The health benefits – both mental and physical – of friendships are myriad. But as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult to forge lasting bonds with new people. We consider the ways communication, emotions and our phase of life affect our relationships with friends.


  • Deborah Tannen University Professor and Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University; author, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives"
  • James Coan Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, University of Virginia


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. At different stages of life, friends give us someone to run around the playground with, share dreams and confidences with and maybe get in and out of some trouble with, commiserate with while raising families of our own and navigating careers.

  • 13:07:11

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd to reminisce with and lean on for support in old age. Research shows our relationships outside of family are also vital to mental and physical health. Yet, as we age, it can feel nearly impossible to forge new friendships despite our best efforts. Here to help us ponder how and why we make those connections and their value is James Coan, he is a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Jim Coan joins us from studios of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities in Charlottesville, Va. Jim Coan, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:54

    MR. JAMES COANThank you very much for having me.

  • 13:07:55

    NNAMDIWe await the arrival of Deborah Tannen. She is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University whose work focuses on how the language of every day conversation affects relationships. Deborah Tannen, if you're listening or if someone knows where Deborah Tannen is, get in touch with us as soon as possible. We are expecting you.

  • 13:08:16

    NNAMDIIn the meantime, you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How do you define friendship? Has your definition changed over time, give us a call, 800-433-8850? Jim Coan, that's where I'll begin, let's establish our term here. How do you define and perhaps classify the term "friend" both professionally and practically?

  • 13:08:43

    COANWell, I mean, one of the most obvious things that people think of when they think of who a friend is, is someone that you enjoy spending time with and I think that's obviously a big part of it. But the function of that enjoyment, those enjoyable times we spend with people really, it goes deeper, and I think we all know this. Friendship entails not only enjoyment with another person but also deep bonds of trust and really also interdependence.

  • 13:09:12

    COANYou know, Mark Twain said that, a friend is someone who will stand by you when you're wrong and noting that practically anyone will stand by you when you're right. And I think there's really something to that.

  • 13:09:27

    NNAMDIYou point out that in many, many ways, friends just are not an important part of our social circle but in a very basic way, they are part of us, how so?

  • 13:09:40

    COANYes. So we've been really looking at how the brain, sort of, comprehends a friend or someone that we're close to in a relationship. You know, what happens in the brain as we become close to someone and what it really is looking like to us is that, the brain, sort of, incorporates friends and relations, loved ones, into the, sort of, neural signature of the self, the way that the brain encodes a sense of self is to, you know, is through a, sort of, a package of firing neurons.

  • 13:10:16

    COANAnd the trick that we've evolved to play is to really absorb others into that neural picture, that neural pattern that we experience subjectively, as the self. So when we sense that someone is familiar, that we love them, that we want to be with them, that's partly what's going on there. We're really -- we've really expanded ourselves to include them in our self.

  • 13:10:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, our guest is James Coan, he's a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. What traits do you value most in your friends? How do you define friendship and has your definition changed over time, 800-433-8850? You can send email to, you can send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, join the conversation there with a question or comment. Jim Coan, your research has shown how relationships affect the wiring of our brains but what have you found out about empathy and just how fundamental for humanity this desire to form bonds with others is?

  • 13:11:30

    COANWell, you know, empathy is a very interesting thing because on the one hand, when you're trying to understand someone else, you need to, sort of, get a sense for how they're feeling and that's an interesting thing to try and do. You know, how do we know what someone else is feeling? There are a couple ways we can do that. One way is we can, sort of, experience ourselves what we think their experiencing and we, sort of, simulate their experience. And the brain is capable of that.

  • 13:11:59

    COANBut of course, that's not the only way, we can also just know facts about them and that's one thing that we can do. But it turns out that those two forms of empathy, they're not equal in one important sense, the, sort of, understanding someone by under -- by thinking about them, thinking about facts about them is a little harder for a brain to pull off. It's a little more computationally complex and more effortful than, sort of, feeling what they're feeling.

  • 13:12:25

    COANAnd it turns out, the more we get to know a person, the easier it is to assume that the, you know, what they're feeling like inside. And so, one of the reasons that we get to know people and form relationships is to make empathizing with others really rapid and relatively effortless. And that's exactly what happens.

  • 13:12:48

    NNAMDIJoining us now, by phone, is Deborah Tannen. She is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her work focuses on how the language of every day conversation affects relationships. Her many books include, "You Just Don't Understand Women and Men and Conversation," and "You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." Deborah Tannen, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:13:10

    MS. DEBORAH TANNENMy pleasure.

