Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Girl Talk



For my money, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was always the friendship. “Friendship porn,” I once heard it described as. People fingered Carrie’s wardrobe as being truly ridiculous, but after years of working in an industry where I’ve seen an adult woman spend a day at the office wearing a dress made entirely out of ribbon, I accepted that part of the show without question. But having a group of friends I have brunch with every weekend? Where would I find that?

So I’m interested to see that part of the critique tsunami surrounding HBO’s Girls has examined the characters’ friendships. It’s brought us everything from a feminist social history of best-friendship to a zoological history of the same. In fact, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to female friendship lately, including with the number of people who linked to this essay, which made the internet rounds when it was first published at The Rumpus. I’m glad to see these conversations happening; it’s a welcome relief from tired tropes of backstabbing women bad-mouthing one another at every opportunity.

My relief is tinged with melancholy, though. I couldn’t bear to read the Rumpus essay more than once because it hit me so hard when I read it the first time. Not because it resonated, but because it didn’t. To be clear: I have many wonderful female friends, some of whom I expect to be close with for the rest of my life. And in sheer numbers, I probably have more female friends than male friends. But in terms of who I treat as confidants, it’s slanted toward men, due to a combination of serial monogamy, the fortune to have remained friendly with a handful of men I used to date, and an incidental number of male friends. Given that I’ve usually worked in female-dominant fields, perhaps this has just been my way of adding some yang to my yin.

But there’s another reason my relationships with men move more fluidly. It may sound silly coming from a feminist who writes primarily for female audiences, but I’m talking socially, not intellectually, so here goes: I feel awkward around women. Now, that’s speaking in some pretty general terms—certainly I don’t feel awkward around every woman, or comfortable around every man. It’s more that accurately or not, I have an odd sort of faith that men enjoy being around women because of our womanness, making my sex is a built-in fortification of what I offer socially to men. We as a culture have been pretty successful at spinning stories about Man + Woman=Makes Sense, and the consequence for me has been just the tiniest bit more assurance that a man has reason to want to be in my company, even when attraction doesn’t factor into it. Then it becomes a catch-22: I’m more likely to be relaxed—and therefore more pleasant, charming, and fun to be around—if I trust that whomever I’m talking with genuinely wants to be there. So generally speaking, I probably am better company to men than I am to women, which results in a different sort of friendship.

I’m not proud of this attitude. I don’t like what it implies I think about men, or about myself. But it’s also notable for what it says of my relationships with women. I heard this quote once: “Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” Treat it like glass I do: afraid to touch it, afraid to give it the sort of handling that burnishes it and makes it uniquely yours. I’ve always hated the trope that women distrust other women, or secretly hate their friends or women in general, and that’s not what I’m saying here. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: I get tongue-tied around remarkable women because I dearly want them to like me, and unlike with men, there’s no culturally assumed “reason” for them to like me. The lack of trust here is in myself, not in other women.

So I feel like I have to work a little harder to get women’s approval. But the specific ways I’ve cultivated to gain approval—laughing a little longer at someone’s jokes, asking lots of questions, letting a gaze linger—sound suspiciously like flirting. Specifically, flirting with men. So when I’m around a woman I want to get to know better, suddenly I’m left not only being a little unsure how to be my best self, but also aware that my default “like me!” antics are conventionally feminine ways of appealing to men—which means plenty of women see right through them because they themselves have deployed the same tricks. At least, at my most vulnerable, self-doubting, and insecure that’s what I fear: that women—particularly the sort of intelligent, critical, soulful women I admire—will see through my laughter and questions and smiles and decide that whatever I bring to the table, it isn’t for them. (Perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to woman-only spaces like ladymags, come to think of it—it forces me to break out of relying upon the ways I’ve learned to communicate with men.)

At some point, though, I learned one thing I can bring to the table with women: girl talk. And yes, I mean highly stereotypical girl talk. I mean: I like your earrings, That’s a great color, Your hair looks fantastic. I used to consciously stay away from beautystuffs as small talk because I wanted to feign nonchalance about such matters; somewhere along the line, though, I recognized how well I myself responded to such conversation starters. My countenance, particularly around women, is pleasant but a little serious, meaning that something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.

It’s been several years since I’ve started b
eing more fluent in beautytalk, and between working at image-conscious magazines and running a blog that is specifically designed to examine women’s attitudes and feelings about beauty and being looked at, it’s second nature now. Compliments and questions related to style or appearance easily tumble out of me; if I’m meeting a woman cold, like if I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone, chances are that’s the first thing out of my mouth. I’m always sincere about it—compliments fall flat if they’re a lie—and at this point I wouldn’t even say that this line of conversation is intentional. But I know where it comes from, and I know what I’m hoping to elicit when I do it.

