The Language Guy
recently posted a blog entitled Language and Women's Place (A Personal Blog)
In it, he mentions a book by a linguist named Deborah Tannen. Her book "You Just Don't Understand"
was a real eye opener for me. She discusses how many baffling communication difficulties between the sexes can be made sense of when seen in the light of cultural differences. I have found her approach to be immensely practical in my life. And downright enlightening.
My first wife and I experienced a lot of mutual frustration in how we spoke to each other. She had many times accused me of behaving very badly towards her in our communications. She was right. I admitted it and tried very hard to correct my failures. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, and no matter how much progress I thought I had made, she still seemed to end up frustrated and angry with me.
I must point out that she was a very intelligent and understanding woman, not to mention an attractive one. But sometimes, no matter how I tried to make things right, they just seemed to go south. And of course, I got frustrated because I couldn't understand how my best efforts at improving never seemed to be acknowledged.
One particular example stands out for me. It was a negotiation that kept getting worse and worse, the harder I tried to make it better.
Some buddies of mine and I had been talking about going on a weekend hunting trip. [I should digress to explain that I actually have never killed an animal larger than a bug in my life, and probably never will. To be honest, I don't think that any of us were really serious about actually hunting. I suspect we all just wanted to convince ourselves that we were the kind of guys who like to hang out in a camp and act like a bunch of orangutans. At most, this was just a pretext for a goofy male bonding thing.]
Anyway, a bit later I happily announced to my wife that I wanted to take off in a few weeks to go on the trip. It was going to be a weekend exclusively for the guys. Her reply: "Okay, when do we go?"
I explained to her again--slowly this time--that this was to be a guys-only weekend.
She listened politely, then said, "Uh-huh. So when do we go?".
At this point, I must have thought she was pulling my leg. I re-explained it again. And again. Eventually, it dawned on me...she wasn't kidding.
To make matters worse, she started to get angry with me! That was weird, because I had been daring to think that I might be the aggrieved party. Anyway, I began to understand that she didn't think it was fair for me to go to this event without her. I didn't get it. It wasn't like I was in the habit of taking off for days at a time. I had never really asked to do anything like this before. On the other hand, I had always encouraged her to feel free to do whatever she wants, if and when she wanted. So, it didn't seem to me as if I was being remotely unfair.
So, I nicely pointed out that this was, in fact, perfectly fair. I explained very logically how she was free to go off with the girls whenever she wanted to. I really didn't mind if she wanted to go do her own thing.
Now this is the point where things really started to fall apart. She started getting really
mad. My request was just so unfair! She could scarcely believe how I could be so selfish! The more I explained the logic of how it was completely fair because she was free to act just as independently--I really didn't care if she went off to do things without me--the madder she got.
I couldn't make any sense out of that conversation. I had tried to prove that I was treating her as an equal. I wasn't trying to put anything over on her: I didn't expect any to get any privilege that I wasn't willing to let her have. But the more I tried to show the logic of fairness, the more I was accused of being unfair to her.
I walked away feeling like I had been whacked over the head with a two-by-four. This was a fight I totally didn't see coming. And it wouldn't have helped if I did see it coming because I had no idea how to defend myself. I tried to block from the left, and she'd give me the ol' whoop-dee-doo from the right. I'd block to the right, and she'd whack me with an uppercut.
Now I realize it may seem as if I am painting her to be illogical, or difficult, so I want to point out that, I have never considered my first wife to be a shrew. Whatever differences we had, I have always seen her a warm, understanding woman of high intelligence. Nor was she in the habit of refusing to let me have fun. I might also add that it wasn't about me taking off and leaving her with the housework. We didn't even have children.
Anyway, there had been a number of other mutual frustrations centering around communication issues. Needless to say, within a couple of years, our marriage was over. It was not a terribly acrimonious ending, but communication problems were definitely a contributing factor.
Although the hunting weekend episode was not really a huge deal in itself, I never forgot it. I never forgot the complete befuddlement I felt about how things only got worse the more I tried to make them right. And when I tried to carefully explain things in my best most seemingly self-evident, most sweet and considerate logic, it all just kind of blew up in my face. It was a bitter puzzle that I had not been able to make sense of. It was a sore scab of a memory that taught me to be just a bit more nervous about women.
Then, a few years later, while living in another town, I happed upon Deborah Tannen's book. And to this day, I can remember a point at which something finally made sense to me.
I just started laughing.
At last, I thought, I might just understand what had happened. Too late for that marriage, to be sure. But at least it started to make some sense now. And maybe women did, too.
You know, it has been a long time since I actually read "You Just Don't Understand"
. I've given the book to friends. But it has been a long time since I cracked the pages.
I mention that because it's possible that I have distorted her message over time. With that in mind, let me say that the way I understand what Tannen was saying is this: Often, men and women are like speakers from different cultures. We can have conversations that are ostensibly about the same thing, but we each carry such deeply held assumptions about things--our priorities, our values, our fears--that we interpret things so very differently. So that huge portions of our communications--and our arguments--are actually at cross purposes. And a lot of our conflicts could be avoided if each of us could be more cognizant of the other's culture.
If I have misrepresented her in any way, I apologize. And I take the blame. (Say, why don't you just get her book and read it for yourself?).
Anyway, I recently encountered a quote from Deborah Tannen that seems to me to sum up the understanding that made me laugh so heartily--and with such relief--the day I read her book. It goes something like this: "For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy..."
I don't know if I can explain what made me laugh in a way that will make you laugh, but I wish I could. What made me laugh was that I was trying so hard--so blindly--to show her that was being fair because I was not pushing her around. I was trying to show that I was not getting anything over on her. I was trying to prove that I was treating her as my equal because I expected no privilege for myself that I did not also expect her to enjoy as well. I was trying to show that I was not abusing her status. But, it just so happened that my way of doing that was by telling her that she could go off by herself--we could each go off by ourselves--and I didn't care.
Do you see what I found so funny? So...ironic? Is that the right word?
I think she was looking at the same situation and feeling that I was trampling on her status. Because to her--in that situation--her status was measured in terms of closeness and intimacy. And every time that I tried to show that I was treating her as my equal, I was telling her that our closeness was not important to me. So, I was trampling on her status.
And, as I read and laughed, I remembered that she had been complaining about how I had seemed distant from her. This did not seem like a big deal to me. I did like to have time to myself. I am prone to being distracted. In my mind, it was not a measure of my love for somebody. In retrospect though, I think it must have been a big humiliating deal to her. I can only imagine that that fight was about my failing to treat her like an intimate. About treating her with disrespect--by (yet again) making her an outsider.
There was more to this matter than I can relate in a single post. I think there were conversations with friends about my apparent lack of intimacy. I think this might not have even been an issue without the background of other behaviors. But I did not see myself as unloving. Or cruel. I just didn't understand what mattered.
That marriage is gone. But there is nothing to regret. Today, I have found another way of relating to women. I make no pretense that this example is true of all women, or true of any one woman all the time. Not even my first wife. But it seems to me that it is true of something. And knowing that truth seems to help.
The moral: Open your eyes. Your logic may not be all there is. There can be more than one way of seeing things. Look across the cultures. Who knows what you will see.
Spread the word.