“I think my marriage is not going to last much longer,” Julie says. I encourage her to go on. “We don’t talk!” she continues. “Whenever I want to talk, my husband says ‘There is nothing to talk about.’ And we just sit and watch TV together. And then he wants to go to bed and have sex when we can’t even talk with each other!”
Once again it’s the time to pull a book out of my shelf by Deborah Tannen, a professor of Linguistics, which was published 15 years ago. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand”, she beautifully illustrates the gender differences when it comes to communication, which can challenge us in our relationships.
“…many women are deeply hurt when men don’t talk to them at home, and many men are deeply frustrated by feeling they have disappointed their partners, without understanding how they failed or how else they could have behaved.” (Tannen, p. 82)
The gender differences when it comes to communication stem from a different upbringing. Even though things are changing, men and women are still socialized differently. Boys tend to play outside, in larger groups that are hierarchically structured. Their groups have a leader who tells others what to do. The power structure is negotiated by giving orders, telling stories and jokes, and by challenging the stories and jokes of the other boys. Boys’ games have winners and losers. It is accepted to boast of their skills and argue who is the best at something.
Girls play mostly in pairs or smaller groups. The centre of a girl’s social life is often her best friend. In that relationship, intimacy is key. Many of the girls’ activities do not have winners and losers. Girls are expected not to boast and if they are strong leaders, they are frequently accused of being bossy. They often simply sit together and talk. There is less joking for status. Girls are more focused on being the same and more concerned that they be liked.
Based on their upbringing, men use conversations for negotiations and to achieve and maintain their position of power or respect. Life is about independence and avoiding weakness and vulnerability. For women conversations are negotiations for closeness. They seek and give confirmation and support. Conversations are a protection from being pushed away, a struggle to avoid isolation. The main purpose of communication is to create closeness through vulnerability.
Julie perceives her husband’s behaviour as a failure of intimacy, she assumes he is keeping things from her, or has lost interest in her or is pulling away. She can’t comprehend why he wants to be physically intimate if they can’t even connect through words. She is unaware that men use the spoken language more to convey information. So when he says “there is nothing to talk about” he is solely saying “I don’t have any information to convey at the moment”. It does not occur to him that for Julie, talking is the main way of experiencing connection and intimacy. For women, talk is for interaction and to feel closer to each other. Telling things is a way to open up and be vulnerable, and listening is a way to show that we care.
“When I ask him what he is thinking, he says “nothing”! How is that possible?,” Julie says. For Julie, like for most women, it is natural to express her fleeting thoughts and opinions. Men usually assume that their passing thoughts and feelings are not worth uttering. Speaking them would give them more weight and significance than they feel they deserve. While Julie naturally speaks her thoughts and feelings in private conversations with people she loves, her husband naturally dismisses his thoughts as soon as they occur as “not important enough”.
A particular scene used to repeat itself in our home. I would ask my daughters “How was school?” and the flood gates for a really lively communication filled with feeling would open. “It was a great day. At lunch time, I asked my friend B how her first date with C was and she told me… And my drama teacher today, guess what he said when… And I am planning to apply for drama council… what do you think, should I do that?… I am mad at myself though because I made some really silly mistakes on the math test…” etc.
Then I, or one of the girls, would ask my partner, “How was your day?” He would say, “Good…” Pause. Three pairs of eyes were looking at him expectedly. We could literally see his wheels turning. “They want more… okay, what happened today?” He would then embark on a list of factual events of the day. “I first did this… and then so and so came… and there was so much traffic on the way to… and then I had a meeting with so and so.” Looking around the table I would see the girls eyes glaze over and think, “It’s not just me who is tuning out.” What happened there? We hadn’t asked him to list what he did, we had asked him to connect with us on a feeling level. What we really wanted to know was how he felt during his day. We wanted to be able to experience his day second-hand through his thoughts, feelings and opinions.
So now we have a joke in our house. When we are trying to connect through words, thoughts and feelings, I will say “Okay. Tell us about your fleeting thoughts and feelings you had today! You know, the ones that you figured weren’t worth mentioning.” He can then laugh because he understands that his way of communicating is not lacking. We are just requesting to connect through feelings and thoughts, which to him seem unimportant. At that moment, I am asking him to speak the female genderlect for a bit.
