Communication — 14 August 2008
“Let’s talk”- The joyous and dreaded words

Perhaps the most taxing sentence in women’s conversation with men begins with, “We need to talk.” Women see it as an invitation for closeness, men view it as a potential set up for emotional discomfort.

Men’s and women’s conversations differ in terms of topics, style and purpose of verbal interaction. Each gender is often unclear about their partner’s perspective and become disenchanted when their words are responded to in an unexpected way.

Topics of talks are gender specific. Clyde and Susan Hendrix, in their book “Close Relationships” state, “Women generally enjoy discussing feelings and personal issues because it is the primary way in which they develop intimacy. Masculine speech communities, however, do not emphasize personal talk, so most men are less interested in and/or skillful at it than women”. Bergner and Bergner’s research found that men view sex as a way to get closer and open up feelings, while women see talk as a prelude to physical intimacy.

Since men are less practiced in conversations about emotions, they tend to shy away from them fearing fear that women will always “win” the war of words. Anticipate being routinely on the losing end understandably makes men shy away from this duel.

Women are often surprised and hurt, when their enthusiastic initiation of intimate verbal connection encounters the man’s retort, “So what did I do wrong this time?” The offer of intimacy is not only rebuffed, but ends up being viewed as accusatory and discounting.

Acitelli, Beck and Reissman, in separate studies, confirmed that the purpose of talk for men is clearly instrumental. Thus, talk about the relationship is appropriate only when there are problems. For women, the reluctance of men to talk about the relationship is often misperceived as disinterest in them.

Becker found that women enjoy sharing with men every specific fascinating and pleasurable part of their lives. Men, see talk as a means to achieving clear outcome and regard the detailed descriptions as “superfluous or even boring.”

Males like to be of help to their mates and listen for the task behind the words. When the female’s story is protracted, the need for concrete assistance is unclear and he tends to lose his concentration and motivation for listening. Males like to “fix things” and when solutions are not needed, they may fail to see the efficacy of empathy as help. Men tend to give what they seek when they experience problems, which is, pragmatic help rather than empathy.

Since women enjoy verbal interaction, their style is to maintain conversation going by asking questions, soliciting responses, showing interest and inviting others to talk. DeFrancisco’s research found that men engage in less conversational maintenance and tend to interrupt, fail to respond, be insistent upon their own content, or shift from the other person’s topics. Men believe that people speak when they choose to do so, and thus need not be invited to expound on the subject. Women feel hurt when men provide “the bottom line” and seem less than thrilled to offer more detailed information.

There are no “right” or “wrong” ways regarding the purpose, style, or topic preferences in human communication. What is important is that men and women recognize their differences and honor each other’s needs while abstaining from competition, judgment or attribution of ill intent.

Men, Please understand that:

• Women talk to connect. Talking about feelings is thrilling for them and is a gesture aimed at getting closer to you.
• Females feel loved when you listen attentively, even when the content of their monologues is less than thrilling for you.
• Women seek empathy, not solutions.
• You will get to physical intimacy more readily if you view conversation as foreplay.

Women, Please understand that:

• Men fear your invitation to talk. Just start it, but don’t declare it. You will be more likely to capture his attention.
• Understand that the explicit details of stories do not thrill him. Shorten the process and highlight the product by stating what you need from him. Foe example, “I want to share a trivial event from today that made me laugh.” This will free him of the responsibility of offering solutions.
• Curtail the efforts to get him to talk. Invite responses and accept what is offered. This will allow him to feel independent and free to talk at will.
• You will get to verbal intimacy more readily if you respect his need to first be physically connected.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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