nuances of it, and never had a mum or close female friends that would have helped to understand some of the weird secrets of it. But at least I didn’t grow up in such a clique-type school culture that is predominant in the US.
The book I read is You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships by Deborah Tannen (available in audio too of course).
A few other books I’ve similarly loved over the years in explaining a lot about the human communication things include Body Language by Julius Fast (written in the 1970s but still very valid, and it discusses all the different cultures around the world too) and a few years ago, Interpersonal Communication, by Joseph A DeVito (some rambles about that).
Tannen has used hundreds of women’s and girls’s stories in her exploration about female communication, trying to nail how it works, and perhaps how it differs from the usual (or male) more direct communication. The stories and examples are from across all ages, all different kinds of ladies, generations, geographical locations, and while that means often USA, there are plenty of examples from everywhere on this planet, Italy to Korea and UK to Greece. And all the meeting in person, talking on phone, communicating with other means, or social medias, and becoming BFFs and acquaintances at any age from toddlerhood to old age. And they are written well, so it is fun to listen and ponder, even if sometimes it feels really frustrating, realizing so many of the problems presented in the book would not exist if women learned to communicate in a more direct manner, using more direct words.
And there were so many little a-ha moments, “oh, that’s why they do that” “so that’s what you are supposed to do when someone does that” and so on. I can certainly understand why most of my best friends have always been guys, as it’s just so much less drama and misinterpretation with them, and also less competition. Probably I’m also wired different, but whenever I’ve got “secrets” or tiny thoughts I want to share with someone without them leaking them around, guys are more reliable. Very rarely has a guy leaked forward stories that were morally NDA. It will be nice to learn more about this “dark” and “new” communication style though, at least to understand people better, but I probably will not deeply engage in the parts I found and will find dishonest and deceitful.
One of the behaviors described surprised me. That is the discussing of bodily issues – I had thought that was a behavior more common with Europeans of the older eras, like those now in their 70s and 80s. When they discuss their ulcers and blood pressure and often self-caused issues with the same affection they would discuss their grandchildren’s academic achievements. So that is supposed to be a female-typical thing. While the younger people’s shared health scares and gross stories don’t sound to have the same affection behind them, the listener is supposed to chime in with some kind of “me too” comparable experience. If someone tells how bad flu they had the past two weeks and goes on about the details, you are supposed to add a comparable story, maybe about having had really bad PMS or upset stomach all last week. Don’t one up the story, so save the cystic fibrosis or double lung transplant story elsewhere. The teller wants sympathy and to bond, and the comparable level story is supposed to do that. Of course with many issues it is difficult or impossible especially if there is no first hand experience or with completely different preferences, so when a friend starts ranting about their expensive fertility treatments and how terrible it feels when everyone else is having babies, if you have never had desire for small humans, it’s either “mmhm” hoping they switch the subject, or you are apparently also supposed to lie just for the bonding. Make up stories that are lies, just so it seems like you have something in common. That is at least how I read it from the examples. Lie, because of “social good” and “feel good”, or maybe that is one more “cultural difference” and I just can’t stand lies, so I’ve always faded away from people caught from lies.
Another type of “omg me too” with no truth apparently expected is all those “I can’t have one piece of chocolate because once I start I’ll eat this Costco sized bar at once”. You are just supposed to “omg me too”, even if clearly not the case. Don’t offer advice about buying smaller packs of chocolate or joining a gym, and don’t just be silent (because they will then interpret that as you being somehow snobbish). It’s just supposed to bond you.
Then there are those famous “does this garment make my butt look huge?” Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but again, seems like no honesty is expected. The purpose of the question for most askers is to fish for compliments, so try to do it in a way that it seems obvious to you how great they look in that (But not all ladies ask it for that purpose. When I complained to a European friend about that, she understood me. So if I or she asks it, it would be a bit differently to begin with, maybe “would these boots or sandals go better with this outfit?” or “which shirt would go better with these jeans?” and those are always asking for honest input. Which is also why I’ve so often asked guys what they think of some clothing style. Those that know you don’t have to resort to lying). The worst thing you can do for that question seems to be offering advice (“honey… those pants are XXL. Just because they are so called skinny, and in black, does not magically transform your figure. Maybe doing a bit more sports, like joining a gym or starting to run would do miracles for your self esteem”).
Then we have all these delightful variations that cause so much frustration among people.
In some parts of the country people speak louder, in other parts quieter. Or faster vs slower, or have a very different length empty pause after finishing speaking vs just wondering what to say. And these have sometimes very weird ways people try to solve things. When someone speaks too loud, the quiet preferring person will speak quieter, considering the too loud talker to be rude and not be taking their environment into the account when speaking. The loud talker is annoyed that the other person seems to speak too quiet, so they will raise their voice, and that again will make the quieter person speak quieter. Just because neither can quite realize that it’s all about how they perceive the acceptable talking voice level to be. And there can be huge differences in this. People who speak slowly will often find those that speak too fast to be nervous or insecure. And those who speak faster (and/or are simply able to listen to stuff faster, like pretty much anyone who reads a lot of audiobooks because print has become impossible to them), will find those speaking slowly to be slower thinkers and time wasters, or other comparable attributes.
Social media and instant messaging are other minefields. The book is new, only a few years old, which is probably why it already covers it, but wow – I had no clue about all those unwritten rules and how people (women and girls) judge others. It seems there is always this collective (age or generation, social class, geographical area, language etc) criteria, and a lot of that overflows to the person’s perception in everything, even and especially when the ones they are communicating with are from many outgroups (different country, culture, social and economic status, religion etc). Some expect always instant replies and social likes, and social messages are supposed to have a certain amount of exclamation marks and girly emojis, otherwise the other person is taken to be too serious. Wait, what? Seems very complex, made up, and fake. Which for instance many instagram accounts are. So the girls living in IG then create “fake” instagrams for smaller groups of friends where they post more honest pictures, such as not always prettified examples of everything. The amount of likes and comments a girl gets for the posts will show their likability; the more likes the more popular. It seems weird, yet somehow logical.
This book was definitely helpful. I hope I’ll understand some things better now, and know how to respond better to not be misunderstood by how others seem to think. I’d recommend the book to any autistic ladies, or anyone for that matter – especially if you live or work with some ladies, and/or people from other cultures too.
Yet if the ladies learned to be more direct in their usual communication styles, there would probably be so much less frustration and misunderstandings. Say what you mean, mean what you say.