Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here.
A woman tells a man about a problem and is frustrated when he tells her how to fix it. She wasn’t looking for a solution. She had hoped for what a woman friend might say, something like “The same thing happened to me” or “I know how you feel; I’d feel the same way,” after which they’d continue to talk about it. He is frustrated, too: why does she want to talk about it if she doesn’t want to do anything about it? He probably also feels wrongly accused, since he thought he was supplying what she asked for. This is emblematic of the differences in how women and men tend to use talk in close relationships, and of the many I described in my You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, it’s the one that sparked the most widespread recognition among readers.
This type of conversation, so common and so valued among women friends but so unfamiliar to many men, is called troubles talk. From her point of view, The same thing happened to me is an expression of understanding and reassurance that she’s not alone, both of which are treasured benefits of friendship. But that’s only the start of the conversation. A friend would go on to ask for more details: And then what did you say? And what did she say? And why do you think she said that? And how did that make you feel? And what did you say next? The failure to ask those follow-up questions may be the most frustrating thing about his telling her how to fix the problem. She meant to start a conversation. Offering a solution shuts the conversation down.
This result, disappointing to her, might be a secondary gain for him, because he probably finds it frustrating to take part in a conversation that seems to have no point. It seems that way because he’s looking for the point in the message, while it lies elsewhere: in the metamessage. Every utterance has meaning on these two levels. The message is the meaning of the words; the metamessage is what it says about the relationship that these words are said in this way in this context. The message of follow-up questions and extended answers is clear to everyone. It’s their metamessage that means so much to many women, and can be opaque to men. Taking the time to explore a problem, to ask questions and listen to the answers, and then use the answers in formulating further questions—all this sends a metamessage of caring. The one who tells of a problem feels less alone if someone cares enough to engage in troubles talk. Given this expectation, short-circuiting troubles talk sends the opposite metamessage: I don’t want to hear any more about your problem because I don’t care enough about it—or about you.
When I wrote about this scenario in You Just Don’t Understand, I said that she doesn’t want a solution; she just wants to talk about it. Though many readers agreed with this interpretation, I’d now say that it isn’t quite right. In many cases, a woman who initiates troubles talk does want a solution. She just doesn’t want it right off the bat. She expects it to emerge after, or in the course of, talking about the problem. Before someone knows what advice to give, they need to know more about the situation. While on the metamessage level asking questions and listening to the answers shows caring, on the message level, troubles talk provides crucial information that is necessary to figure out what advice would be best.
The depth of frustration a woman might feel when she wants to talk about a problem and a man she is close to doesn’t, is commensurate with the magnitude of the troubles. Ironically, the greater the problem, the less eager a man might be to talk about it, not because he doesn’t care but because he cares so much. If someone he loves has a problem, he feels obligated to do something. He wants to do something. Since he doesn’t feel, as women typically do, that listening and expressing understanding is doing something, talking about a problem he can’t fix can stir up feelings of helplessness.
So what is a loving couple—or a pair of close friends—to do? I have heard many people suggest that a woman begin by saying, “I’m going to tell you about a problem, but I don’t want a solution. I just want you to listen.” But it will drive him crazy to take part in a conversation that he feels makes no sense. The most important thing is for both to understand how the other is approaching the conversation. Then they can agree on how to proceed. He might feel fine just listening once he understands how troubles talk works for her. But there’s no reason why all the adjustment has to be on one side. I recall a time that my husband said, after hearing me tell of a problem, “I know you don’t want me to fix it. But it’s too frustrating for me to listen to you go on and on when I know the solution. So how about, I tell you the solution, and then if you want to keep talking about it, you can.” That worked. And it had the added satisfaction that we were both accommodating the other’s approach to troubles talk, even though it was different from our own.