What does it on the other hand mean for women to speak the male genderlect? One way of speaking the male language is to connect through jokes and “ribbing”. Just as men often aren’t comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings, we are often not as skilled at joking around and teasing others.
Another situation in which we might have to shift into the male genderlect is when we are in a position of authority as a boss or teacher. When I was studying to become a teacher, many of my fellow male students chose to teach high school rather than the elementary level. One said to me, “What I like about high school is that I can pull the trouble makers (male students) aside and let them know very clearly that we can have fun unless they piss me off. I can tell them if they piss me off that they’ll get kicked out. That always works!”
I remember wondering back then if that would work as well for a female teacher. I also remember thinking that it seemed really exhausting to me to have to discipline like this. For men, domineering over others through language comes more naturally, for women it is like learning a new language, the language of power and status.
In public situations, meetings for example, the roles are often reversed. Most men are more comfortable putting themselves on display, claiming public attention for what they have to say.
If you have a silent man at home who says “there is nothing to talk about”, keep in mind that for many men, being home means being free from having to prove themselves to others through verbal communication. They are free to be silent. For women on the other hand, home is a place where they are free to talk.
Unfortunately, our differences in communication have given us women a bad rep as well. Have you ever wondered why women get labelled as “nags”? That is the result of the interplay between women’s and men’s different communication styles. Many women are inclined to do what is asked of them, especially if asked nicely; “many men are inclined to resist even the slightest hint that anyone, especially a woman, is telling them what to do. A woman will be inclined to repeat a request that doesn’t get a response because she is convinced that her husband would do what she asks, if he only understood that she really wants him to do it.” (Tannen, 31)
Her assumption is that he just didn’t hear her or forgot what she asked. She cannot fathom why he has an issue with being asked to do something. “but a man who wants to avoid feeling that he is following orders may instinctively wait before doing what she asked, in order to imagine that he is doing it of his own free will. Nagging is the result, because each time she repeats the request, he again puts off fulfilling it.” (Tannen, 31)
Another gender difference shows up when a decision needs to be made. Many women feel it is natural to consult their partners. They expect decisions to be discussed first and made by consensus. The discussion itself for women is evidence of closeness, caring and involvement. Usually, they are not asking their partners to make the decision for them.
Men on the other hand often feel hemmed if they can’t just act without talking first. How often have I heard men in my sessions or in my circle of friends complain “I feel like I have to ask for permission!” What women perceive as connection is seen by men as a lack of independence and being controlled by the woman, and therefore they fear being perceived as incompetent and weak.
Men and women are frequently talking at cross-purposes when it comes to expressing feelings or troubles. When we share with our girlfriends how we feel, they are usually very good at sympathizing. One way they show us that they are empathizing and that we are not alone with our challenges is that they match our problem with a matching trouble. They might share that they feel the same or have had a similar experience. For most women the message itself is not the main point of complaining. It’s the metamessage that counts: Talking about a problem is a request for an expression of understanding. Troubles talk is intended to reinforce rapport between the person sharing and the person listening.
Men often tend to give the gift of advice or solving a problem over the gift of empathy. “But whereas many women appreciate help in fixing mechanical equipment, few are inclined to appreciate help in ‘fixing’ emotional troubles.” (Tannen, 52) In fact, women are frustrated when they do not get that closeness and understanding but rather advice which sends the meta-message “We are not the same. You have the problems. I have the solutions.”
Mutual understanding is symmetrical and connects. Giving advice is asymmetrical. “It frames the advice giver as more knowledgeable, more reasonable, more in control—in a word, one-up. And this contributes to the distancing effect.” (Tannen, 53)
So next time your partner does not validate your feelings but suggests a solution to your emotional struggle, remember that he missed the meta-message. You might need to say, “Honey, I don’t need a solution. I just want to bounce something off you and express my feelings. It would make me feel close and safe if you could just listen and acknowledge my feelings.” Then give him a chance to speak the female genderlect as best as he can.
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