A Linguist Breaks Down What We Really Mean When We Call Our Friends ‘Close’

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I have photographs from all over the world of little girls sitting side by side, one whispering in the other’s ear. You can’t tell from looking at the photo what the secret is, but from my experience with very young girls — talking to them, and having been one myself — I know that the secrets being whispered are probably neither important nor personal, nor would it be compromising if they were known. The specific words probably aren’t important. What matters more is the act of whispering itself, which announces to others, “See, we’re friends” — and helps make them so.

I’ve spent my career studying the language of everyday conversation. As a linguist, I’ve tried to figure out how language can be both an unseen source of trouble in relationships and the key to making them better; why it can be so comforting when an exchange feels perfectly tuned, or so disconcerting when it goes awry; and how the words we use to describe relationships can also help to define them. While writing my book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, I interviewed more than 80 women between the ages of 9 and 97 about their friendships, and spoke casually about the topic to dozens more. Across that vast age range, the word I heard most often in reference to treasured friendships was “close.” But what does that mean, exactly?

The most accurate answer is that there isn’t any one answer. To some women, “close” meant a relationship where they saw their friends often; to others, closeness meant always picking things up as if no time had passed, even if they got together infrequently. Most often, though, it referred to the types of conversations they had, and the bond those conversations helped to create. Conversation, I found, typically plays a central role in women’s friendships, an avalanche of talk that can make those friendships as complicated as they are deeply gratifying.

A caveat: Much of what I found about women’s friendships is also true of men’s, and of those between women and men. But generally speaking, women friends tend to talk more — more often, at greater length, and about more personal topics —while men’s friendships tend to be based more on doing things together. For example, a man once told me he was surprised to learn from his wife that a couple they see regularly were getting divorced; though he’d played tennis with the other husband weekly, the topic of his friend’s marriage had never come up. For most close women friends I spoke to, that situation would be unthinkable.

One woman I interviewed told me: “True friends, I tell them everything I feel and everything I think.” Her statement perfectly summed up what so many others said as well: For many women, sharing what’s going on in your life is expected — even required — of friends. Another woman told me she was stunned and felt betrayed when a close friend revealed that she’d been having an affair and was separating from her husband — not because of the news itself, but because she hadn’t known sooner. While the affair was going on, this woman had traveled with her friend; she’d helped her deal with problems at work; most important, she’d been open about her own life. Now, she said, “I felt like she had lied to me. I felt very slighted.”

Keeping that secret also prevented those two friends from engaging in another staple of friendship between women, one that linguists call “troubles talk.” Many of the women I spoke to said that being able to share their worries with friends made problems feel more bearable. (As a woman in a small village in Kazakhstan put it, “When you have talked to someone, it is lighter on the soul.”)

This holds for small or fleeting problems as well as significant ones. A woman I interviewed emphasized the importance of troubles talk when her children (and her friends’ children) were small, recalling a next-door neighbor who called in frustration one day when her son had smeared eggs and mayonnaise all over the kitchen floor in an attempt to make a cake. “And she just left the mess and came over,” she said. “We drank coffee and commiserated with each other.” Of course, not every woman seeks closeness through troubles talk, and those who do are usually selective — talk about personal topics may not be welcome with a particular friend, or at a particular moment. But at the right time and with the right person, conversations like these help both people to explore the ins and outs of a problem. More importantly, they also remind both friends of the connection they share – and reinforce it. Just listening can be a powerful way of showing that you care.

That applies to more than sharing problems, too. Talking about the insignificant details of daily life — the little things that make up how-was-your-day conversations — creates intimacy as surely as personal revelation does. You feel closer to someone if you know they care about where you went, what you ate, and who you saw. That knowledge can also make an experience a little less lonely: If you know you’re going to tell someone later about what’s happening now, you begin to form the story in your mind in real time. When you imagine yourself telling it and the reaction you’ll get, it’s almost as if the person you’ll tell it to is there with you, experiencing it at the same time. (Over the course of my research, I came to see the continual snapping and sending of pictures as extensions of those how-was-your-day conversations, with one key difference: Now, you don’t have to wait till the end of the day to have them.)

But knowing you have someone to rehash your day with is only half the story of closeness. The other half is knowing that the person will listen, an act that’s more complex than just showing interest in what you’re saying. Close friends understand your words in the way that you meant them — and, most rewarding of all, give you the sense that they understand you. One woman I spoke to explained that to her, sharing personal information is a way of saying, “Here’s this little piece of me. This means I like you.” Another woman said of a friend, “She got me and all my quirks, and I got her and all her quirks, and we were fine with it.” There’s a world of acceptance in that comment: “We were fine with it.” It means you won’t be rejected once a friend sees your frailties. Being fine with each other’s quirks means you can be, as another woman put it, “exactly who you are, without any facade.”

Being yourself also means letting others see when you’re unhappy. One woman recalled arriving at a friend’s birthday party so upset that she had a meltdown right in front of the other party guests, all people she considered friends. “I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed,” she said. The next day, “I wrote the host a funny text that said, ‘Please fall apart at my birthday party. You have an open invitation to cry at my party.’” Her friend texted back, “I love you so much. You’re so real. That’s why we love you.” The woman finished her story by declaring: “And that, to me, is friendship.” In other words, see a friend cry — or let a friend see you cry — and you both are less alone.

But along with all those other elements — openness, honesty, the ability to talk and to listen about things small and large — there’s a facet of close friendship that’s not tied to conversation at all. As one woman summed it up for me, the bond between between friends “is about feeling connected with someone’s spirit… It can be strengthened or maybe facilitated by having things in common, but it’s not just that.” True closeness, she said, means “you can just be sitting quietly on a log and feel good and happy that you are with that person.” Sometimes, you don’t need to talk at all.

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is the author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, from which this essay is adapted.

A Linguist Explains What ‘Close Friend’ Really Means