Here is my trouble: I fear that I am forgetting how to connect with women in any other way. I found myself at a dinner party a while ago with a woman whose manner intrigues me; she’s one of those people whose words seem to matter more than other people’s, so wisely does she choose them. I was seated next to her, and my first words to her were something about her shoes (which were gorgeous, so I’m not entirely to blame here). She smiled and said Thank you, as one does, and after we had each nodded acceptance of the compliment and ensuing gratitude, neither of us had anything further to say to one another. Rather, I didn’t know how to get to that further point—at least not without her doing some of the heavy lifting along with me.

I’d expected her to help me out, which isn’t an outrageous expectation on my part; that is, after all, how conversations work. But in expecting her to help me out by saying anything other than the logical, polite response—thank you—I was actually attempting to direct her attitude. Toward herself, toward me, toward womanhood itself. I was expecting her to play along—to tell me, say, some story of where she’d gotten the shoes so I could then riff off a detail of that story, and in the course of that we would have each revealed something personal that could serve as a launching point for the conversation I actually wanted to have with her. I was expecting her to speak some code of womanhood right along with me—a code that as a feminist I know better than to think is actually how women communicate. I lobbed exactly one volley in her direction and expected her to return it.

And when she didn’t, I found that I didn’t have a backup plan. The code I’d been speaking in wasn’t code at all; it had become my native tongue, at least when attempting to make small talk. For it wasn’t just that laconic seatmate and her response that’s troubling me. It’s also the times when it works too well and I find I don’t know how to better anchor the conversation; it’s the times when I see exactly how moored I feel by “girl talk” with women and I wonder how deep my own feminist blood can run if this has become the primary way I know to reach out to other women. My approach has assumed that women in my path are eager to talk about their appearance, and not only that, but that they are eager to talk about their appearance with me because we are both women. Small talk works because we presume all the small talkers share a common condition. While I believe that all women have a unique relationship to presence, style, and visibility, the route I’ve been taking to get to that relationship isn’t helping me establish better friendships with women. And that’s because of another characteristic of getting-to-know-you chatter: Small talk is, by its nature and nomenclature, unimportant. And the very thing I value about beauty talk is what it reveals about us—that is, the stuff that is important. And yes, sometimes beauty talk gets there quickly and directly; that’s exactly why I defend it and work hard in my writing to not have it be written off as cotton candy. Yet in relying so heavily upon beauty talk as a conversation starter, I’ve been failing in my central mission. I know that you can’t just jump into a conversation by asking the really meaty stuff, sure. But if I truly believe in “girl talk” as a portal to that meat, to treat it in practice as fluff is a disservice to my goal.

Perhaps that became clearest to me when I was the recipient, not the instigator, of this sort of exchange. Some time ago, I found myself having a drink with a friend of a friend. The person who introduced us was doing most of the talking, so we were both able to quietly get used to the rhythm of the other before our mutual friend departed and left us on our own. We continued the conversation to its logical point, and it was clear that we each had a good deal to say to one another, but that we were perhaps too much alike in our being better responders than presenters. The conversation was good but not fluent. During one of our fumbling, strained pauses, she looked down and said, “I like your shoes.” The only thing remarkable about these sneakers is how unremarkable they are: Cheap, several years old, a faded olive color, scuffed and beaten, I’d only worn them because the weather was in flux and they were the single “shoulder season” pair I could fine.

I knew enough secondhand about this woman and her somewhat turbulent life to know that I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to talk with her about art and expression, about motherhood and madness. I wanted to know if what she saw every day in her appointment book, her mirror, her life was what she’d envisioned for herself; I wanted to know about disappointment and relief, and where the two might meet. I didn’t ask those questions, of course; you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things. Sometimes chatter of shoes and mascara is a portal to the questions we really want answers to; sometimes the words that don’t matter are the only way to the words that do. But sometimes those words—where did you get that and I had a pair like that once and what a great color—form a Mobius strip of the words we know don’t matter, with no apparent outlet to what we want to say but don’t know how to articulate. I am trying to step off that neverending loop. But I am not sure how.

I felt that ache, that frustration that comes when I dance around intimacy, a dance only made more frantic when I sense the other person is there with me in our pas de deux. I felt it—I saw it—but I am still unpracticed in saying whatever one would need to say to get to what comes next.

