The driver of tomorrow is not thinking Green...

The driver of tomorrow is not thinking Green...
He's thinking Classic. (click on photo)


Feb 3, 2010

Why Can't He Hear What You're Saying? Part 1

Part 1:

Your lips are moving. Sounds are coming out, and you swear you're speaking English. But he's Just. Not. Getting it. What to do? Read on for insight into why men misinterpret what women say — and how you can make yourself heard.
By Bryan Stipe

It was a novice mistake, I admit — the kind of dumb thing you do two months into a relationship, not four years. My wife and I were having dinner with friends and I was telling a story about how her brother crashed his car. Yes, maybe I hyperbolized a little bit, played it for laughs at his expense. So when Kristen shot me her death-ray look across the table — the one that means: You have committed some gaffe, said something offensive, revealed something private, etc., and should cease and desist — I ceased and desisted.

But afterward, on the car ride home, she was still mad. "I mean, at this point you shouldn't even apologize," she said. So I didn't apologize. I said I understood. I held her hand a little in the car, and when we got home I made a bowl of ice cream and watched Big Love. Later, Kristen came into the den, all dressed for bed, and stood silently watching Bill Paxton and wife number two in flagrante. "Well," she finally snapped, "you could have at least apologized!" When I protested that she'd told me I shouldn't apologize, she said, "It would have been a good place to start."

At that moment, I became a walking marriage cliché. You know the cliché I'm talking about. It goes: My wife speaks a strange alien tongue that I, no matter how hard I try, am too dumb to learn. It was one of those moments when you identify with that line from Knocked Up: "Marriage is an unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond."

But there's a reason the cliché exists: A lot of the time we guys do need help in the "What the heck are you talking about?" department. The Everybody Loves Raymond way of explaining this phenomenon is that we men are too thick to read between the lines. And, okay, this is kind of true. Kristen will try to tell me in every possible way about presents she'd like me to get for her. She might say, "Hey, those earrings are nice!" And nine times out of 10, I do not copy. I might think, Wow, she really likes to talk about jewelry a lot or Wow, does she not realize that I'm not a woman and that I don't care about earrings? Maybe if I'm quiet for long enough she'll change the subject.

The less Raymond-y way of explaining why we don't understand you is to say that we simply have different ways of talking. Men have two modes of communication: saying what we mean and repressing what we mean. We either say, "What you said the other night really pissed me off" or we say, "Hey, wanna go see Knocked Up?" Women, on the other hand, use a little more nuance. You imply things more than men do; you depend more on subtext. I remember in the beginning of our marriage, Kristen kept telling me that I looked sexy in black underwear. It took me about two months to translate that into "Your old white underpants are graying and disgusting. Please get rid of them and replace them with something that ages better."

The problem with subtext is that too often we men just don't catch it — and then we completely misinterpret you. I hate to say this, because yes, it's yet another "Men are so dumb" cliché, but it's kind of like when you pretend to throw a ball for a dog but really put the ball behind your back. The dog (man) is too stupid to keep his eye on the ball (the hidden meaning) and goes running after nothing.

This falls under my Grand Unified Theory of Male-Female Miscommunication: We misunderstand you most often when you want something but are afraid to (or don't think you should have to) ask for it, whether that thing is compassion or a back rub. Part of the problem is that you all are a lot nicer than we are — demure in some cases, and, it must be said, passive-aggressive in others. Kristen wanted me to "get" that she wanted those earrings without her having to ask for them. But when a man misses his cue, both parties can end up pissed. You feel like you're not being treated very well, and blurt out what it is you wanted all along (but are probably too annoyed to want anymore anyway). We feel like we've been ambushed. I'd say that's the dynamic driving fully half of the fights I have with my wife.

There is a way out. And that is: Show us some mercy. We really do want to understand you. And we are often a little intimidated in the communications department, partly because we know we have a reputation for being so bad at it. But look at us. We're trying so hard! Doesn't that count for something?

And we are not entirely untrainable: Over the course of a relationship, we'll (hopefully) pick up a few things. Recently, my friend Scott had a fight with his girlfriend about whether or not they were going to have dinner with his mother the following week. He'd been in this relationship long enough to know that what his girlfriend was really complaining about was not whether they'd see his mother, but his inability to plan anything more than five hours beforehand. So he said, "Let's plan right now for next week's dinner." That made everyone happy.

Even when your rules don't seem logical to us, we'll learn them by rote if necessary. The snafu about my wife and her brother, for example, taught me to apologize even when she tells me not to. Another rule I recently committed to memory: When the woman in your life has a crappy day, just listen and sympathize and express venomous contempt for those who have wronged her rather than trying to explain why it wasn't so bad.

Of course, that brings up a caveat. A man is not above gaming the system — that is, pretending not to understand what he doesn't really want to understand. "I didn't know you wanted those earrings!" he'll protest, instead of admitting, "I didn't want to spend that much money." After all, just because we're dumb doesn't mean we're stupid.

NEXT: Blah, Blah, Blah

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