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Men, Women and Communication

November 28, 2010


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Ted Pack and his wife, 1995 Good morning, and thank you for coming to church on this cold winter morning. I'm Ted Pack, your Web Master. I have given the talk on the Sunday after Thanksgiving seven of the last eight years. It is odd to think of myself as a tradition.

I've usually managed to slip a joke about underwear into my talk each year, but this year the possibility eluded me. My subject is "Men, Women and Communication". I thought of titling it "Men, Women and Communication - Without Underwear", but that didn't seem fair. So, I'll accept my failure. Jockeys don't win every race, boxers don't win every fight, and lawyers don't win every trial, even with the best of ... briefs.

When I was planning this service Aynslie asked me if I was going to give a sermon or a homily. I didn't know the difference, so I looked them up. A sermon urges you to do better things with your life. A homily just gives you some advice on how to live better. This is a homily.

I'm going to talk about how men and women communicate. Those of you who have been in circle dinners with me have heard some of this before, because I found the book titled "You Just Don't Understand", by a psychologist named Deborah Tannen, to be the most interesting book I've ever read on the subject of communication and sex.

She argues that men say things to convey specific information, which gains them points, while women say things to bond, which gains them friends.

Men, she wrote, ask specific questions and want specific answers; they dislike admitting they don't know something, so they ask questions infrequently. Knowledge is power, so to ask is to admit you don't have power, and to be able to answer a question is to have power over someone else. Men also gain points when they can "top" someone else's story - to prove they've run faster, jumped higher, owned a smarter dog, drank more, slept in a worse place, eaten stranger food, had more stitches, and so forth. A typical opening line (implicit or implied) if a group of men are talking is "That's nothing. I ...", followed by an anecdote which tops the previous speaker.

This explains why men don't like to ask for directions; no middle-aged guy likes to admit an 18-year old gas station attendant knows more than he does. It also explains why they don't talk about their feelings; if they open their hearts up to someone, he or she gains power over them, to some extent.

Women, Dr. Tannen wrote, talk to establish common ground, to network, to bond, to make the people they're talking with feel at home. They don't ask, nor do they want specific answers; they want to build towards a common experience. They gain points when everyone in the group feels she is a part of the group. A typical opening line (implicit or implied) if a group of women are talking is "I know just how you feel ...", followed by an anecdote which is parallel to the previous speaker's experience; parallel, not better, not worse.

Now comes the rub - when men and women converse, they miss each other's signals.

For example, when a man asks his wife "What time will you be ready?" he wants two numbers separated by a colon, like "6:45"; when she answers, "Are we in a hurry?" she's seeking more information, to establish a context - should she rush through her shower or not? This isn't the answer he wants, and the evening degenerates from there.

The book put an entire new light on a number of things for me.

My wife is a physician, and my first example is from her work. Women commonly complain that male doctors are cold and unfeeling. They would be, from a woman's view; a male doctor doesn't care if his female patient knows he sympathizes with her, he just wants to know if it hurts when she coughs. In fact, a typical male doctor wouldn't think sympathizing was a part of his job; he is supposed to identify the problem and fix it.

Women doctors commonly take longer than male doctors do to see patients. National studies have shown that the average length of time for an office visit is shortest when a man visits a male doctor, (both exchanging specific facts) longest when a woman visits a woman doctor (both taking the time to establish common links). Given their heads, male doctors would see four patients an hour, and female doctors would see three. The fact that lady physicians don't work as fast, measured in patients per hour, causes constant grumbles at her medical group, and they have established guidelines that basically say to women doctors, "Hurry it up".

I promised you some examples from my checkered past. The best medical experience I ever had, and a completely male event, came when I was twelve. I'd done something stupid and needed four stitches in my scalp. The doctor laid me out on his table, shaved a patch and said "I could jab you with Novocain, but that would hurt as much as the regular needle, so just hold tight onto the edge of the table." I did; it wasn't as bad as it sounds, and I gained about 400 pounds of bragging rights. He didn't try to bond with me at all; he just laid out the problem, told me the solution and started sewing. You can bet that everyone who asked me about my stitches in the week afterwards learned they'd gone in without Novocain.