And so I looked at her and said what we both knew you’re supposed to say upon receiving a compliment, the words that, with luck and effort, could lead to chatter of other cross-weather shoes, which could lead to climate, which could lead to where we grew up, which could lead to how we each define the word home. That is, I said Thank you.

What I didn’t say—but what I hope she heard—was I like you too.

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, you've managed to express thoughts I've had in the back of my head but haven't managed to put into words.

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    1. Thank you for letting you know this did something for you--I appreciate it.

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  2. Wonderful article. You put your thoughts together so well and I feel the same way so it was great hearing I'm not alone. Girl talk can become such a crutch that we forget we know how to walk without it so we stumble around. I know there are times when I really want to dive straight into a deep conversation but feel that I can't so I stay on track with beauty talk or idle chitchat and never find my opening. So to speak. Anyways I loved this and can't wait to hear more from you :)

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    1. "never find my opening"--that's exactly it. Chitchat of any sort is a fine entrance into the kind of conversations we want to have, but sometimes it can feel like this glass orb with no crack that we can wriggle through.

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  3. I've had this same difficulty when I first meet another woman...it takes me time to establish a comfortable level of conversation, but I almost never do it on the basis of beauty or style. Often, it is about family. Have an awful tendency to poke a bit of fun at myself as a starter.

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    1. Terri, thank you for pointing out that this has centered on family talk for you--I've heard friends of mine who are mothers say that they get tired of only talking about their kids with their friends, and while I was sympathetic I was attributing it more to the idea that their kids were becoming their identity, or something. But now I'm thinking they meant, well, what they said--that it was a matter of that seeming like the easiest, most prominent, and hardest-to-escape entryway into other sorts of conversation.

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  4. I was just thinking about this topic the other day and talking to my husband about it.

    Ironically enough, my best friends are all women who say, "I get along better with men," while I on the other hand, have mostly (like 80%) female friends. I don't go out of my way to make friends with men and have maybe 3 good guy friends.

    I would say overall, I have better friendships with women, but better first conversations with men. After the first conversation, I'm usually at a loss of what to talk about, to be honest. I would say my initial conversations with men are more fluid whereas with women, they are hard and judgmental. Part of the problem is, I am judging her as much as she is judging me.

    It's all such an interesting topic!

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    1. Courtney, that's interesting that you have close female friends who say they get along better with men! I wonder if there's a connection there between them being also close with you while you're someone who forms close friendships more easily with women? Hmm.

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  5. Very nice piece! I completely relate to this - I tend to do a better job of making friends with men than women (at least initially, like you said). I have some women who are GREAT friends too, but we definitely don't get together for brunch every weekend. Sometimes we can barely get together even once a month! But I am very loyal to the female friends I already have and I'm terrible about making new ones. I have the same awkward conversations when I meet new people, and I don't always know the best way to have an easy-going conversation with a gal I just met.

    Very thoughtful piece!

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    1. Thanks, Summer! It's hard to make friends at a certain age--not sure how old you are but I feel like in my 30s I became warier of spending time with people I didn't know already. Part of that was a positive development--protecting my time and energy, and directing it toward friendships I wanted to cultivate--but part of that also means that I've probably missed out on new opportunities too. I'm trying to get better about it, but that's hard.

      (And certainly if you and I were to meet, our conversation would be cut out for us. AT the very least we'd know never to ask each other, "Where's winter?" as if we haven't heard it a million times before...)

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  6. boring. you must be very confused and fogged. maybe get an education instead of trying to wade your self through the malaise of emotions. it'll clear the air.

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    1. You know, when something bores me I prefer to go spend time on things that hold genuine interest for me rather than taking the time to tell someone they're boring me. Is it just me?

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    2. Yup, just you. Maybe it's because you lack education?
      (tongue firmly in cheek!)

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    3. no, this is amazing! She spent the time to go through the reasons behind why she does what she does, and pulled a snippet of universal, human truth from it all! Its an important thing to think about, wonderful exercise for the mind, and it was beautifully expressed. Not boring :)

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    4. Anne, I thought of that, but through my malaise of emotion I couldn't see clearly, so...

      Anonymous from 6/26, thank you!

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  7. "you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things"

    Yes, you can. But it's risky, and you have to offer something of yourself as well. You have to make yourself vulnerable. But it's worthwhile because those are the things we're all thinking about anyway. We WANT to talk about them. But women have created a culture where women don't trust women.

    You know why so many women get along better with men? Because they say what they are thinking. I know because I used to be one of those women who had mostly male friends. Most women have some kind of code in conversations. I'm a woman who happens to be awful at code, but I still wanted to have female friends so I just started to say what I think and then made friends with women who appreciate that. If I like someone I say, "I like you."

