Listening In on Girl Talk ---

Why men and women heard two different tales on the Tripp tapes.

Nov 23, 1998 Deborah Tannen

It was the autumn of 1997, and two friends--Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp--were debating life and love. In one exchange, Monica was recounting a conversation she had with Betty Currie about trying to see the president. "And blah blah. And I [Monica] said, 'Well, what--' and then I sort of hesitated and she [Currie] goes, 'Well, did you mention that you wanted to see him in the note?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, but I asked him if I could come by on Saturday morning. I didn't know what time he was leaving.' And she said, 'Oh, well, I think he's leaving too early.' I said, 'Well, then, you know, maybe tomorrow (inaudible).' And she goes, 'There are a lot of people around.' So--"

Many women heard themselves on that crackly phone line, listening to the breathy urgency of friends going over and over who said what, and how that made her feel, and what that made her think; what she could do, should do, might do; what she should wear, and whether it makes her look fat. Many men were puzzled to hear talk about relationships in such detail. They found it boring. Why the difference?

Watch children at play. Little girls' social lives tend to center on a best friend, and they spend a lot of time sitting and talking--and telling secrets. Your best friend is the one you tell everything to. And since talk is the glue that holds relationships together, the nuances of talk are important: you need to know exactly what was said, in what tone of voice, to gauge the relationship.

Boys' friendships center more on activities. Your best friend is the one you do everything with, the one who will stand up for you if there is a fight. Boys talk to negotiate their positions in a group: if you can tell other boys what to do and make it stick, your status goes up, and you have more independence. If you aren't good at challenging other boys and resisting challenges, you get pushed around. Conversations about who said what just aren't that important, so boys don't learn to pay attention to exactly what was said--unless it meant they got put down or pushed around. It's not that boys and men don't spend hours exchanging seemingly unimportant details--it's just that the details aren't about relationships and conversations. They're more likely to be about sports or games. If a man is having an affair, he might not tell anyone at all, because his idea of friendship doesn't require that he disclose what's going on in his life. For many women, though, intimacy entails keeping friends informed of what's going on in your life. That's what Linda Tripp was counting on.