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New light on an age-old problem

Unraveling the mysteries of male-female communication

By Melissa Hirschl

May 13, 2006

Communication between the sexes is a wonderful thing, unless of course it gets tangled up in pre-conceptions, hidden agendas or stereotypical undertones. 

Even with the advent of women’s liberation and the “metrosexual male,” men and women are still scratching their heads wondering why the other just doesn't “get it.”

Metrosexual males, according to The New York Times, are “straight, urban men who are eager and even willing to embrace their feminine sides.” In other words, they know exactly what product to use on bad hair days.

Guests attending a workshop by psychologist Dr. Joel Hutchinson gained insight into the thorny issues of relationship communication and got some tips on how what to do—and, just as importantly, what not to do.

The program was part of a continuing series at Get Psyched!, a recently opened psychological-supplies and services center in the Kyrene Corridor.

WN: What is it about male/female communication that intrigues you so much?

JH: “Growing up I had only boys in my family. Plus I attended a prep school that only boys attended. I thought I needed some information on the opposite sex.”

WN: What are some of the most common issues you hear from couples in counseling regarding communication?

JH: “Female communication is typically intended to create connection in relationships whereas for men it is intended to convey information. When couples say they have communication problems it usually means different things. Classically, women will complain that men just don’t listen. They then think the men don’t care. Men think it doesn’t make any difference what they do – the woman will be unhappy anyway.

This leads to more broadly sweeping issues – both partners feel unheard, confused and uncared for. We all have blends of male/female styles. This was evidenced by a woman in class who said she related better to men than to women. Some women have qualities that our society has labeled as male, such as strength, aggressiveness and decisiveness.”

WN: Talk about the different listening styles of men and women.

JH: “Women want to ‘echo’ others' life experiences; it’s often intended to say ‘I understand you – I’ve experienced similar experiences and more than anything else I am listening to you.’ If a man shares his story and the listener shares a similar story the first man will turn to the listener and say ‘we’re not talking about you.’ It doesn’t feel appropriate for men to talk the way women do; it is taking the focus away from the man’s story. Men are intent on providing the solution and once they get that, the rest is fluff.  They want to zero in on advice. They want to play 'word traffic cop’ so they can get directly to the point.

WN: Do you believe that both men and women feel the same depth of emotion? If so, what’s the difference in the way we handle our emotions?

JH: “We have different rules about expressing our emotions. We are taught different things about what emotions are appropriate to express. For example, big boys don’t cry. If a man doesn’t typically express his feelings, he can lose touch with those feelings. I go slower in counseling with men when feelings come up so we don’t miss them. When a man’s talking about his feelings, he’s in a vulnerable position. It’s a ‘one down’ position, meaning it’s lower on the hierarchy. I want to be extra sensitive at this point. Men are as complicated and rich as women; neither sex has a monopoly.”

WN: You talked about the concept of “hierarchy.” Can you elaborate on that?

JH: “In a competitive culture, there are winners and losers so there’s a kind of ranking of status. Men get into this more than women because of our upbringing. Women compete too but in a different way--they have to be less obvious about it. Boasting about themselves is perceived as having status or being seen as better. A man would just view it as asserting order. Women will judge and potentially withdraw from other women who seem too threatening because they boast about themselves too much.”

WN: Is there anything you do during your seminar that really drives home the point about gender communication differences?

JH: “Yes, I typically start talking and waving my hands around and talk about how I want to share information with the group. I ask the participants if they think there is something odd about my presentation. They always say it was strange to see a man wave his hands like that. It is not the typical way men convey information; it is perceived as feminine. The presentation is not just about words. Our communication is far more than words. We are trained for what we’re supposed to look like, what behaviors are OK, how we’re supposed to think about each other. We have road maps, or scripts, about each other and it’s not just spoken. Gestures and body language are all part of the picture.

“I also do an exercise where a woman sits in the center of the room and is instructed to talk about just herself for four minutes. Usually she can’t; (one woman) talked about herself for about two minutes and then proceeded to elaborate on New York City, where she was from. It’s a great example of how women are conditioned not to brag about themselves or draw too much attention to themselves.”

WN: Where do we get these “scripts” and how hard is it to break out of them?

JH: “Media, peers and parents. Go to a junior high--you really see it there. In two minutes of walking around, it will be painfully obvious how much “scripting” is going on. It’s all about messages we get as children--be a nice girl, don’t be a mama’s boy. Those shaming messages teach us a lot about what we’re supposed to be and not be.”

WN: How can couples avoid communication pitfalls as they get older?

JH: “The single most important thing is to not assume that other person communicates same way you do. It’s like someone speaks Italian and other Swahili…we assume the other person doesn’t care or they are being oppositional. We need to understand the differences in the cultures and need to ask for what we want in terms of talking. If you’re not getting the kind you want, speak up and tell your partner what you need in a concrete way.”

Dr. Joel Hutchinson is director of student counseling services at ASU’s polytechnic campus. Get Psyched!, 1709 E. Guadalupe Road, Tempe, carries products designed to help with daily-living issues.

Information: (480) 839-6400.

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