  • 13:13:11

    NNAMDII'll start where we started out and that is, how do you define and perhaps classify the term "friend?"

  • 13:13:19

    TANNENWell, of course, they are very different levels of friends. The kinds of friends that we think of when we say, my best friend, or, she's my best friend, which, by the way, is interesting that most women will name another woman and many men will names their wives as their best friend. That would be someone that you feel you can tell things that you wouldn't tell other people, someone you can depend on if you have a situation where you need a lot of help, someone you're -- you feel that you're pretty much yourself with. And I would make this distinction between the way friend is now used with Facebook friends, which people sometimes kind of laugh at...

  • 13:14:00

    NNAMDIOh, we'll get to more of that later but go ahead.

  • 13:14:02


  • 13:14:03

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 13:14:03

    TANNENYeah, how can you have a real friend if you have hundreds of them? But people know the difference between a Facebook friend and a real one. There are gender differences that are quite interesting. The role of talk is primary for most women.

  • 13:14:17

    NNAMDIYes, to what extend do our friendships really center on conversation and how does this vary, broadly speaking, along gender lines?

  • 13:14:26

    TANNENYeah. So typically for many women, you're friends with the people that you can talk to and it goes back to the littlest kids. You'll find little girls, sitting and talking and they tell secrets. And telling secrets is a huge part of their being friends. The best friend is the one they tell their secrets to. If that friend repeats the secret to someone else, that realigns the friendship, you've got a new friend.

  • 13:14:49

    TANNENFor little boys, it tends to be more focused on activities. So their best friends are the ones they do everything with. And when I wrote about differences between women and men and their close relationships as adults, I often use this phrase that many women think that their husband is gonna be a new and improved version of a best friend, will tell each other everything and there is sometimes frustration because maybe at the end of the day she might say, how was your day? And they'll say...

  • 13:15:21


  • 13:15:21

    TANNEN...nothing special. And then she hears him, they go out for dinner and he's regaling the audience with something that happened because idea that, you're my best friend, I tell you everything first, that's what makes us close, is more women sense of friendship than men's.

  • 13:15:36

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Miles in Washington, D.C. Miles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:15:43

    MILESYeah, I have a question for Jim. So earlier you guys made a reference to man being a social animal, you know, Aristotle and Plato said that, "Man is by nature a political animal," and I'm wondering what the latest in evolutionary biology has to say about why we are a more social species and how that's helped our species evolve.

  • 13:16:06

    NNAMDIJim Coan?

  • 13:16:08

    COANYeah, well, there are a lot of different theories about that and of course we can't go back in time and really know exactly how and why we evolved the way that we did. Some people have proposed that, you know, we develop this incredible capacity for bonding and empathy by forming really close knit groups that then fought with other groups and this is a kind of a group selection idea that, you know, we're fighting -- we evolve to -- it's called parochial altruism and I don't think the evidence for it is very strong.

  • 13:16:38

    COANThere's another perspective that I think the evidence more strongly supports, which is from a researcher named Sarah Hardy at the University of California Davis. And what she's proposed is something called alloparental cooperation. And what she means by that, is that part of the reason that we've, as a species, formed this incredible capacity to link up with each other, socially, is that babies, human babies, are so incredibly hard to raise.

  • 13:17:07

    COANThey're very, very expensive metabolically. And it just -- it's too hard to do by yourself. And so, one of the things that we've done is distribute the cost of raising very costly human babies to social networks and this required a very large, a very high degree of cooperative and sort of intelligence. And that also, by the way, gave us the room, as a species, to grow our very large brains because the -- once you start distributing the effort of raising an already expensive kid, well, that you can pay even more into the raising of that kind of organism.

  • 13:17:47

    NNAMDIAnd how does that effect the baby in terms of the baby's both understanding of how this social network, if you will, works and the fact that we are hardwired to be social by nature?

  • 13:18:04

    COANWell, it's really interesting. Baby's are very, very good at getting support from others. They're very good at bonding with the mom, obviously, and the dad and whatever caregivers immediately in their environment but soon, very quickly, as they start developing, they form the abilities to capture gaze from other adults to, sort of, coo and look cute and do cute things. They're good at, sort of, soliciting support from other people.

  • 13:18:35

    COANWe've done some research, a graduate student that I worked with, named Gary Sherman, who did this lovely study where he showed that -- well, we found that, just showing adults pictures of cute babies caused them, outside of awareness, caused them to be more, sort of, physically careful when they were manipulating objects or playing this operation game, you know, that you can do. So baby's really affect the way that adult brains work and see the world.

