As someone who enjoys being around people but collapses into a puddle of nervous palm sweat in a group setting, I’ve always romanticized the notion of one-on-one conversation as a more meaningful, manageable alternative to that most fearsome of social conventions: chitchat. That’s probably why, at some stage in my boyhood, I came to the realization that relating to individuals on a disarmingly more intimate level provided for far more memorable and (for me, at least) enjoyable interactions than I could ever find in large groups. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the kind of conversations I sought out as a furrowed-browed adolescent — sincere, personal, whiny — were precursors to a tradition with which I would become intimately familiar here at Yale: the girl talk.
“Girl talk,” despite the implied gender specificity, is not always shared by women, nor is it always about women. Instead, it refers to a specific variety of conversation, usually shared by only two or three people, on any of a broad range of topics. Stereotypically, girl talk revolves around relationships, but this probably isn’t giving the majority of girl talkers enough credit. Sure, hookups and dating provide plenty of girl-talk fodder, but these topics are often just gateways to themes like academic stress, insecurity, dissatisfaction with one’s present romantic or social situation, fear of the future, etc. In fact, a major trademark of girl talk is its ability to plumb surprising emotional depths within the context of low-stakes, informal, sometimes drunken environments. I’ve often been surprised at my own ability to tipsily articulate the existential angst I never even knew I felt, moments before abruptly dancing away when a Ke$ha song came on.
It’s likely that many women actually find this form of conversation insufferable, just as many men like me (both gay and less gay) feel perfectly comfortable with girl talk. Still, media representations of men engaging in introspective conversations on personal topics are relatively sparse, while everything from “The View” to “Sex and the City” have led us to associate this particular form of communication with the feminine sex.
In an ideal situation, girl talk allows all participating parties to share their feelings openly, often starting with more local topics like failed romances and job applications and escalating to weightier themes. However, it should be noted that the emphasis in any girl talk is on talking, not listening. This may seem like a cynical proposition, but I don’t intend for it to be. The comforting nature of girl talk doesn’t come from hearing others’ advice — it comes, in part, from hearing other peoples’ stories and taking solace in the fact that others are going through similar experiences.
More importantly, girl talks provide a platform on which venting is not only tolerated, but also encouraged. A good drunken late-night rant is a wonderful way to Drano away the metaphorical bits of clumped-up hair and soap sludge that tend to accumulate in our psyches over the course of a busy week. A conversation consisting of mutual venting may sound tiresome and solipsistic, but sometimes we all just need to get things off our chests, and what’s the point of delivering a monologue with no audience? If you saw a wild-eyed man on the street ranting to no one in particular, you would think him insane. If you saw a wild-eyed man on the street ranting to a bored-looking female companion, you probably saw me last Friday. Next time say hi!
However, this notion of venting also gets to one of the more unpleasant facets of girl talk. A good deal of social interaction involves relating to others by sharing your own experiences, and an adept storyteller can share a personal anecdote and make it seem entertaining rather than merely self-centered. But not even Homer could spin an interesting yarn about the overwhelming stress of applying for summer internships or the unfairness of having three midterms in the same week. Venting to someone else about how stressed or overworked you feel can, at least momentarily, make you feel a little better about being stressed. But it tends to have the opposite effect on the listener.
The real danger of girl talk comes when we get so used to it that we can’t help ourselves from falling back on what essentially amounts to complaining when we should be having a conversation. The emphasis on sharing life details, whether personal or banal, makes girl talk generally inappropriate for most social situations. Good friends are great girl-talk partners because they’ve essentially signed up to get to know you on an intimate level, but not every stranger at a party wants to be on the wrong end of your emotional colonic.
In essence, girl talk may serve a vital therapeutic purpose, but it doesn’t provide for much levity. And sometimes a little levity is far more therapeutic than any late-night emotional reckoning. Consider engaging in girl talks on an “only-when-necessary” basis. Not only will this generously keep your friends from picking up any of your residual anxiety, it’ll keep you from overstepping the fine line separating catharsis and gratuitous mood dampening.
Thanks for listening.