How biology, evolution, and cultural training conspire against smooth communication.
Warning: There are some generalities about men and women included in this article. I want to say up front that, as a longtime relationship coach, I’ve met many people who don’t fall into these stereotypes—but truthfully, most do. I’ve also found that the younger someone is, the easier it is for them to break out of this stereotypical “male” and “female” behavior. So there’s a lot of hope for millennials where male-female communication is concerned. But don’t worry: There’s hope for the rest of us, too.
Simply put: Men are not taught to notice the details of life. Women are.
Here’s a common cycle:
- Woman sends a nonverbal signal to a man—a look, body stance, a gesture of frustration, fatigue, or hurt.
- Man misses the cue simply because he does not have the acumen to see it.
- Woman, thinking the cue she just sent was so blatantly obvious, gets angry when the man does not respond.
- Man may or may not sense her anger. If he does, he’s puzzled and disconnects. If he doesn’t, the woman gets even more angry and disconnects.
- Result: Disconnection.
There is a hackneyed biological reason for this situation. Biologically, men evolved to be hunters, and hunting demands single focus: Find the animal, kill the animal, bring the animal back to the tribe. Everything outside this scope of attention is a distraction. He ignores distractions in order to accomplish his goal.
Women evolved to keep watch over the home front and gather fruits, nuts, and roots. In order to do so, they had to expand their vision to notice everything. That berry is poisonous, this one is edible, this child is wandering away, those stores of food must be watched. Women have an expanded, peripheral vision that senses what’s happening all around them.
While we have grown away from the prehistoric world into an age of technology, and evolved into more complicated divisions of labor than those of our ancestors, aspects of these traits have come along with us. People in their masculine state (men or women or other) are single-minded in pursuing their goals with focus and attention. People in their feminine state (men or women or other) like expanded views of all possible actions and want to focus on the details of the environment to ensure beauty and comfort.
Boys are trained, in most circumstances, to honor their masculinity. They are not taught emotional intelligence whereby they can use their feelings to gather important data in every situation. They are taught to trust their intellect, their physicality, and their wits. This is mandatory in some situations but falls far short when dealing with the emotional complexity of an intimate relationship.
Women, on the other hand, are taught to be feminine and use their skills to weave complex narratives of intrigue and mystery. In our society, for a woman to be blunt is to be “unladylike.” For her to be forward is “brazen.” Women are instead taught to use subtle clues to advertise their desires because to want too much might render them unlovable.
The result is that men often don’t notice their woman’s desires, and women do not feel free to explicitly state them. Men often wonder why women have to be so complicated; why can’t they just ask for they want? It would just be so much simpler. In my experience, not only do women often feel unsafe asking for what they want, they also fear that doing so will wound men’s fragile ego’s. They don’t believe that a man can “handle their truth.”
Now that women are now coming more and more into their power, the sexes are sometimes at a loss on how to relate. We have left the days of distinct gender roles telling us how to interact. Women tell me that men seem more like boys. Men tell me that women seem like men. It’s getting more confusing, and so we retreat to our electronic devices instead to check how many likes our last status update received.
So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?
When I started my journey into personal development work, I described myself as “numb and dumb.” I made a fool of myself in the very first class I attended with my partner because I failed to notice that she was crying, even though she was sitting right next to me. My self-focus and lack of awareness was absolute.
I had two choices at that moment. Pick up my ball and go home, or delve into the world of sensation, attention, and noticing. I chose the latter. Seventeen years later, I can say that the words “numb and dumb” do not apply to me anymore. It’s been a road full of fun, anger, tears, and challenges to my fragile ego. The only thing that kept me going was a desire to understand.
My success has been dependent on two things: (1) my perseverance and (2) women who were willing to tell me the truth. I would test my hypotheses on my partners like a kid in his first chemistry class. “Okay, so when you said this, did you really mean that?” My partner would smile and say. “No, I really meant this.” I would raise my eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Get out of here! All right.” Enter results into my mental notebook and move on to the next experiment.
I also had to start trusting my body as much as my brain. The body knows. And there’s a “feeling” portion of the brain called the limbic system. As a man, I was trained to only listen to my cortex (the thinking part) and in doing so, I was missing out on a lot of information. Often, a woman would tell me something that sounded right but didn’t feel right.
Her: “I told you everything is fine. Stop bugging me.”
Me: “I hear you and I want to believe you but something doesn’t feel quite right.”
Pause. Long pause.
Her: “Well, there was this one little thing …”
The path to noticing what a woman is trying to tell me has been fascinating, and I’m grateful. It’s like learning a new musical instrument. You start with your scales, practice your lessons, try a simple tune, add more complex compositions, and then learn to improvise.
If someone as numb and dumb as me can learn to be a great noticer, then any man has the capability. Women, if you want your man to hear you more, teach him. Start by telling him the truth. And men, if you want to know what she’s really saying, learn to listen with your body as well as your brain. Ask for help. Be willing to break the stereotypes. It’s worth it.
Robert Kandell is a business consultant, teacher, coach, and lecturer. Visit www.TuffLove.live to hear his weekly podcast on how to expand your business, personal, spiritual, or sex life.
Suggested reading: You Just don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation by Deborah Tannen and The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease