Friday, March 7, 2014

(Don't) Tell Me What You're Thinking

Here’s a common scenario. Not universal, and sometimes a stereotype, but common:

A woman wants her male partner to speak more openly about what he’s thinking or feeling. He continues to keep his thoughts or feelings to himself.

Sound familiar? Now, how do we explain this phenomenon?

This phenomenon happens for multiple reasons. Put away your axe to grind for a moment. There is not just one factor at work here. It’s just not as simple as “women say X and men say Y.” It’s not as simple as “women are raised to be X” and “men are raised to be Y.” It is not just some simple sort of gender programming where women tell men to share their feelings, while men tell men not to share their feelings. Don’t put the blame all on men or all on women.
Here’s just one factor:

Men do pay attention to signs and signals about how they’re supposed to communicate feelings. We men pay attention to the messages, but collectively the messages seem inconsistent. Men are actually getting many conflicting messages about sharing their feelings, and many of those mixed messages are from women, not from men. Any common male behavior you don’t like is in some part a product of women’s behavior, just as any female behavior you don’t like is in some part a product of men’s behavior. I have always paid far more attention to what women say about feelings than what men have said. My caution about sharing feelings has way more to do with messages from women than from men.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, women do not spend all their communication with men trying to get men to talk more. Consciously or unconsciously, women spend at least some of their time *discouraging* men from talking.

Look around at male/female romantic relationships on the whole. For every moment like this scenario where a woman says “tell what you’re thinking!”, somewhere there’s another woman telling a man “I don’t want to hear it!” In some cases, a man may hear mixed messages from the same woman, even within the same conversation. For example, “tell me what you’re thinking,” then his honest answer, then she says, “I can’t believe you said that to me!” Bingo, mixed message – encouragement followed up with a penalty.

Other ways people discourage honesty or openness in their partners:
  1. Asking him to lie for you to other people
  2. Complaining that he was not convincing enough in his lies to other people
  3. Complaining to your friends, “Can you believe he said that to me?”
  4. Telling him “wrong answer!” when he speaks honestly
  5. Telling him what words to say to you
  6. Telling him what words to never say to you
  7. Telling him “here’s what I want to hear from you right now.”
  8. Asking a question that demands The Right Answer
  9. Asking a question that’s really a cover for another question
(Does any of THAT sound familiar?)

I’m not sure many people understand how the same question can sound so different to a man compared to a woman. I don’t know if many women realize how much “what are you thinking?” sounds like a trick question. This is where one of those big miscommunications happens. What something sounds like may be totally different than the original intent. Men hear a trick question even if most of the time it’s not meant to be a trick question.

It only takes a few times before even the stupidest man starts to apply inductive reasoning – that old thing where “two times is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.”

So, in the absence of consistent messages, many unsure or literal-minded men like me choose caution as the best approach. This is not the best approach for the relationship as a whole, obviously. Over the long term it’s one of the worst approaches, actually. But, in the moment, from the guy’s perspective, discretion feels like the better part of valor. This is not to rationalize a man’s emotional distance, but to explain where he may be coming from.

Yes, your butt does look big in those jeans. My butt looks big in my jeans, too.

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