The Secret Language of Girls
Chapter 1 – From the Mouths of Babes
“Words are women’s tools.”
— Helen E. Fisher, The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World
Where Did You Get That Fabulous Loincloth?
When was the last time you had the boys over for a good old chinwag? Didn’t think so. Boys just don’t seem to need to talk the way we girls do. I’d like to say it wasn’t always this way. Actually, I take that back. I’m quite proud to say it has always been this way.
The Secret Language of Girls is an ancient language that has existed as long as women have. I can just imagine the gals kicking back at the cave, munching on a bowl of seeds and berries admiring each other’s loincloth.
“Where did you get that cute little number? I’ve never seen one made from wildebeest before.…”
“Thanks, isn’t it great? That lovely cavewoman down the road – you know the one with those cute drawings all over her cave – gave it to me. Said she never wears it.”
But women don’t just need to talk in order to gush over each other’s outfits and confuse men (as fun as that may be); talking to other woman has long been essential for our basic survival.
“Words are women’s tools,” Helen E. Fisher, anthropologist and author of The First Sex tells me over the phone from her New York office. “Women have used words for millions of years to connect to others, to give support to others, to conduct their love affairs and to raise their young. Words are real intimacy to women.” In The First Sex, Fisher describes the evolution of the male thought process, something she calls “step thinking,” and female thought, which she calls “web thinking.”
“A million years ago, ancestral men were building fires, chipping stone hand axes, and hunting big animals in East Africa – concentration and focus were required for such tasks – those who didn’t pay attention were trampled on, gored, or eaten.” Ancestral women, on the other hand, worked at raising long-dependent children under highly dangerous conditions. This required some serious multi-tasking, tremendous communication, and support-network-building skills.
According to Fisher, “In order to rear helpless infants, ancestral mothers needed to do a lot of things at the same time. Watch for snakes. Listen for thunder. Taste for poison. Rock the sleepy. Distract the cranky. Instruct the curious. Soothe the fearful. Inspire the tardy. Feed the hungry. Mothers had to do countless daily chores while they stoked the fire, cooked the food, and talked to friends.”
Obviously, a lot can change in a million years and Fisher acknowledges that while being gored or trampled doesn’t pose quite the threat it once did, we carry this luggage from the past into the present. Just look at the Internet, the most modern communication forum around. Susan Herring, an associate professor of Information Science at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted a study on how women communicate online. Herring tells me she studied communication styles in chat rooms and found that in all-female chats, “there were more overt expressions of politeness, thanks, and appreciation, as well as expressions of support of others.” In other words, women were busy building connections.
In chats where men participated, the differences in our communication styles really shone, she says. “The adult females were more likely to agree or present themselves as being aligned with other women in the group, whereas men were more likely to take an oppositional stance.” In a heated argument online, women withdrew and were reluctant to participate – they would say things like “I felt intimidated,” or “I didn’t want to say anything because I thought I would be attacked.”
Interestingly, when Herring tried to turn the tables and use a more “male” style of communication for a few days in an online chat group on linguistics – that is, being blunt and direct – she found that females got mad.
“With all-female groups,” Herring tells me, “you tend to get a more egalitarian strategy; women overlap [with] other women – they tend not to interrupt but rather overlap supportively.…”
I know exactly what you mean, Ms. Herring, and so sorry to butt in like this but I just want to give a little bit of background here. Do you mind?
Oh, please, Josey, go right ahead…
From The Secret Language of Girls, by Josey Vogels. Thomas Allen, 2002.