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Women, have you missed talking in person with your best girlfriends during the pandemic? It is time to reach out and restore those friendships. The bond is unique—so much so that science shows that female friendships relieve stress and lower cortisol levels.
A recent study explored key differences in the ways that women in various age groups communicate. It also examined female friendships and found these conversations stand the test of time. The study, “What are friends for? The impact of friendship on communicative efficiency and cortisol response during collaborative problem solving among younger and older women,” was published in the Journal of Women and Aging in May 2021.
Led by researchers Michelle Rodrigues, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Culture Sciences at Marquette University, an interdisciplinary team tested how age and familiarity with women impacts a conversation. They measured a conversation’s overall effectiveness and stress responses.
“Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress,” says Rodrigues. “In order to deal with stress, women can befriend female peers.”
This study differed from others in that instead of using the traditional “fight-or-flight” dichotomy, which is male dominated, it used the “tend-and-befriend” hypothesis, which is a better example of how women communicate and deal with stress. The tend and befriend hypothesis works like this: Women protect offspring and friends (tend) and seek out support from their social group for mutual defense (befriend).
Friendships and Communication
Rodriguez and her team tested a pool of 32 women: 16 of whom were aged 62–79, and 16 of whom were aged 18–25. Each participant was either paired with a friend (a familiar conversation partner) or a stranger (unfamiliar talking partner).
The partners did a series of conversational tests. First, each participant asked her partner to arrange a set of tangrams (shape puzzle) in a specific order that only the former could see. The catch? Each shape was abstract and their appearance was difficult to describe.
“You could look at one [tangram] and say, ‘This looks like a dog.’ Or, you could say, ‘This looks like a triangle, with a stop sign, and a bicycle wheel,’” Rodrigues said.
This exercise helped quantify the efficiency of each conversation. The partners who achieved the desired tangram arrangement in fewer words were considered more efficient, and pairs who needed more words to complete the task were considered less efficient.
Age made a difference in the final results. While the younger adult pairs communicated more efficiently with familiar partners than their older counterparts, younger women communicated less efficiently with unfamiliar partners. The older women demonstrated conversational flexibility, which allowed them to quickly articulate the abstract tangrams to friends and strangers alike.
The results show that with age, women become more confident with communication. “A referential communication task like this requires that you see where the other person is coming from. It seems like the younger adults are a little more hesitant in trying to do that, whereas the older adults have an easier time doing that with strangers,” Rodrigues says.
As people age and they tend to reduce friendships to smaller, more meaningful groups. It is believed that this social cloning would lead to a limited ability to communicate with strangers. But this was not the case. This research shows that it’s important for women of all ages to get together to learn from one another.
“Even though older adults choose to spend more time with people who matter to them, it’s clear that they have the social skills to interact with unfamiliar people if and when they choose to,” Rodrigues says.
How Female Friendships Relieve Stress by Reducing Stress Hormones
Rodrigues’ team also measured salivary cortisol to quantify and compare participants’ stress levels throughout the testing process.
“When you experience something stressful, if you have a stress response system that’s working as it should, the result is an elevated amount of cortisol, our primary stress hormone, which then tells our bodies to release glucose into our bloodstreams,” she says. “That’s reflected in our saliva about 15 to 20 minutes after we experience it. If we see a rise in salivary cortisol from an individual’s baseline levels, that indicates that they are more stressed than they were at the time of the earlier measurements.”
What does this have to do with friendships? For both age groups, when women worked with a friend, they had consistently lower cortisol levels than when working with strangers.
“A lot of the research on the tend-and-befriend hypothesis has only focused on young women, so it’s great to have these results that pull that out to the end of life,” Rodrigues says. “We can see that friendship has that same effect throughout the lifespan. Familiar partners and friendship buffer stress, and that’s preserved with age.”