If Men Could Talk
CBC News Viewpoint | July 16, 2004 | More from Georgie Binks

Georgie Binks I have a couple of female friends who have confided recently that their husbands have stopped talking around the house - not that they ever spoke very much, but now the silence seems louder than ever. Both guys come home at night, feet up on the couch, followed by hours of silence. When these women complain to the guys, they are met with puzzled looks. That supposedly "golden" silence has taken the shine off a lot of relationships, but it's nothing new. Many women have that complaint about their male partners. They don't talk. They don't listen.

But is it fair to criticize men for this when a) they might actually be doing both, but just not in female-friendly language and b) when they have been and continue to be brought up in a culture that criticizes them for showing or talking about their emotions? It certainly is fodder for a number of books, including If Men Could Talk (Alon Gratch, Little Brown USA, 2002) and Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say (Warren Farrell, Tarcher, 1999). Experts in the field say lack of communication is the reason thousands of marriages break up.

Deborah Tannen, an expert in male/female communication, writes in a Washington Post article entitled Sex, Lies and Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?, that from the time children are small, girls and boys learn to communicate with each other differently. For instance, while girls share secrets and talk to each other, boys do things together. Because men don't assume they need to talk to cement a relationship, they don't know what women want and they don't miss it if it isn't there. When girls grow up, they expect their husbands to be their new and improved girlfriends. But, she says, that's not what they get.

Often, women model their expectations of the kinds of conversations they should be having with men on what they see in the movies. Guys heading off to war, threatened by a crazed girlfriend, or - heck - just spooning with a woman, are taking part in pillow talk that defies reality. But if the only times you see men and women having conversations are your own experiences and those in movies, you're probably going to be wishing for the movie version.

Tannen interviewed men accused of not listening when, in fact, they were. However, they did not make eye contact, which the women expected, and they sometimes changed topics, which, she says, men do, but women read to mean they aren't listening. As well, she says when women listen to each other, they will try to empathize with what the other woman is saying. Men on the other hand, may joke about it or minimize it, which is not what women want to hear.

Not counting the cultural way that boys are edited, censored or simply shut down, there are also several other factors that zipper those mouths shut. These days men, in an effort to be politically correct and protect themselves from female heckling, are editing themselves. It's the odd man who is going to answer "yes" to the question, "Do I look fat in this?"

In other circumstances - say a cocktail party - it's a brave man who asks a woman what she does for a living. In fact, one woman in a high-powered executive job confided to me that she is never asked that. She figures men are worried they will be harangued by women who stay at home or women in the workforce, so they simply shut up on that one.

Of course, there is also the male code of silence. Men may know their best friend is having an affair and not approve, but it's a rare man who will rat him out, or even share the information with his partner. As well, few men will reveal what really happens at stag parties. Women are under the impression men get drunk and act silly. However, after interviewing a number of men several years ago for a story on stags, I learned that hookers - especially in the 80s and 90s - were pretty standard fare. Few men reveal that. Or what their friends did with them.

One male friend of mine says when he is out with the guys having a beer after hockey, the talk is light and superficial and that's the way he likes it. He says if he really has a problem he may discuss it with his wife or best friend, and yes, he feels better when he does, but it's not easy letting go and allowing people to see more of him.

Should women be trying to force or lure men into talking and listening? Is there some secret way that will get a guy to actually tell you his innermost thoughts and wonder what yours are? In the past, there always was that worry with men in top-level security jobs, that if they have affairs they will spill the beans. Are men more prone to scream, "We're invading Iraq, next week!" than "I feel overwhelmed when we go antiquing!" in their most intimate moments? Now that the Cold War is over, have female spies joined the ranks of women muttering about their non-talking partners?

For the most part, women love to chew away on a problem, (not all, there are some silent ones) and can easily spend weeks analyzing family situations or love affairs. Men, on the other hand, often feel that once an issue has been discussed, there is no reason to dredge it up again. Tannen says for women, talk creates intimacy, but men are on their guard to protect themselves from being put down.

The truth is that until things change from the bottom up and we stop telling boys to suck it up, and not cry, the language of men and women is going to be a lot different. And while parents may be attempting that, many people just can't keep from criticizing when their sons cry. Even Alon Gratch admits in If Men Could Talk, to berating his son for crying during a soccer game, and then feeling badly about it. I figure if he is doing it, many parents probably need to look at how they are treating their sons.

What about grown males? Is it a lost cause? Tannen says women can educate men about what makes them feel better in the talking and listening department and some men may understand. But if they don't get it, it doesn't mean a failure of intimacy. Women may just have to look to other sources, like their girlfriends for the kind of conversation they need.

The other thing women may have to consider is, do we really want to know the answer to, "Do I look fat in this?"