    It's a good article. Thought provoking. Thank you for sharing. It's scary to be vulnerable and to grow. I have a lot to do myself, but it's so worth it. I have the best female friends, and I'm grateful every day for their presence in my life.

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    1. Erin, thank you so much for this. You're right--it IS a risk, to put oneself out there about the things that actually matter. I'm thinking of a recent conversation I had with a new acquaintance where for whatever reason (okay, the reason was beer), I revealed a lot of personal information that I usually don't, and she did the same with me. The next day I felt horribly embarrassed and wanted to write to her and be all, "Hey, sorry for the overshare!" But around that time I read an article about the "vulnerability hangover," and it started some of the same points that you're presenting potential conclusions of here: that if you risk that "hangover," you may well be rewarded with relationships with the kind of people who appreciate that sort of risk-taking and openness.

      I hate making generalizations about Men and Women, but as this post indicates, there is a difference in my relationships with each of them, and I think part of it is because of what you're fingering here: Women have been socialized to communicate indirectly, and men haven't. And indirect communication definitely has its strong points--I'm good at doing diplomacy-type stuff in the workplace, and know how to give criticism without hurting people's feelings or being harsh--but it has a downside as well.

      In any case, thank you. Much to think about here.

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  8. I have a much greater feeling of not caring what boys think of me in the way I would care about a girl. I think this is because girls are people I want to be like, and they are the people who you want to be your best friend who helps you through all the times when all the boys (or girls) break your heart. You don't want them to know everything about you, but it is okay for boys to know because you can in the back for your mind still imagine being with them forever and ever and they are going to learn these things about you over time.

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    1. Robyn, that's an excellent point about the potential outcome of friendships with men vs. friendships with women (for straight women, at least). And there's also something there that runs parallel to what you're saying here: If you're in a romantic involvement with a man, nobody questions it if you "break up." (I mean, people question it, but nobody questions what it means, and you can just give "incompatibility" as a reason.) But ending a friendship with a woman is torturous, because What Does It Mean? I have spent far more time agonizing over female friendships that ended poorly than I have about my relationship endings with men--I always wonder what I could have done differently in my friendships, whereas with romance I'm more likely to say, "It just wasn't meant to be."

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  9. Thanks for this article. You definitely summed up a lot of the feelings I've been having about my friendships. I find speaking with men so much more fluid, trusting and easier, whereas women I am paranoid that I'm boring them, they think I'm stupid etc. Which is really just because I admire and care about their opinion of me so much more, because I do in fact value my female friendships a lot.

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    1. I'm really wondering about the roots of the idea that women secretly hate each other now. Does the behavior that looks like lady-hating actually stem from that fear? That other women's opinions matter so deeply that sometimes some of us will fight it tooth, nail, and claw?

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  10. Sheena Punk RockerJuly 9, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    I'm sort of in the opposite camp. I'm terrible at small talk! So I often have interesting, deep conversations with strangers... but on the flip-side people occasionally think I'm a little strange. But they are the people I'm not so interested in talking to anyway, so it all works out. I would say, drop the make-up small talk. As you have so much to say about societal notions of beauty in general, why not just go straight for it? I imagine every woman will have something to say on the topic, because she lives it every day. You're missing out on a wealth of perspectives by not delving straight in! I'm sure you could begin in a way that didn't seem too off-beat... You seem to be saying that small talk isn't getting you those REAL friendships. I think, friendships are things you can't force or create, exactly. They're something that happens over time. All you can do is try to hang out with the same person a few times until it all seems groovy.

    I used to have a lot more male friends than female. One thing I was painfully aware of was that I never discussed my boyfriend of the time with them. I was sure that if I brought up my relationship, they wouldn't like me. I wonder what that said about me. That I value my worth to males largely on sexual/romantic availability? I realized if they cared about that, it was hardly worth calling them friends. They were more like Potential Replacements (in the event of a break-up). I started noticing this, and began talking about whoever I was dating at the time. I lost a 'friend' or two, but not as many as I thought.

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  11. Thank you very much for writing this. I can definitely relate because I also have some difficulty speaking to other women. I can also initiate small talk and carry a conversation but it gets awkward. A lot. I believe that it's a bit intimidating to approach other women just to talk and/or to make friends. It's just a little bit difficult to open up without some small talk on our part. It's so different with women if we compare it with friendships with guys! I've had lots of guy friends and they're easier to deal with. Sure, they're not as soothing or as comforting as girls but at least they don't BS you. They're more honest and more protective. Thanks again for shedding some bright light into this!

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