  • 13:19:03

    NNAMDICall us, give us your opinion about friendship. At what stage in life did you form your closest friendships? How do you distinguish between different kinds of friends, acquaintances, peers, associates? How large or intimate is your social circle, 800-433-8850 is our number? is our email address. Deborah, many close bonds are formed early in our lives but as we age it can be or at least it can seem, harder to make new friends. What changes as we get older?

  • 13:19:35

    TANNENSome of what changes is simply opportunities to have the kinds of conversations that would make friends. So for women, for example, we're talking about private things, is the basis of friendship. When you're young and you have boyfriends, you might easily talk about all the problems you're having with your boyfriends. Later, when people are married, they may be less eager to talk about problems they're having in their marriage because they don't want to put the husbands in a difficult position, vis-a-vis, friends.

  • 13:20:08

    TANNENAnd by the way, husbands and boyfriends really don't like it when their wives and girlfriends talk to their friends about the relationship. People are busier. Often, when you're young, friendships are formed when you're both starting out something, starting a new school, joining a new club, moving to a new neighborhood, taking a new job. And when we're older we are finding ourselves in fewer situations where we're just starting out and all the other people are starting out. So someone who suddenly moves to a new neighborhood but everybody else is settled in that neighborhood, may have a harder time than, you know, perhaps you go to a new job and you're face to face with all the people there. And so the opportunity to have those conversations is more apparent.

  • 13:20:59

    TANNENAnd then for many men, you're -- if friendships -- and often among men it's the guys they play golf with, the guys they go to sports events with. Again, they may be busier, may be less time, may feel there's less need because you have many friends and don't even have enough time for the friends that you do have. But maybe they're not doing that many outside activities. And so there too there's less opportunity.

  • 13:21:27

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on friendships which, of course, you can join because you have many friends, 800-433-8850. Or if you are friendless, make a friend now. Send us an email to or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:48

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing friendships with Deborah Tannen. She is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her many books include "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" and "You Were Always Mom's Favorite: Sister's in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." James Coan is a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. This time we'll start with Sam in Frederick County, Md. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:22

    SAMHi. It seems to me like the economy's gotten a lot more mobile recently with people moving around more often and further distances for different jobs. And I was wondering if your guests might have some ideas on how that's changed sort of the nature of our friendships, whether it's affected how close we are, how we form them or their length.

  • 13:24:40

    NNAMDIDeborah Tannen.

  • 13:24:42

    TANNENYes. That's a very interesting point. On the one hand, yeah, because we move around more we're less likely to have friends that we form in high school and then keep throughout the rest of our lives, or even friends we grew up with from toddlership and then keep the rest of our lives. I think that was the pattern in the past. On the other hand, I think there's something very promising going on that people are staying in touch with friends even when they move away because of all the electronic media, Facebook, Instagram.

  • 13:25:15

    TANNENInstagram is interesting because people not only are sending texts but sending pictures, which really gives you a feeling that you're there. Facetime, Skype. So on the one hand, yeah, the distance means friendships are lasting for a shorter time, but then because of the -- all these media that we have, they're actually in another way lasting longer.

  • 13:25:42

    NNAMDISam, thank you very much for your call. Jim, when approaching a new potential friend there's a kind of inevitable, well, vulnerability we've got to be willing to risk. How does empathy factor into the way most people approach that risk and why is it worth it?

  • 13:26:00

    COANOh boy, I think there's almost an infinite number of strategies that people use. You know, it's sort of -- friendship is a little bit like love in that you can't just will it into existence. You have to sort of set up the conditions and then hope for the best. And it's also like love in it's an investment in time and emotional effort. And it's definitely worth it though because the payoff is kind of an economy of scale. You know, people talk about economies of scale as, you know, sort of in manufacturing. The more of something that you build, the less cost it is to build it.

  • 13:26:44

    COANFriendships can be similar in that they don't cost that much to forge and to maintain. They are costly but it's not that costly and the return can be quite large for all involved because you start to share goals, share interests and take joint action towards meeting those goals and interests.

  • 13:27:06

    NNAMDIThere have been so many studies on the health benefits of friendships and close relationships, Jim. I'm wondering what you find especially revealing outside of your own, both mental and physical.

  • 13:27:20

    COANWell, yes?

  • 13:27:22

    TANNENGo ahead. I'll speak after.

