The chattering sexes

January 19, 1996

All-male and all-female groups converse differently. While women's voices combine and overlap, men take it in turns to hold court. Jennifer Coates explains

Having friends is something most of us take for granted. This means that the things we do in order to make friends and to sustain friendship are so much part of our everyday social practice that they are pretty much invisible to us. But doing friendship is a significant accomplishment. Some people find it difficult, or get it wrong; others never grasp what it means to be "a friend".

Being a friend involves talking, and the centrality of talk in women's friendships has been widely documented by researchers. The women I have interviewed are very clear about the importance of talk with friends. When I asked them what they did with their women friends, I got answers such as "talk", or, more emphatically, "we talk, primarily we talk, we never stop". One young woman thought for a while, and eventually said: "For me just what I remember about the relationship is . . . just you know, the amount of time we just spent sitting around and talking."

But we know very little about friendly talk - what are its chief characteristics? How does it differ from other kinds of talk? How does it sustain friendship? Is the talk of women friends different from the talk of men friends? Certainly, when the friends are women, the talk is often given derogatory names such as gossip, chit-chat, natter, names which demonstrate society's low evaluation of women's cultural practices. Over the past 12 years I have recorded women and girls (and also men and boys) talking with their friends, with the aim of finding out how such talk works and how it constructs and maintains friendship. What is most striking about the talk of women friends is that the construction of talk is a joint effort. The group takes priority over the individual and the women's voices combine to construct a shared text. A good metaphor for talking about this is a musical one - the talk of women friends is a kind of jam session. Women friends arrive at each others' homes and, after a brief warm-up over a glass of wine or a cup of tea, start playing. Solo passages alternate with all-in-together ensemble passages. Friends improvise on each others' themes, share painful and funny experiences, laugh at themselves and with each other.

Utterances are often jointly constructed; in other words, speakers often co-operate to produce a chunk of talk. For example, in one of the conversations I have collected, the following utterance, "I'm sure he's not/peeping" (about a neighbour), was produced by two friends, the second speaker adding the last word to complete the chunk. Jointly constructed utterances may involve more than just the final word, as in the following example: "They said they kept bumping into all sorts of people/that they knew", where it's the second speaker who adds the clause "that they knew". It is possible for several speakers to be involved in this kind of shared construction. The next example comes from a conversation where three friends are trying to define Schadenfreude. "It's sort of pleasure/a perverse pleasure in/in their downfall/yeah/yeah." The three speakers work as one to express an idea, with the addition of "yeah" from two of them at the end, to accept what they have jointly done.

Another feature of conversational jam sessions is overlapping talk, and it is a feature that strikes anyone who listens to a recording of women friends' conversation. Women friends often combine as speakers so that two or more voices may contribute to talk at the same time. This kind of overlapping speech is not seen as competitive, as a way of grabbing a turn, because the various contributions to talk are on the same theme. For example, in a conversation about looking after elderly parents, one woman said, "all of a sudden the roles are all reversed", while at the same time her friend said, "you become a parent, yeah". In a conversation about an eccentric mother, one woman said, "she cooks really inventively" at exactly the same time as her friend said, "she's a really good cook". Sometimes, two friends will say the same words at the same time, as in this example (about a school play), where the second part of the utterance was produced by both women simultaneously: "Every line they played for a laugh/got a laugh."

This kind of collaborative talk where utterances are jointly constructed and speakers make overlapping contributions, involves great skill. Participants have to monitor each other very carefully in terms of grammar and meaning and intonation. This is something all speakers learn to do, but the conversational jam session involves a more sophisticated use of the skills we employ in everyday conversation. The conversational jam session symbolises what friendship means to us: as we say parallel things on the same theme at the same time, we are demonstrating in a concrete way the value we place on collaboration. Our individual voices merge and blend in a joint performance. Women's friendly talk is also characterised by the sensitive use of hedges (words and phrases like "maybe", "sort of", "I mean", which damp down the force of controversial utterances and help preserve open discussion), and by the frequent use of questions whose main function is interactive rather than information-seeking (ie, the question, "there are limits aren't there?", checks that a shared perspective obtains and does not expect an answer except perhaps for "yeah" or "mhm").

The recordings I have made of conversations between male friends reveal that men's friendly talk follows different patterns: male friends prefer a one-at-a-time pattern of talking, with one speaker holding the floor at any one time; overlapping speech is avoided. Men also hedge less, and they use questions to seek information from each other, taking it in turns to play the expert. These differences are closely related to the topics characteristic of all-male and all-female talk. The women's talk I have recorded involves discussion of highly personal issues, such as child abuse, periods, relationships, as well as talk about more general topics. The sharing of personal experience is matched by the sharing of the conversational floor. Men, by contrast, seem to prefer more impersonal topics (politics, beer-making, sound systems, for example), topics that allow participants to take turns at being the expert.

It seems then that the talk we do with our friends is important not only in terms of creating and sustaining friendship but also in terms of constructing ourselves as gendered beings, as women or men. Far from being trivial, the talk we do with our friends performs essential work in terms of our sense of who we are, and is crucial to our sense of well-being. Friendship, and the talk that accomplishes friendship, has been undervalued for too long. As one of the interviewees said: "It (friendly conversation) is absolutely like the blood of life."

Jennifer Coates is professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton Institute, London. Women Talk. Conversations between Women Friends will be published by Blackwell in July.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments