Month of March , 2008

Splitting Hairs: The difference between talking and yakking


From his hometown and mine---Chappaqua, New York---New York Times columnist Peter Applebome recently chronicled the impact of the Bear Stearns crisis (Metro Section, March 20, 2008) on the local folks. With great sympathy, he described the economic woes of the predominantly male commuters boarding the 6:13AM Metro North train into Manhattan---those affected directly and indirectly by the downtown on Wall Street.

But then his comments turned nasty. He wrote, “At Donna Hair Designs in Chappaqua, the financial meltdown barely registered on the yakometer when compared with the embarrassment of riches from the political world….,” referring to the discussions taking place all over the western world about the Spitzer sex saga.

I don’t know why Applebome’s vision of what women talk about is so skewed and limited. Perhaps, his foils were hanging too low over his ears while he was eavesdropping on our conversations.

Yes, men accuse women of “yakking,” a condescending term (oddly enough, derived from the long-haired ox of Tibet). But when it comes to clinching hard-to-get appointment at a hair salon, it isn’t simply about getting your hair done. Just like old-fashioned barbershops once were for men, contemporary hair shops are vital epicenters of in-person communication for women. Sometimes, the wash, cut, color and highlights are ancillary to other reasons for the visit.

Women truly connect in a hair shop. They form close emotional ties with their stylists, male and female. Like dating, if the personalities don’t click, the relationships break up quickly and the client moves on until she lands “the one.” When stylist and client do connect, the relationship is likely to be meaningful and long-lasting. Clients move out-of-town but they come back to Donna’s to get their hair done. Donna has blow-dried three generations in some families. She’s attended their weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals.

The hair salon is one of the few places (other than a blood bank) where multi-tasking women finally get to sit-down, think about the important issues on their minds, and talk about them to someone who is ready to listen. The stylist hovering over a head is in a perfect position (except for the din of the dryers) ---to question, counsel, and provide advice and information.

What do talking heads---reds, blonds, brunettes, and grays---talk about? They discuss marital and sexual problems (not only Spitzer’s, but also their own). They talk about their health problems, some of which are too embarrassing to talk about to their boyfriends or doctors. They ask where their friend undergoing chemotherapy can get a natural-looking wig and where they can find a financial advisor or lawyer.

They complain about unfair teachers in the elementary schools, bullies in the middle schools, and high school kids gone wild. They solicit recommendations for finding a responsive pediatrician for their children, a therapist for their kid sister, or a compassionate geriatrician for their parents. They whisper about husbands who have been laid off or who work incessantly, and network with other successful career women---often finding serendipitous ways to enhance each other’s careers. They confess when they haven’t been a good friend or when a friend has dumped on them.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Paris, many sophisticated women gathered regularly at a “salon” in the home of a gifted hostess to learn from one other and refine their tastes. The same traditions of the “salon” of yesteryear bring women together at hair salons today. It’s place where women can let their hair down, talk, and share accumulated wisdom on a range of topics affecting them and their families.

Some balding men just don’t get it.


A friendship lesson from the Lipstick Jungle finale


This week’s finale of Lipstick Jungle (Carpe Threesome) offered an important lesson about female friendship. We all need friends who will be there for us when we fall.

Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields) had been extremely critical when she found out about her friend Nico Reilly’s (played by Kim Raver) extramarital affair with a young stallion named Kirby (Robert Buckley). In fact, her remarks were so irritating that Nico accused her friend of acting like “Mother Superior.”

Was Wendy too judgmental? Too heavy-handed? Too strident? Whatever she felt and said wasn’t persuasive enough to make Nico change her mind---which is true to life. When friends we respect question our morals, it’s not that we ignore them completely. We hear them. On the other hand, when a close friend---or even a best friend---tells us what’s “right” or what they think is “right”, it usually isn’t enough to make us change our behavior.

People are only capable of making changes when they are emotionally ready to do so. In the (literally) steamy opener of the episode this week, which began with Kirby and Nico showering together, Nico still wasn’t ready to listen. Hours later (or minutes in TV series time), she finds out that her husband Charles hae suffered a sudden heart attack. When his life seemed to be hanging in the balance, Nico realized that her true allegiance was to her husband and her ambivalence was resolved for the moment. “I just want my marriage back,” she said.

Hospital waiting rooms are pretty lonely places (having been in one a couple of weeks ago myself). The third friend in the threesome, Victory Ford (Lindsay Price), left a pair of new clients to rush to be at her friend’s side and then Wendy showed up in tears soon after, giving Nico the hugs and understanding she needed.

The takeaway messages from the first season of Lipstick about friendship:

  • Friends have a moral responsibility to be honest and forthcoming when they feel a friend has done something that seems self-destructive or unethical.
  • Dishonesty among friends has the potential to destroy intimacy and lead to estrangement.
  • Yet, we can’t expect friends to change on a dime just based on our say-so. Change has to come from within when the timing is right. Good friends understand that and are there without saying, “I told you so.”


A Hilton-Dupre friendship in the works?


When she was released from jail last June, Paris Hilton seemed to be looking for redemption---some way to give back to society---to help down-and-out women. But first things first: She is on the prowl for a new bestie. But maybe the two are linked.


Why the sudden friendship deficit? I can only speculate. A few of her well-known friends wound up in the clink in recent months and the Paris-Nicole relationship just isn’t what it used to be. Nicole has a two-month-old baby (and when one woman has a child and another doesn’t, it can alter even the best of normal friendships).


So the socialite-heiress-celebrity-newsmaker announced plans to star in a new 10-episode reality show on MTV, tentatively titled “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.” The series is scheduled to begin production in May and planned to air during the fourth quarter of the year.


The premise: Paris will be selecting from among 20 potential BFFs (best friends forever) to find the fairest of them all (male or female), a bestie. According to Broadcasting and Cable, the bestie will “accompany her to A-list parties and personal business functions.”


Paris has explained that she can "teach the secrets of celebrity living — how to turn your enchanted life into a multimillion dollar brand, how to manage public feuds and always rise above, how to survive scandal and then make it work for you, all the while wearing 6-inch heels."


An online voting site was launched on Thursday at to solicit BFF hopefuls who will vie to join a group of 20 from which she will choose the fairest of them all.


To be eligible, wannabes are asked to submit a 90-second video that answers the following:

  • What is the wildest thing you've ever done?
  • If you became a celebrity, what secret would you be most fearful of having exposed?
  • Why do you think you would fit in with the socialite circle?


Well I know one woman who might fit the bill and could sure use a best friend right now. Paris, you might want to give Ashley Alexandra Dupre a casting call.

Picture of Paris Hilton courtesy of K Pinguino under Creative Commons.  


Five ways to unload a toxic friend

Contrary to the myth of best friends forever, many female friendships don't always turn out the way we hoped they would. The friend who is constantly making one-sided demands of you is one disappointing example.


When a close friend is always in need of one thing or another---money, favors, introductions, coddling, praise, or simply more time than you have to give---the relationship begins to grow weary. You feel like you're walking around with an emotional ball and chain around your ankle.


The term toxic friendship refers to a variety of relationships that are consistently negative and draining. The nature of these relationships is defined by patterns, not by one-time or occasional lapses in the reciprocity that is the essence of a healthy friendship.


Why would anyone put up with a friend like that? It, too, can be explained by the concept of reciprocity. Friendships continue when they are mutually satisfying---even if the relationship is toxic. Many women have a hard time extricating themselves from these relationships. These include:

• People who like to feel needed

• People who feel like they aren't worthy of healthier, more balanced relationships

• People who are stuck---either feeling angry or sorry for their needy friend


Get real: If your truly needy friend has been that way for some time, the real possibilities of changing the relationship verge on hopeless. Yet it's hard to find a way out. Here are some ways to unload:

1) Change the nature of your friendship by learning to say "no" and setting boundaries (e.g. "Even though we are both single, I don't want to spend every Friday night together" or "I can't have dinners with you after work because I need to get home to my family."')

2) Tell her that you have to tend to your own needs (or those of anyone else you can think of---your mother, your kid or your cat)

3) Slip away - Spend less time with her and add other less demanding friends to your inventory

4) Take a relationship sabbatical, a well-deserved hiatus from the friendship

5) If you've reached the point where you feel there is nothing really to lose, simply cut loose!


Get rid of the guilt. These are people whose needs can never be satiated. No matter what you give, what you do, how much, or how often, it will never be enough. Since character tends to endure, this person probably treats other people the same way she treats you. It's likely that many of her friends have probably already dropped out of the picture and that's why she is so dependent on you.


This blog entry also appeared on the Huffington Post


Women, friends, and personal crises: An open letter to Friends of Silda Spitzer

"She'll have no shortage of people wanting to be there for her," says one of Silda's friends quoted in the Washington Post. But will her friends know how to be there for her?
When something lousy happens to a friend, it often leaves us at a loss for words.

That's why I'm writing this open letter to all of Friends of Silda Spitzer (FOSSs) and to other women who may find themselves with friends in painful circumstances. Whether you're her friend or not, the heart of every woman reaches out to Silda and her teenage daughters when we saw that look on her face.

But it's not an exaggeration to say that if you live long enough, most of us know someone who has suddenly been thrust into a personal hell that is a deeper one than she can climb out of by herself. It may have happened to you or one of your close friends.

The first lady of New York has been described as brilliant, accomplished and wealthy. But like ordinary women, right now she has to be awash in a morass of painful emotions. Her needs are not too different than the immigrant single-mother who suddenly loses her below-minimum wage job; the woman whose husband has been accused of incompetence by his employer; the mother whose child has been expelled from school for using drugs; or the middle-age woman who has just lost a parent or received a life-threatening diagnosis.

At times like this, women hope they will be surrounded by female friends with whom they can talk openly, express anger, or even just cry. Silda can't unload the depth of her hurt to her teenage daughters, and she can't possibly restrain the anger and disappointment she must feel towards her husband who showed a terrible lapse in judgment. Isn't that what friends are for?

Yet, situations like this often place friends in an uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly what to say or do. Here are a few tips for how to be there for your female friend in trying times:

Be there

Circle around her but don't impose yourself. Find a subtle, non-obtrusive way to let her know you are there if and when she wants to talk. If you know she is a CrackBerry addict, send her an email or text her. If you generally are phone friends, you may want to reach out and touch her by telephone.

Be sensitive to the cues about whether she is ready to talk or is simply too overwhelmed. Remember that a warm note---an old-fashioned snail mail one written in your own handwriting that says "I'm thinking of you"---always feels heartfelt.

Don't make the embarrassment seem larger than life. "I'm always amazed how many people just simply don't treat the person the same as they did two weeks ago," says Peter Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory, whose firm often gets called in to assist with crisis management. "I'm sure Silda would kill for a friend to call and say ‘Hey, let's grab brunch.'"

Listen, don't tell

Don't ask too many questions or pry. Instead express your feelings: presumably that that you feel for her, care for her and her family, and want to be there anyway you can. There are times when a hug means more than words.

Ask her if she wants you to be with her or if you can do anything concrete to help her out (I assume Silda has a kitchen staff but other people may appreciate a home-cooked casserole left at the door.)

Don't ask her why she was standing there. In fact, don't try to second guess the reasons for any friend's decisions while she is in a reactive crisis mode. (Think about it: You never really know what you would choose to do if you were in standing in her stilettos.) Interpersonal relationships are complex and hard to understand from the outside. It takes time for a woman to work through her feelings and allegiances during and after a crisis.

Give her the gift of time

If she declines contact, give her some space and try again a few days later. Shock and/or depression make it difficult to accept help.

This also isn't the time to rile against whomever you perceive to be the perpetrator of your friend's pain. As hypocritical or reprehensible as you may feel the other person to be, your friend needs to reach that conclusion by herself.

Honesty trumps eloquence

Even if you are struggling with what to say and how to say it, never pretend not to know what happened. Of course, in Silda's case, you would have had to be living in a cave. But whatever the situation, it's always better to do something rather than nothing.

Based on online survey of more than 1300 women, Irene is writing a book about female friendships called The Myth of Best Friends Forever (Overlook Press, January 2009).


On Lipstick Jungle: The boundaries of friendship aren't always black and white

The fourth episode (called Bombay Highway) of Candace Bushnell's hot new TV series Lipstick Jungle raises an important set of issues that many women grapple with during the course of their friendships with one another.


What should a friend do or say, if anything, when her Bestie does something illegal, immoral or hurtful to herself or to others---or something that clearly conflicts with her own moral or ethical values? Can they still remain close friends or will it eventually alter the nature of their relationship?

On Lipstick, Nico Reilly (played by Kim Raver) plunges into a steamy affair (behind her professor husband's back) with a young stud named Kirby. There are hints that her husband, too, might be having an affair but he comes across as a pretty decent guy.


Nico, a high-achiever like the other women on the show, has such strong needs for affirmation that she never considers the potential ramifications of her lusty indiscretions for her marriage or her career---let alone her own self-esteem. Her friends Wendy (Brooke Shields) and Victory (Lindsay Price) are a bit taken aback and seem puzzled by this out-of-character behavior. They accept it to Nico's face but talk about it disparagingly behind her back.


This scenario isn't far-fetched---nor is it only the stuff of Hollywood scripts. When I surveyed women for my friendship study, women of all ages told me stories about friends with addictions who they painfully watched destroying themselves; ones who were abusive to their husbands or children; ones who lied to their friends and let them down; and ones who committed crimes. They struggled with the feelings of dissonance over these once-close but now fractured friendships.


Is it the duty of a good friend to support whatever path her friend decides to take? Or should she dissuade her friend from jumping off a cliff? Should she ignore, isolate or overlook behavior she doesn't condone? To step in, how egregious does the behavior have to be?


Although the answers aren't clear-cut and depend on the people involved, what has transpired, and how discrepant the friends' values have become, it is truly a myth that, "Good friends stand behind you, no matter what."


Lipstick, along with Cashmere Mafia, is one of a genre of TV shows that depict women's friendships---like I Love Lucy, Laverne and Shirley, Kate & Allie, Cagney & Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Friends, Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives that came before them. What women love about watching these shows is that they raise issues in Technicolor that are often just beneath the surface of our own lives.