  • 13:27:25

    COANOne of the things that -- so we've done these experiments where you bring people into the laboratory and put one of them into the MRI scanner. And we actually put them under threat of electric shock. It's not -- I don't mean to chuckle. It's not funny, but it's -- the reason we do that is we want to see how they're responding to potential danger

  • 13:27:42

    COANAnd one of the studies that we did, we had them holding the hands of their friend, their good friend or holding the hand of a stranger. And then one of the things that we found was that the regions of the brain that are sort of responsible for coping with the threat, not only being vigilant for threats but also for sort of getting the body to respond to it in all kinds of ways, were a lot quieter when they were holding hands with their friends.

  • 13:28:10

    COANAnd this is really important because what it means is that we feel like we have to invest fewer sort of metabolic preparatory resources in coping with some of the adversity that we'll all inevitably face in life when our friends are near. And that's good because the systems that we have in place to mobilize those resources, they're costly. They can cause wear and tear on our bodies. They can make us feel more miserable and actually reduce our health as well.

  • 13:28:44


  • 13:28:45

    TANNENYeah, thank you. I'd love to add something. There have been quite a few studies that people who have friends both live longer and are healthier. And there was a really interesting one a few years ago that was written up in the Times that older people who had sisters live longer, whether they were men or women, than older people who did not have sisters. And the theory was that maybe it was because having sisters meant there was somebody to talk to, somebody that you could share your intimate problems with.

  • 13:29:18

    NNAMDIIn my case, somebody to listen to, but go ahead.

  • 13:29:21

    TANNENRight. Both sides of the conversation. And I wrote an essay at that time, which turned out to be the most emailed for about a week there, that in the book -- I had written a book about sisters. And there were sisters I had interviewed who were extremely close and didn't talk about what was going on in their lives. And there was one image that always stuck in my mind because it was so lovely.

  • 13:29:50

    TANNENAn older woman, she was married but her sister who was not married came to live with her and her husband in the last years of her life. And she described it in the morning after her husband got up and went to have breakfast. Her sister would join her in the bed and -- these two women in their 80's, and they would just sort of sit next to each other and hold hands and have -- and interesting for the study about holding hands. And they didn't talk about anything personal.

  • 13:30:18

    TANNENAnd, in fact, that woman had told me she -- her previous marriage had ended because her husband had absolutely been violent. And her sister said, why didn't you tell me? And she said, well, you have to solve your problems and I have to solve mine. So I think there's something about having a person there, having repeated contact, feeling that they're close to you whether or not what you're talking about is intimate. There are many, many people who feel close friendships do not require intimate talk.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDIOn to Mary...

  • 13:30:51

    COANYeah, this is a...

  • 13:30:52

    NNAMDIOh, go ahead, please, Jim.

  • 13:30:54

    COANThis is a question that comes up a lot, you know. Is it really about your perception of social support or is it sort of proximity to people?

  • 13:31:03


  • 13:31:03

    COANAnd sometimes you see evidence supporting one perspective, sometimes more the other. But I think we're starting to learn more and more about the power of just physical proximity, just being in proximity. One of the studies we did is we -- it was actually a study by a friend of mine Greg Segal at University of Pittsburg where he looked at just the presence of a mother standing in the MRI room when a child was getting an MRI for another reason. Just the knowledge that she was there physically without any kind of contact, hand-holding, listening or anything, significantly reduced the stress response in those children.

  • 13:31:44

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here's Mario in Burke, Va. Mario, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:50

    MARIOHello, Mr. Nnamdi. Can you hear me now?

  • 13:31:52

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 13:31:53

    MARIOOkay. Well, I really appreciated seeing my mother. I grew up as a child of State Department, a diplomat parent. And she had moved originally from South America for the U.S. government and seen her transition even as a young child. We were friends. Not speaking English was something that always remained in my mind. And I always envied my sister's, obviously growing up in the same family, ability to value relationships. And we'd have friends from Finland and South America and Central America and Southeast Asia that would save money to this day in our mid 40s to visit my sister because they had built these lifelong relationships.

  • 13:32:27

    MARIOWhere as a guy my relationships were very dispensable and I took almost a cavalier pride in that. And now at this age I recognize my sister and my mom overcame so many things in their relationships and it really helped them. And I think I value my sister and some of my old college friends because we're not creating new reality. Like now you're trying to get your job, your car, your house. And my old college friends have had things unexpected happen and they're less judgmental. And I think now I value, in many different perspectives, how important to men and women just having nonjudgmental long-term invested friendships.

  • 13:33:02

    MARIOAnd I think I read Deborah Tannen's book. I thought she wrote -- I just clued into the conversation, but "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" when I was at UCLA in the early '90s. But if she didn’t, I apologize, but I do remember reading one of her books and I just wanted to say I appreciate very much the clarity of her thinking. And pretty much that's my comment.

  • 13:33:19

    NNAMDIWell, she'll clear things up for you right now. Deborah Tannen.

  • 13:33:22

    TANNENYeah, thank you. That was the book "You Just Don't Understand," but thank you, I'm glad it was helpful.

  • 13:33:27

    NNAMDI"You Just Don't Understand" is the name of the book. Deborah, for those who might say I'd like to make new friends but I have no idea how, where do you suggest they might start?

  • 13:33:38

    TANNENI think starting with a group where you might share an interest would be a good place to start. So I think many people make friends through church. If they are not inclined that way they might, if they like to hike, join the Sierra Club, sometimes going on cruises or other organized trips. And it's interesting because those are situations where people often make friendships when they're older, which doesn't happen that often because you're in a situation where nobody knows anybody. So everybody is looking for someone to start a conversation with. So, yeah, I think something where you have a shared interest would be a good place to start.

  • 13:34:22

    NNAMDIOn now to Nick in Silver Spring, Md. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:28

    NICKHey, Kojo, how you doing?

  • 13:34:29

    NNAMDII'm doing well.

  • 13:34:30

    NICKA good comment about relationships with other men, how intimate they can be. So I think there's a sort of perception that men can't talk to each other on intimate levels at all. And there's a certain point where it becomes awkward. I think that wall can be breached through like little tests. So like, for instance, my best friend, like, we -- I know everything about him. We talk all the time about his issues. But it's because I tested him initially about them and I determined how receptive he was.

  • 13:35:01

    NICKAt first he was like, you know, I'm a man, you're a man. We're not going to talk about this very personal issue. And I kept challenging him and challenging him and then he started opening up more. So I think there's this sort of collective wall that people perceive and it disallows them to make any in a deep way. And I think once you can break through that, you can talk to a man about anything. I mean, this person has cried in my arms before. He has told me everything and, you know, he's married.

  • 13:35:26

    NICKSo it's just all about this perception that you have to break through. And I think that a true friend is someone that you can project your individual neuroses to and oddities. And as soon as there's -- and it's not just an acquaintance. There's someone that is close to you. It's someone that you can be weird around constantly. And it's all -- and I think inside jokes play a huge -- inside jokes are -- I mean, I realize that can really determine how deep a friendship is. If you can constantly make an inside joke or expand it, that means you're really close to that person. So that's my comment.

  • 13:35:55

    NNAMDIBut when you make that inside joke and you do it a lot among other people between you and your one friend, how do other people in the group feel about it?

  • 13:36:05


  • 13:36:05

    NNAMDIObviously, you feel good.

  • 13:36:06

    NICKYeah, that's my point. I mean, other people who will not respond to it well will think that I'm immediately weird or sort of odd. But my friend will be laughing. And the thing is, only with that friend can you make that inside joke. And it'll continuously expand into something that's way different than the original form. So I think once you find people who can sort of connect with you, more of a comical than anything else, that's a sure sign because that's what I realized and...

  • 13:36:31

    NNAMDIThere are two fascinating aspects of what you brought up. One I'll ask Deborah, the other I'll ask Jim. Deborah, I'll ask you because you have written more about the gender differences in how friendships are made. And Jim, what I want to ask you is, it seems as if what Nick is talking about is pretty close to a kind of dependency, if you will. And I'm wondering to what extent that aspect of friendships is, in fact, kind of genetic. But Deborah, I'll start with you.

  • 13:36:59

    TANNENYeah, so I think the caller made some excellent points. It's true that for many men the feeling that you should not reveal weaknesses can be very strong. And it's often because there's a feeling that you're going to look weak. And then the person will have less respect for you and maybe think less of you in the future. And so it's an assumption that is started very early on.

  • 13:37:22

    TANNENIf you feel that way, it's going to take a real step to get past that. And the caller's point about texting was fascinating because this is another way that new media can actually afford friendships make -- it's an affordance to make friendships easier for some people. And this may be true for some women too if they tend to be introverts. But for one of the really interesting patterns that I found that tended to distinguish women and men was how we orient our bodies when we talk to each other.

