Oh, I KNOW what you meant, you little…

I finally got a copy of Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation about how men and women generally express themselves in two very different ways, but interpret each other’s responses in terms of their own way. It’s like cross-cultural communication. For example, if you come from a region where you’re expected to compliment someone who compliments you, and I come from a region where one-way compliments are allowed, you may think I’m rude for not counter-complimenting you, and I may think you’re a phony when I see you scrounging for something nice to say about me because I complimented you. It’s really just a cultural difference – no one’s right or wrong.

From the preface, I get the idea Tannen’s specialty is cross-cultural communication. She wrote this book on gender communication in response to a high volume of interest from people at lectures, and she was concerned about the topic in general. How do you suggest that men and women are fundamentally different without opening up a huge can of worms? Are the differences from social training, or genetics? Is one gender wrong and the other right?

She states repeatedly that neither gender is right or wrong, that many approaches are valid. From what I’ve read so far, she deals only with normal, healthy communication between people who actually have good intentions because her topic is misunderstandings which can be avoided through increased understanding and awareness. Deliberate misunderstandings or misinterpretations, or attempts to obscure one’s own meaning, are something else entirely.

A lot of her points are unassailable. As Redbyrd brought up in the forum, some of us are natural problem solvers. When friends try to vent to us about a problem, we offer solutions. They get mad. We think, “What the hell?” According to Tannen, it’s generally men who are problem solvers and women who just want to vent. In my personal experience, it’s evenly split – I’ve offended many men and women by offering solutions when they just wanted to share. They’re using the problem as a bid for intimacy, not as a request for information. Instead of viewing my proposed solution as an act of love meant to deliver them from unhappiness, they take it as my putting them at arm’s length. Avoiding intimacy by giving a solution that invalidates their right to complain. The solution, according to most of the venters I know, is for me to adjust. For me to learn to just listen and make sympathetic noises.

To me, it seems like another solution might be for the venter to realize that problem solvers offer suggestions out of love. The product of their minds is intimate and valuable to them. I have one family member who tells me whether she’s just venting or actually wants a solution before she even starts, so I know how to respond. That’s a mutual adjustment. Most people in my experience just insist they know what you really meant, and that you’re being a complete bastard. I guess that’s one way to find out who your real friends are.

And what does all this have to do with tv and film? Reinforcement of stereotypes. TV and film just keep emphasizing this (mythical) canyon between men and women. We’ll never understand each other. Men will always sit around saying very little over their beers, yet understand each other through their psychic male bond. Women will always sit around moodily lit living rooms weeping softly while recounting all their troubles and probably cuddling. Especially if we’re trying to bring in the lesbian-fetish male viewers.

Let’s count the number of things wrong with that picture. First, who hasn’t known dozens of women who offer solutions, and dozens of men who just like to talk at length about problems? Second, how difficult is it for venters to learn that problem solvers offer solutions out of love, and for problem solvers to learn that venters think problems are fodder for intimacy? Not at all, if you, you know, talk about it. And actually want to understand the other person. Actually care.

There’s an extreme lack of male-female bonding on TV. There’s no lack of sex, but outside the bonding of bodies, very little is connecting. Even when a man and woman seem to love each other, we’re rarely given any insight into why. Contrast this with much richer male-male friendship pairings that leave us wondering, speculating, thinking we know just why they’re so close. Why the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. And contrast this with women-women friendship pairings, which are rarely anymore fleshed out than male-female pairings of any kind. Women are friends because they haven’t slept with each other’s fiances yet, but as we all know, they probably will because that’s what women do: fight each other to lay claim to a man. Oh, boy, don’t the male viewers get aroused with that little fantasy.

Because, of course, women aren’t capable of true sisterhood, like men are capable of brotherhood. Women are fickle, unfaithful creatures where men are dependable, reliable, capable of competing with each other and still being friends. God bless their little hearts, I’m so proud of them I could just die. American TV and film leaves me picturing a gang of men who’ve just beaten each other senseless sharing frothy American beers in front of an American flag, while off to the side, a couple of business women are mud-wrestling because one of them wants the other’s husband. The beer guys are watching the mud-wrestling. The flag is flying very erect.

I don’t think the men making films want to understand women. It’s not that it’s so difficult they can’t do it – hell, probably half of us are more like them than we are like other women, so surely they could understand us. It’s that if they realized we’re really not that different – that we may value some things slightly more or less than they do, but basically we all want pretty much the same things out of life – they might find it harder to buy into their own wet dreams about women being stupid enough to make dumbass men look clever, or being desperate enough to lust after dorks.


  1. redbyrd says

    But isn’t it obvious why the problem-solvers are the ones who adjust? *We’re* the analytical ones! The ones who think of life as a series of puzzles to be solved, chaotic things to be organized and obstacles to be overcome. The venters are more likely to regard life as something that happens to them without their control. Taken strictly as a communications style, venting isn’t wrong.. but it’s not productive if it isn’t mixed with some problem-solving ability.


  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sure, exactly. The communication issue is a problem: we’re the problem solvers: it’s up to us to solve it.

    Even the one single venter I know who made the adjustment of telling me up front, “I don’t want a solution, I just need to talk” acts as a problem solver more often than not, which might explain why she saw the value in both of us learning how to negotiate both approaches.


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