Example two - "Cathy", the comic strip. I used to think she had just one joke, which I called the "clown bending over" joke, after a classic circus clown routine. When the clowns run out to the main ring, one always comes out with size 45 quadruple-E shoes. He notices one shoe is untied and bends over from the waist to tie it - but always right in front of a second clown, who has a paddle.

Second clown winds up like Casey at the bat, whaps first clown on the appropriate spot; first clown leaps up rubbing himself in COMPLETE surprise, much to the amusement of the audience.

I used to complain that Cathy spent panels one and two bending over, panel three getting whapped, and panel four rubbing herself in complete surprise. However, most of the women I've talked to like the strip, and have a completely different view of it; they think Cathy is telling them she knows just how they feel. She too has bought clothes that don't fit, eaten more than she should, dated a man who didn't care. Women love the strip; it tells them they are not alone.

In the spring of 1991, the strip summarized the Tannen book in four panels. Cathy had gone to a young hair stylist, told her she wanted to try something new, and was horrified at the result. She spent two panels telling her boyfriend, about her troubles. He made two concrete suggestions in panel three, and in the fourth panel Cathy said with disgust, "Men! All suggestions, no sympathy."

One of our former ministers told us that when she was learning her trade at Starr King, they told her all good sermons had a bit of confession in them. Here's a bit of confession from me. On February 21 this year I did exactly what Cathy did; the lady at Super Cuts asked if I wanted a number 5 clipper cut, and I said "Sure, why not?" Those of you who remember me in the spring and summer of 2010 may remember that haircut. Many of you lied to me; "Looks great", you said. Mari Martelli, a woman I greatly admire, took one look and said, "What have you done to your hair? It looks terrible."

Mari doesn't suffer fools gladly, hide her opinions or sugar-coat the truth. I loved her for her honesty.

I want to get into two specific cases where the communication breaks down because the man and the woman are expecting different things.

When a woman voices what seems like a complaint, the worst thing a man can do is think she wants him to solve a problem. Offering a solution implies "Here, you helpless little fluffy thing, let me point out the obvious . . .". Most of the time women know what the solution is, and can't implement it for other reasons. (Just for instance, a woman I knew at work complained about her husband dropping dirty socks on the floor instead of putting them in the laundry hamper. That doesn't justify divorce or second-degree murder, and if she throws them away her husband will just buy more with the money they are saving for their vacation. It isn't a problem with a solution.) Quite often, all the woman wants is for the man to say "I know just how you feel". Since men don't do this, they both end up unsatisfied. The woman thinks she's talking to an insensitive clod. The man thinks that if a woman has asked for advice and doesn't take it, he's wasting his time.

Another confession - my wife and I used to have a round of complaints and advice every couple of weeks, when we were courting, and after we were married, before I read the book. She'd mention something or other, I'd take it as a complaint and offer my best suggestions, she would, in my view, ignore them. At one point I even told her I'd try to help, but she would have to promise to try at least one of my suggestions. Since she hadn't been asking for advice, just sympathy, she looked at me as if she'd asked how to get red wine stains out of a white tablecloth and I'd told her how to prove two triangles were congruent.

Last summer I had an example of how she felt about advice she didn't ask for. We went to a 3-course group dinner at Galleto's, in a private room. Right after we sat down the waiter asked if I'd like to start with Chardonnay or Merlot. I paused to get out my glasses and read the menu, since I didn't want Merlot if the appetizer was crab cakes. He mistook my pause, and said "the Chardonnay is white and the Merlot is red, sir". I was too polite to tell him I'd been drinking Chardonnay since I was 17, so I thanked him and ordered the white.

The fact we men are so willing to offer advice when we think, in our ignorance, that a woman is asking for advice brings up a second point on how and when we men offer help and advice; it's usually only when asked. Sure, if we see a child being swept down the canal we'll jump in before his mother can ask us to, but in general, we don't give advice or help without being asked. To do so tells the other person "You are obviously helpless, while I know exactly what to do. I'm stronger, more intelligent and more experienced than you; besides that, I have better tools in my car than you do in yours, and, while I'm at it, my dog is smarter than yours."

I can remember my mother asking us pretty constantly, back when I was growing up, "Can't you help without being asked?" Back then I didn't because I was a lazy little tyke; if she didn't ask, maybe my brother would do it, and I could keep reading my book. Today I don't because it is against the code we men live by. Besides, as our reading brought out, there's a good chance I'll get it wrong.

The second case of communications meltdown comes from a woman's tendency to discuss things at greater length than a man wants to discuss them. It comes to a head - or, more vividly, raises a huge, painful red boil on the otherwise unblemished cheek of a relationship - when we men make a mistake.

Usually we know it, usually it was unintentional, and about half the time we know it already. No one gets up in the morning, puts on a clean shirt and sets out to annoy people. If you've ever done woodwork, you know there is a brief moment after you've done something stupid, before the pain hits and the blood starts to flow, that you realize you shouldn't have done that. I call it a "Whoops" moment. With me it lasts half a second, and then I say a few strong words and start applying pressure.

Sometimes in a social situation - in a circle dinner with seven others or just at home with your partner, after dinner, you have the same sort of "Whoops" feeling, right after you say the last word in a supremely stupid sentence. Sometimes we men don't realize we've made a mistake until much later, when you ladies point it out to us.

Either way, a grown man will admit he made a mistake, apologize, give an explanation and either promise not to do it again, try to make amends, or both. I say "grown" because several weeks of substitute teaching in high schools have convinced me that male adolescents would rather lose two fingers and an eye than say "I did it, it was wrong and I am sorry".

Once we do admit our mistake, we don't really like any further discussion of the matter. Asking us "How do you think that makes me feel?" doesn't really help, because we have already admitted our mistake and we know how you feel. Asking us "Do you think other men do that?" doesn't really help, because we have already admitted our mistake, and what other men do doesn't matter. Asking us "what were you thinking?" doesn't really help, because we have already admitted our mistake, and we thought it was a good idea at the time.

In your view, if you are a woman, you are just discussing something at length, to make sure both sides understand it fully. In our view, as men, you are trying to beat us into the ground, hammering away like the legendary John Henry drove steel, swinging tirelessly, pausing only to have a boy pour water on your hands to cool them off. In the version of the song I looked up for this talk, he uses a 30-pound hammer and swings from the hips. Sometimes it feels like that. If you continue hammering away, eventually you may tell us "If you really loved me you wouldn't have done that", and, at that moment, temporarily, we may agree with you.

Here's another confession: I'm a man, and I've made mistakes. One of them was with a table saw; it left scars that still ache in cold weather. Some of them were things women pointed out to me, sometimes at length. If you are a man, and you ever find yourself in this situation - that is, a lady is pounding away, swinging from the hips with that 30-pound hammer - there isn't much you can do, in my experience.

Repeating your apology in the exact same words, only louder, as if the lady in question had grown slightly deaf after she passed 50, doesn't work.

Repeating your apology, but using smaller words and shorter sentences, as if the lady in question hadn't graduated with honors from the University of Michigan, then from medical school, doesn't work.

Pointing out that we all make mistakes doesn't work.

Saying "Yes, dear" each time, then, when she runs down, asking, "Are you finished now?" doesn't work.

Agreeing with her wholeheartedly - "Yes, it WAS foolish"; "No, I DON'T think other men do that" - doesn't work, especially when she has the boy pour cold water on her hands, winds up again and tells you that if you really loved her you would not have done it.

I don't have any good suggestions for you if you are a man in this situation, but, I'll be the first to tell you that Unitarian Universalism doesn't promise you all the answers, just good questions.

If you are a lady in this situation, and you feel like your head will explode if you don't discuss the mistake at length, and in detail, go to the other end of the house, close the door, and call another woman. Your man will appreciate it.

I'm just about through. If you listen, you'll hear "That's nothing, I ..." and "I know just how you feel ..." all around you. Understand it for what it is. Cherish the men and women who say it. They are each, in their own way, trying to communicate.

[Delivered November 28, 2010. I have been happily married to a woman for many years.]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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