  • 13:37:54

    TANNENSo you can imagine little girls or women when they talk, you can just picture them. They face each other directly, they lean in, they keep looking at each other directly, both the speaker and the listener. And if you look at little boys or men when they talk to each other casually, often they're kind of looking away. They may see themselves either at angles or even parallel. So the feeling that you -- someone is bearing down on you if they look directly at you may want you -- make you feel less inclined to talk about personal things.

  • 13:38:28

    TANNENAnd so boys and men sometimes find it easier if you're doing something, riding in a car, you don't have to look directly at each other. And by the way, mothers find this about sons as compared to daughters as well. And so starting out with a screen rather than a face can sometimes make it easier, texting, email, Facebook. And it's very interesting, many couples who, in the past, it was always the wife who knew what was going on in the lives of relatives. With Facebook sometimes the men know more because they're more inclined to be checking Facebook more often. So that is something that surprisingly can actually make friendships between men easier rather than harder.

  • 13:39:16

    NNAMDIAnd Jim, what Nick described as a certain specialness, if you will, in his relationship with his friend, something he essentially challenged him and tested him for before developing the friendship, how important is that? Is that really a need that we have or just a desire?

  • 13:39:33

    COANInterdependence, excuse me, is really a hallmark of human social relationships. And the thing about establishing real interdependence is that it requires intimacy, as the caller pointed out. And intimacy is an investment. It's an investment and a potential risk because it's an investment in time and effort and all of these things. And risk because you might reveal something very vulnerable and then be taken advantage of in some way.

  • 13:40:06

    COANSo we have all kinds of complex rituals that we engage in to try and judge the degree to which, you know, it's a safe bet to be interdependent with someone else, to allow someone else access to our most vulnerable, you know, attributes.

  • 13:40:25

    TANNENCould I -- oh, sorry.

  • 13:40:27

    NNAMDIGo ahead, Jim.

  • 13:40:28

    TANNENYeah, I just said, made me think of a -- just to add, kind of reinforcing that, a pattern that ran through all the gender differences that I observed in writing about women and men, was that any encounter has two levels. You can ask, is it bringing us closer or pushing us farther apart. And you can ask, is it putting one of us in a one-up or a one-down position. And it's -- the pattern tends to be that women focus more on the question, is this bringing us closer or pushing us farther apart, where boys and men tend to focus more on the question, is this putting us in a one-up or a one-down position.

  • 13:41:08

    TANNENAnd that -- those are the two sides of revealing yourself in a friendship. Yes, you're making yourself vulnerable. You could put yourself in a one-down position. And yes, you're potentially bringing this person closer. And so it's really in keeping with this general pattern that more women focus on the side where it's bringing us closer, even though it does potentially make you vulnerable, whereas men perhaps more often are resistant because of that vulnerability and are passing over the closeness aspect.

  • 13:41:45

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with James Coan and Deborah Tannen. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you're trying to get through, send us an email to Have you found it more difficult to forget close relationships the older you get? Got any tricks for finding new friends? Give us a shout out, 800-433-8850 or you can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:08

    NNAMDIWelcome back to an exploration of friendship with Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her many books include "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." And "You Were Always Mom's Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." She joins us by phone. Joining us from studios in Charlottesville, Va. is James Coan. He's a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affected Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. We'll go directly to the phones and Emily in Gaithersburg, Md. Emily, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:43

    EMILYHi. I just wanted to talk about friends in high school and how friends can affect us in high school...

  • 13:44:48


  • 13:44:49

    EMILY...and how important friends are in high school. You know, I am in high school right now and if you don't have friends you're kind of an outcast. And we're all kind of grouped together by our friends. And I think it should really be that we can just make friends with everyone and everyone can just be friends with each other instead of being grouped off like this.

  • 13:45:07

    NNAMDII got an email from Patricia, Emily, who says, "I have a great long-term boyfriend but no friends. When I was in junior high I made friends that lasted 20 years." This is what you've got to look forward to, Emily. "They got married and/or moved away. I'm around people all the time at work and grad school so I like being alone when I have free time. I think when I was younger I was more interested in meeting many people. Now I have satisfied the need to be around a variety of folks." Emily, you sound as if rather than going off into groups, you would rather meet many people. Is that correct?

  • 13:45:42

    EMILYYes. I -- sometimes it feels like people are left out because they're not considered cool or they're not the right type of friends. And it would be nicer if everyone could just be friendly and we could all just be friends.

  • 13:45:54

    NNAMDIDeborah Tannen, you say?

