Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Does the act of telling one another secrets power female friendship?

When a woman tells another woman a secret, a closeness is born. Caroline O’Donoghue explores the act of sharing confidences

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

My friend is at my house. We are on separate couches, sleepily watching The Parent Trap, when I tell her something. Something I’ve never told anyone. Something that makes me feel insecure; something that I’m sensitive about; something, I fear, that goes against the image I present to the world – the one of the bolshy, confident person I try to convince people that I am. Her eyes widen. She gets up off of her couch, and comes over to my one. She grabs my hand. “Me too,” she says. I want to cry. “You too???” She nods, her face filling with relief, and glee. “Does everyone feel like this?” I ask. “I don’t know,” she says. “But we do.”

I’m in line at Pret. Just ahead of me are two women who are a few years older than me. Something in their body language – relaxed, but not intimate – implies that they’re work friends: two women who probably spend all of their lunch breaks together, but maybe don’t see each other on weekends. “So I went back to his flat,” says one. “And I stay the night. And then in the morning…”

“What?” asks her friend, dying of excitement. “WHAT?”

“He’s 20.” Both women scream in delight. They hold on to one another’s arms, and in one moment, become sisters.

I’m on the phone to another friend. We’re gossiping. She tells me that our mutual friend – let’s call her Lisa – has been made redundant. I mention that I saw Lisa a week ago, and she didn’t mention a thing. We’re both momentarily silent: there is an obvious and unspoken agreement that I have lost the Game of Lisa, and she has won it.

The running theme here, in case you didn’t notice, is secrets. As much as I’d like to think that these experiences are unique to me and my experience of other women, I can’t help but think that there’s something unique about the way women communicate with one another.  In her novel, Hanging Up, Delia Ephron writes: “I always knew my mother had no friends because she never talked on the phone”, and you get her right away. We know exactly what kind of woman her mother is without having to hear a sentence more.

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’

Information is our arms trade: we trade it to make other women feel more comfortable with us, we reward it to friends and colleagues as a way of letting them know that we trust them. There’s something a little bit magic that happens when you get another women on her own for the first time with a bottle of wine. It’s not that you won’t have a good time if you don’t confess something private about yourself, but it is a sign that the night is going well.

This has occurred to me a lot over the years, but I had always assumed that there was something Machiavellian about even noticing it. Linguist Deborah Tannen, however, has interviewed over 80 women between the ages of nine and 97 for her new book You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships. In it, Tannen analyses what it means to be someone’s “close” friend, and how that relationship is built on a silent currency of secrets, confessions, and the cone of silence that is implicit every time we tell another woman something personal.

“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,” writes Tannen in her book, an extract of which has been published in The Science of Us. “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 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.

“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.’”

For some, noticing this trend in how women communicate has become a business: Katherine Ormerod is the creator of Work Work Work, an “anti-perfection” project that aims to present “the non-edited challenges that women face behind the fantasy of social media.” When I asked her what inspired her to start the project, Ormerod immediately referred to the confessions women share when they’re alone with one another, and how she wanted to embody that.

“It's like when you meet up with girlfriends and everyone goes round the table telling their news which is all ultra positive—then one friend says, 'Actually this hasn't been so great.' One by one, the rest of the table then admits that not all is quite as rosy as they'd first revealed. It's easy to be collectively real and honest about our imperfections as soon as someone else – especially if that someone is influential and leads an aspirational life – says it first.”

And that is, perhaps, what powers the strength of a confession: in a world that expects your body to be hairless, your relationship to be healthy, and your mind to be pure of unkind thoughts, having a woman admit to you that she is kind of a monster is a relief. As someone who was raised Catholic, I know the power of sitting with someone and saying “I’m terrible” and having them say “I know, it’s fine, God doesn’t mind.”

I’m still doing that, just with women: and let me tell you, the wine is much better.


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