Lost in Translation: The Different Ways Men and Women Talk About Troubles

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Differences in how women and men tend to use talk in close relationships lie behind a mutually frustrating scenario that often plays out in conversations between women and men. (Of the many scenarios I described in You Just Don’t Understand, this one is among those that sparked the most enthusiastic recognition.) A woman tells a man about a problem she is having, 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.” He is frustrated, too: why does she want to talk about it if she doesn’t want to do anything about it? He may even feel wrongly accused: he thought he was supplying what she asked for; why would she tell him about a problem if she didn’t want his help fixing it?

The answer is the type of conversation, so common and so valued among women friends but so unfamiliar to most men: troubles talk. From her point of view, “The same thing happened to me” is an expression of understanding and a reassurance of sameness, 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. By describing 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 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.

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Every utterance has meaning on two levels: message and metamessage. The message is the meaning of the words; the metamessage is what it says about the relationship that these words are spoken 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 many 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 anymore about your problem because I don’t care enough about it—or about you.

The frustration a woman might feel if 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 he may 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 aggravates his feelings of helplessness. A woman who was recovering from a double mastectomy and undergoing breast reconstruction was disappointed that she could not talk about what she was going through with her husband, but she understood that he needed to focus on something he could do. He suggested that they take advantage of the time she’d be home to renovate their kitchen. So instead of talking about cancer they talked about cabinet colors.

A new kind of taxi service, SheTaxi and SheRides, allows passengers to request a woman driver. An article about the service reports that customers rave about it—and so do the drivers. One driver, Martha Pitterson, explained that she prefers women riders because she prefers their conversation. When men ride in her cab, she said, they tell her to drive faster or talk about sports, a topic that doesn’t interest her. Women talk about their lives—and often their troubles. One passenger, for example, confessed she was having an affair, while another complained about her grandchildren. I’d be curious to know (the article doesn’t say) how Ms. Pitterson responds to her passengers’ troubles: by just listening or by offering matching troubles of her own.

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It is almost an obligation for women to come up with matching troubles, to fulfill their part in this conversational ritual, even if, as one woman recounted, a friend’s troubles are difficult to sympathize with. Following a disastrous divorce, Hannah was living in subsidized public housing, so it was hard to feel sympathy for a friend who was complaining about the inconvenience caused by workers adding a screened-in porch to her house. Yet Hannah knew that she had to find a trouble to offer up in the conversation. Luckily, she could always find something about her son or her grandchildren to complain about. In a parallel way, a graduate student was relieved that she could always complain about school when her friend complained about a boyfriend’s thoughtlessness and other offenses that her own boyfriend was not guilty of. (“My boyfriend wouldn’t do that” is not an acceptable response.)

Finding matching troubles to offer can be a delicate business—and can easily backfire. A woman devastated by her husband’s accidental death was not comforted when a friend said that she, too, had experienced the pain of learning to live alone, following her divorce. Though the friend began by saying, “I know it’s not the same,” her comment gave the impression that she did think the losses were comparable, and this reinforced the widow’s conviction that her friend didn’t understand what she was going through at all, and had no idea how much more painful it is to lose—suddenly and irrevocably—a partner with whom she had lived in near-perfect harmony.

The need to find matching troubles can also be challenging when a friend’s circumstances change for other reasons. For example, if friends are in the habit of commiserating over their dating woes, it can be awkward when one of them commits to a monogamous relationship and no longer has dating problems to talk about. She may hesitate to talk about the relationship problems she does have, because she feels a sense of loyalty to her partner that she did not feel toward those she dated: she might not want her friend to get a negative impression of her partner, who might object to being talked about for the same reason. This is especially true for men who wouldn’t talk to their own friends about problems in their relationships, and don’t see why anyone else would either.

By Deborah Tannen

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Excerpted from You're the Only One I Can Tell by Deborah Tannen, copyright 2017 by Deborah Tannen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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