  • 13:45:56

    TANNENYeah, it's -- I think what she's talking about is similar to a point often made that girls are clique-y, and it's true, an act that has a very -- it can be a very cruel thing at times. So they may suddenly reject a girl who was in the group. And when a girl is rejected she is completely frozen out, whereas a group of boys, they don't like a boy, they may still, like, let him play, maybe give him a terrible position on the team, but they don't get frozen out that way.

  • 13:46:30

    TANNENI've thought about that a lot and wondered why it is. And in a way Emily's right, it would be wonderful if we didn't have these groups. But on the other hand, if what you're doing is talking about personal things in your life, you really can't let strangers be there. You really can only do that with a few people.

  • 13:46:48

    TANNENAnd so I think there is something about the nature of girls' and women's friendships that makes it natural that they're going to be in -- it's going to be a group thing, or sometimes just a best friend. Just -- girls spend a lot of time talking one on one. And that is related to the fact that the older we get, the less open we are to having a lot of different kinds of friends because there's less opportunity to talk to many people. You've got to be more selective.

  • 13:47:21

    NNAMDIEmily, it sounds like something for awhile you'll have to get used to. But here's Jim Coan.

  • 13:47:25

    COANOh, I think -- I just want to echo what Deborah just said about, you know, when you're really sort of learning about yourself and revealing, you know, intimacies, trying to figure stuff out, Deborah's exactly right. You need to -- it's almost for sure that you're going to have a smaller group of folks that you're going to do that with.

  • 13:47:45

    COANBut one of the things that's also important to keep in mind is that the way that we approach friendship changes over time over the course of our lives. This has come up several times during the conversation. One of the things that's going on in junior high, high school is that we're really -- we're expanding beyond our family in sort of early social relationships into a whole new world of potential relationships. And we're sort of trying things on. We're sort of trying to figure it out. And there's a lot of things -- whatever does eventually happen, a lot of things you can learn from that to take forward into adulthood.

  • 13:48:17

    NNAMDIIndeed, Deborah, one-on-one dynamics among friends are often markedly different than group dynamics. What are the potential benefits and pitfalls when it comes to being part of a group, especially if that group, beyond junior high school, is centered around a specific hobby or pursuit like a book club or a bird-watching meet-up?

  • 13:48:39

    TANNENI think this too is going to be a little bit different for women and men. But sometimes the level of intimacy can feel deeper if it's one on one. There are things that you night talk about to one person that you really just would not feel comfortable talking about to a larger group of people. On the other hand, when you're in a group there's less immediate pressure.

  • 13:49:01

    TANNENWe're talking about all the positive sides of friendships. There are downsides of friendships too. And cutoffs are not at all unusual, especially among girls and women. So there's a feeling that if you're in a group there's less immediate pressure to say the right thing. You know, someone gets mad at you because they told you a problem and you didn't react the way they wanted.

  • 13:49:28

    TANNENAnd so it can defuse the pressure if you're in a larger group. And defuse the attention so that you're focusing on the book that you're discussing in your book club or focusing on the activity that you're doing together. And also then if one person is busy or moves away or gets a primary relationship that takes their attention away, you're not left stranded.

  • 13:49:53

    NNAMDIJim, social media have certainly changed the way we think of friends in the Facebook sense, if you will, but do you think it has really drastically changed our fundamental understanding of this relationship we call friendship?

  • 13:50:08

    COANI don't think it's changed our -- fundamentally changed our understanding of it. I think that we can see the expression in it of things that we've already understood about friends. And one of the things that keeps coming up is the idea that friends are investments. And one of the things that things like Facebook makes really easy is sort of gathering a lot of people who know us. So the investment is not very high. You can basically click friends with someone and away you go. Or you just write updates every now and then.

  • 13:50:43

    COANThat's not the same kind of thing as investing in a flesh and blood person that you're going to be spending time with, maybe, you know, helping fix something in their house, you know, learning about their children or their lives. Those -- you know, and making dinner with. Those are different kinds of investments.

  • 13:50:59

    COANSo it's not that we're learning necessarily different things, but we are seeing a process of people in mass sort of investing a little bit differently potentially. And that -- as Deborah pointed out, that could maybe have some good qualities. So we're a very mobile society where people are living far away from family and friends they grew up with. And those social media allow us with relatively small investments to keep in touch.

  • 13:51:29

    COANOn the other hand, in terms of the return on those investments, it's a little bit like trying to derive a nutritious dinner from a bag of Doritos sometimes. It's not really the same kind of nourishment that we get back either.

  • 13:51:45

    NNAMDIDeborah, your take on how social media impact our conception of friendship.

  • 13:51:51

    TANNENYeah, I think it allows us to have more friends of different levels. So a student of mine had a great example. A friend of hers had broken up with a boyfriend. It was on Facebook. All kinds of people were saying, oh I'm so sorry. They were reacting. She realized that the really good friends of that friend were not saying anything on Facebook. She realized that that friend had personally told the people she was really close to. The ones who were learning on Facebook were not her close friends. So we can balance these differences.

  • 13:52:26

    TANNENI think texting is particularly interesting because there's an assumption that you're going to stay in constant touch with friends. And I think that's especially true for younger kids. And that can almost be a burden in itself. There's now a function by which your friends can see whether you opened their text, that you've got to answer right away. And maybe if you're with your parents, they don't want you to be texting at the table but your friends require it because you've got to answer right away.

  • 13:52:58

    TANNENSo it is something that gives you an opportunity to stay in constant touch and that's possible. That's a great thing but it can possibly also be a burden that you really don't have the time to just be on your own because you've got to currently always be available to your friends.

  • 13:53:17

    NNAMDIOn now to Joanie in Washington, D.C. Joanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi. Joanie is no longer there. Let's go to Maria in Silver Spring, Md. Marie, your turn.

  • 13:53:31

    MARIAHi, Joe.

  • 13:53:35


  • 13:53:35

    MARIAKojo. That's a great conversation, a great topic for conversation. What I would like to do is throw in Aristotle's definition of a friendship. Aristotle said -- has a whole section in his ethics that friendship can only be had between the best. It's not a friendship -- you cannot call it friendship, the connection on utilitarian terms. You have to be by your friends -- stand by your friend in moments of difficulty and you have to hear the friend towards, in his part, for self realization on moral terms.

  • 13:54:37

    MARIAAny other conception of friendship is not a real friendship. I have a friend and I myself distinguish between acquaintances that you get together to have dinner, go to the movies or do things together and the people who really stand by you. And by discussing you have to open up to real friends. And by discussing your most vulnerable problems...

  • 13:55:10


  • 13:55:11

    MARIA...they help you by their comments to really find solutions, to really make you a better person.

  • 13:55:18

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We have all heard of course, Jim Coan, of the term fair-weather friends. You don't want people who are your friends only when things are going well. But here's a definition we got from Philip by way of email to add to what Maria just said. Philip writes, "My father offered me the definition of a friend that has stayed with me a lifetime. A friend is someone I would put my right arm in a fire for. Perfect. I treasure the few friends by that definition that I'm fortunate to have."

  • 13:55:52

    NNAMDIOn the one hand, it's one thing not to want fair-weather friends. On the other hand, it's the notion of sticking your hand into a fire. One that is off-putting to me, but go ahead, please, Jim. What do you think?

  • 13:56:03

    COANLet's hope that doesn't come to that. So etymologically, you know, you look in some of the early meanings of the word friend and there's a lot of reference to freeing, to free someone. And I think that's really part of what we're talking about. A friend helps to ease your burden. And that, I think, is -- it's important to stay focused on that definition only a little bit as we have these conversations. Because obviously these things can manifest in all kinds of different ways including, as Deborah's saying, the sort of texting friend who requires you to answer your text or else you'll get in trouble in some way.

  • 13:56:44

    COANNow, that might not be freeing you from burden so much as adding burden. And so I think it's important to understand all of these nuances. But really a friend is someone who should be capable of easing your burden, just as you're capable of easing theirs. And that's when the investment comes in.

  • 13:57:05

    TANNENThat makes me think of a comment I wanted to make hearing those -- the callers and the email that you read.

  • 13:57:13

    NNAMDIWe have about a minute left, Deborah, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:57:15

    TANNENOkay. So really fast, one definition was I would put my arm in a fire for that friend. And the other was what the friend would do for me.

  • 13:57:24


  • 13:57:25


  • 13:57:25

    TANNENAnd those are the two sides and we need them both.

  • 13:57:28

    COANYes, indeed.

  • 13:57:28

    NNAMDIDeborah Tannen. She is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her work focuses on how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships. Her many books include "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" and "You Were Always Mom's Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." Deborah Tannen, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:46

    TANNENIt's been a pleasure.

  • 13:57:47

    NNAMDIJames Coan is professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Jim Coan, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:56

    COANGreat fun. Thank you.

  • 13:57:57

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer today is Douglas Bell. Jonathan Osmundsen was on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website Thank you all for listening. Have a happy Thanksgiving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows