Believe in nothing, no matter who says it, even if I say it, if it does not agree with your own experience and your own common sense ~ Buddha

I am re-reading a book that I keep around for reference material; It is Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, a seminal work on the differences between men’s and women’s communications styles. It was a book that heavily influenced my interest in historical sociolinguistics, because it of the emphasis that enculturation clearly played on communication styles.

I highly recommend it, but it’s getting a bit out of date now. It was originally published in 1990 and so I find the feminist dynamics to be a bit strained, but that, my loyal subjects, is a post for another time.

As I started to say earlier, I keep this book around for reference purposes, but this will be the first time I read it while in my current relationship. I was struck by how feminine (by Tannen’s standards) my husband’s discourse was, and how masculine my own is. However, I cannot say what influenced my husband’s discourse, but I can say my own was not influenced like Tannen say most little girls are. (This is part of what I mean by the book getting dated.)

Realistically, this means that Q and I communicate quite well. If there is not quite enough mindless chitchat about people and ideas to make my (ahem) feminine side perfectly happy, there is more than enough mutual planning and problem-solving to fill the needs of my (ahem) masculine side.

I was actually reading the book to refresh my memory on sociolinguistics, how what we mean to say is so often misinterpreted, because I intended to write a post on neuro-linguistic programming, a field I’m currently learning about because I’ve been asked my opinion on it. This is all by-the-by, and Deborah Tannen would say that the former paragraph was a feminine device to build intimacy and rapport, to share intimate details of my life in an effort to elicit a similar response and so create a bond.

The latter paragraph was a masculine demonstration of competency (by showing that people come to me for advice) couched in non-threatening language to avoid implying my superiority (commenting that I was researching it, and refreshing my knowledge).

But what I’ve found most interesting (and trusting that you won’t find it femininely innappropriate to share this story) I have formed a theory around my mother’s heretofore incomprehensible bitching and moaning of late.

No doubt you gentlemen have all heard the relationship advice that when a woman tells you her problems you must resist the urge to try to help her with them. She only wants your sympathy and your attention– not your advice.

Tannen says that women share negative experiences as a way of bonding; the other person is expected to say, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re feeling, the very same thing happened to me.” What women do is emphasize points of commonality because it says, You are not alone in this. You have support.

Amongst groups of women, complaining is a way of building intimacy and rapport. To solve the problem is not the point. If the problem were solved, there would have to be another problem, because the point is the conversation. This is a paraphrased passage from the book that was quite illuminating to me because lately  my mother has been complaining a lot. It was puzzling to my family because she is not what I would call a negative person.

It occurs to me, in light of my reading, that she is feeling left out and complaining is a way of claiming intimacy and rapport. The conversation is the point. While she feels emotionally vulnerable, she falls back into old patterns that are perhaps truer of her generation than they are of mine.

In our family, focussing on the negative is not encouraged. Complaints mean you need to do something about the situation and you are open to input; this is why my mother’s laments are discouraging. Why does she continue to complain but not to make changes? Because the complaint is not the point. The conversation is. I know from past experience that when my mom feels that she is valued and involved she is the most positive and pro-active person you can meet.

Thanks to this paradigm shift, I’m going to spend some time listening to her, offering support without trying to solve her problems.

Do you have communications issues in your life? What do you think needs to shift?

Comments on: "You Just Don’t Understand!" (6)

  1. No doubt you gentlemen have all heard the relationship advice that when a woman tells you her problems you must resist the urge to try to help her with them. She only wants your sympathy and your attention– not your advice.

    I’m incapable of detached, lucid thought on this topic because I fucking hate this stupid goddamn idea whether it’s true or not.

    I’ve become hypersensitive to complaining after having spent far too much of my life enduring it from several different people. A proponent of this notion might say there’s a difference between someone who’s mildly complaining for sympathy vs. someone who’s just a miserable fucker determined to make everyone else as miserable as they are, but I can’t differentiate anymore. Just the tone, the sound of someone’s voice when they’re bitching and whining makes me want to get up and walk far, far away. I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m well in touch with my feminine side – if we insist on using a simplistic dichotomy that’s better suited to generic comedians on Comedy Central – but I’m squarely on the so-called masculine side of this one. Either accept your situation or work to change it (with assistance if necessary), but sitting around griping is just the worst of both worlds, and does nothing but get on everyone else’s nerves.

    And the logic of it just sounds flat-out stupid to me. I think you could just as easily say that listening to someone’s complaint and then trying to help them resolve it shows perfectly well that you understand and sympathize – “I hear you, I want you to feel better, let me try to do what I can for you.” And on the flip side of that, you could say that listening to someone else’s complaint only to turn the conversation back to yourself and something you went through is indicative of not really hearing them. Sometimes, people want to be flattered in the belief that their situation is unlike anyone else’s, even though we all know better deep down. It can feel dismissive to share what feels like a uniquely awful story only to have someone file it away like something they’ve heard many times before.

    I hope that all makes sense. Just the thought of listening to people complaining makes me black out with rage, so I may not be very clear here.

  2. feedthespark said:

    Button! Button! Who’s got the button?

    You’re preaching to the choir here, my friend. I don’t agree with it, but it certainly seems to be true (for some people). Whether it’s true or not, it’s relationship (mis)information that is widely desseminated. Railing against it seems rather… useless.

    For my part, I hate bitching and moaning too. I especially hate being around people who bitch and worse yet BOND over their shitty situations. The more they bitch, the less likely they are to change the situation. And if by some chance they do, the more likely their peers are going to take it as a direct affront. Lose-lose.

    Ahem. however. It’s not my mom’s default setting, more like a well-behaved toddler getting sucky when she’s tired. So I’m tring to cut her some slack

    • Railing against it seems rather… useless.

      Uh, hello — tilting at windmills is my raison d’être! The opportunity to pick fights I can never hope to win is what gets me bouncing out of bed in the morning!

      It’s like my other hero, George Carlin and his cri de coeur regarding the way popular usage ruins so much of language: Yeah, I know you say, “Well many people are using it that way, so the meaning is changing.” And I say, “Well, many people are really fuckin’ stupid too; shall we just adopt all their standards?”

  3. feedthespark said:

    Haha! That link is classic! So funny, and yet…so full of pathos. Carlin is dead, and his windmill is still standing.

    • But that’s the thing, see — it’s like the post I put up the other day about Hitchens and Nietzsche. The goal should be primarily to give a good showing against a worthy opponent, not to win. The heroism is in the defiant gesture of knowing you’re overmatched, but flipping the bird anyway.

      Anyway, just to be crystal-clear – nothing here was aimed at your mom or your attempts to deal with her. I have other targets in mind, as I’m sure you can guess, so my spleen was being vented in their direction. Hope you didn’t get any on you.

  4. feedthespark said:

    No worries. I know it was just a generalized rant. However, I still disagree overall with your “impossible dream.” I am, first and foremost, a pragmatist

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