Monday, April 21, 2008

man talk

It seems like a day does not go by in my office without hearing the lament, "He won't tell me how he's feeling!" or "How can I get him to talk to me?" And if I don't hear it in the office, I hear it at home, in my own head.

Likewise, male clients, in my experience, present more of a challenge than female clients because "He won't tell me how he's feeling!" So take comfort women: it isn't you. He won't even tell his therapist how he's feeling.

And of course, the all important disclaimer. Not "all" men fall into this feelings-communication paradigm. Just as not all women are comfortable sharing their feelings.

Its amazes me, though, the variety of ways so many men dodge stating how a distressing incident made them feel. It also amazes me how persistent I am in the unlikely pursuit of extracting such a deeply rooted male taboo.

"That's a thinking statement, Mr. Client. Remember, I'm asking you to focus on how the event made you feel. We're looking for a feelings label."

Occasionally we get there, but pretty frequently we don't and I'm left scratching my head.

On my better days I rely on the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. When I read her book, "You Just Don't Understand," a light bulb bigger tan Dallas lit up. Ah. So that's why.

Tannen studied communication patterns in males and females and concluded, "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; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They're friends with the boys they do things with."

So often women use language to get closer, to connect, to relate. Men most reliably use language to establish their independence and know-how, to set themselves off from others.

With a fervor akin to a sales rush at Filene's, many women engage in what Tannen calls "troubles talk." Picture yourself having lunch with one of your closest friends. How long does it take you to confide what is bothering you? Before the server brings out the water? We almost can't wait to get at the heart of our troubles.

Now picture your man and his friend. How long does it take for them to get beyond talk of sports, work and lawncare? And what is it about this sports talk, this exchanging of scores and stats. What does this serve? Tannen says it's a form of establishing status and dominance. Here's what I know about the high status team. Here's the player I admire, the team I like, who I think will win. I'm on the side of winners.

So back to the man on the couch. I have to reach for something different. Focus more on what he can do differently, what his plan of action will be. How he's been successful in similar situations in the past. What his strengths are. Let go of the feelings talk, at least until I gain more traction.

And that's what I suggest to many of my women clients (and my slow learning married self). Understand that often, a man's communication style is fundamentally different from ours. More importantly, respect it. Respect that troubles talk and feelings talk isn't something he's going to be good at. Certainly not something he's going to be eager to do.
Years of patience, practice and concrete examples of how you want him to respond to you, these are your best bet (depressing, I know). I've seen brain scan research that supports the notion that the male brain does not have near as many or as rich connections between the language center and the emotional center. So when they get emotional? They don't feel all fired up to talk about it. Often they want to distance from people, get their feelings under control, and then go hit some golf balls. Or mow the lawn. Or pop open a cold beer and watch the game. The Men Are From Mars guy called this "going into his cave." Whatever. He's not letting us in. He doesn't want his feelings on parade.

Ask me how I know this. It took me a long time, and a reading of Tannen, no, several readings of Tannen and a few bangs of the head against the brick wall to finally figure out I may as well have been asking for something in ANSI/ISO SQL programming language. You know how you ask your computer tech friend why you keep getting those virtual memory messages? And then he answers (because it's almost always a "he," isn't it?), you knod in feigned understanding, and then go home and call Computer Geek anyway? Well, its like that. He doesn't "get it." If Tannen's work has merit, and I believe it does (wish she was wrong) he's not going to like it at all if you insist he stumble around in a coversational domain in which he has little competence. In a language he can't establish dominance in. Instead he may just turn the Astros game up louder.

So if you're aiming for more quality talk with your man, start out with conversations he is comfortable with. Ask what he did today at his job. What basketball team he thinks is going to dominate in the NBA championship. How he is going to conquer his nemesis, the grass fungus.

Typically it's you and your women friends that have the need for troubles talk, not him. So help yourself fulfill your need with a receptive audience, your girlfriends, and often. Prioritize get togethers and phone calls. Take walks and go to lunch. Write in your journal. Email. Blog. Blog some more.

For a longer summary of Tannen's book, read here.


Health Psych said...

Great post. Thanks for the heads-up on Tannen's work. Sounds very interesting.

Alison said...

What a great post, phd. I love this because it's so true and certainly confirms my own experience both personal and professional. Particularly with clients, I've found it just easier and you get a far more respectful response from guys when you just speak their language and let them speak it too. (I've noticed a few looks of relief too!)

And your right to advise us girlies to leave the bulk of emotional talk to blogs and gal pals etc. instead of wasting that golden energy trying to make the impossible happen.

phd in yogurtry said...

Thanks, hp. Tannen has written on a number of things, most recently (and best seller) she looks at conflictural communication patterns between moms & daughters. conflict? mothers & daughters? huh? : p

phd in yogurtry said...

Thanks alison. Conserve the energy is right. Its a paradigm shift and once we make it, we save ourselves a lot of headaches.

e. beck said...

i love reading your posts like this ... just nodding my head and saying yes ..that's right ...oh, that's exactly it! oh, i get it .....
very enlightening ...and interesting reading ....

phd in yogurtry said...

Thank you, e. Its always nice to know that I've hit the mark.

Mrs. G. said...

This is such a true post. I frequently turn to female friends for discussions that I never include my husband in. His brain can only handle so much. Especially since he feel like he has to "fix" everything.

Health Psych said...

Tannen has written on a number of things, most recently (and best seller) she looks at conflictural communication patterns between moms & daughters. conflict? mothers & daughters? huh? : p


I think I'd better get that one!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I do largely agree. I have found that men will sometimes talk more freely if they are distracted by doing something at the same time. I often run with the father of my boys and it is amazing how he will blabber on about personal things when he is running but obviously wouldn't think to if we sit down and stare at each other.

Men are quite good at sharing online on occasion. Perhaps it gives them that distance they need.

But yes, generally if I need to talk through something that is worrying me, my first port of call is my diary, my second would probably be my closest female friend and my third would be blogworld.

Men often make insightful comments though when I write personal stuff on my blog. And their blogs, whilst often not as upfront and personal as women's, do sometimes give a more clear gauge of their feelings than the girlie ones because they may not say a lot but they are invariably honest, not too much into caring what other bloggers may think of them!

Awake In Rochester said...

Therapy - What works? That's my question. Please read about it at my blog. I would like to get your opinion.

phd in yogurtry said...

Tannen talks about men's tendency to try to fix our problem, too, Mrs. G. And frustrated women feel because often we just want a sounding board. We want to vent and know that our husband understands our point of view. But men often don't "get" the whole venting thing. It doesn't make sense to them. They often don't have much patience for it.

phd in yogurtry said...

RB, I think this is definately true for boys (witnessed it many times with my son's friends) and men. They seem to need to be doing something action oriented in order to have a conversation, IF they have a conversation at all.

Which I suppose is why there are so many TVs on at most bars and now restaurants, too (a trend I really despise).

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foolery said...

Oh, I can see I need to bookmark this site. Been on this end of that conversation many, many times!

And thanks for visiting today; I think you may be right about Bill & Hill, ha ha.

-- Laurie @ Foolery

isabella mori said...

nod, nod, nod.

someone recently told me that her mostly male colleagues are really hard to get to know, they don't talk about anything interesting at lunch!

i said, bring them some donuts.

most men experience the world differently from most women, that's just a fact.

many years ago i had a conversation with my husband when i SO much wanted to know what he thought. "why won't you TELL me?!?"


then i had what i thought was this brilliant idea - i'll use a football metaphor! "it's just like watching a football game, and you give me a play-by-play!"

silence again. very loud silence. dripping with incomprehension.

"there's no field and i can't see anything!"

now i'm just happy when he happens to be in a moment where his inner world is not only accessible but also expressible. for the rest - well, yeah, i have my girlfriends :)

phd in yogurtry said...

ah, the sports analogies. yes, sometimes they are very helpful, sometimes not so much. I like the donuts advice, btw! Gave me a good laugh. Thanks for stopping by.

bluemountainsmary said...

Hi and thanks for calling by my blog. What a treat to have found you in turn.

I am lucky to even get to being served with water to launch into a D&M - most times it feels like picking up the conversation just exactly where I left off with good friends.

JCK said...

I found this facinating. I'm pretty lucky that my husband shares feelings pretty openly, but I know it is rare. But, if he blows a fuse- to the lawn mowing he will go. He definitely is a doer!

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

After 20 years of marriage I have definitely learned that you do not need to talk about everything--at least not to your husband!

phd in yogurtry said...

Yes, Jenn, it took me almost as long to figure that out. I had to look back and realize that he wasn't that way when I met him and he wasn't producing much change despite my desperate pleas. Reading Tannen made me realize it didn't have anything to do with me, or with our marriage.