New keys to solving male/female communication problems! The difference is in the thought process

by Janet L. Jacobsen

copyright 1997 by Harlan L. Jacobsen

It wasn't the place you'd expect to find profound insight into male/female communication: an article in The New Yorker magazine about the advertising campaign for Dockers pants. Written by Malcolm Gladwell, the article focuses on how the Levi Strauss company used their profound insight into how guys think to create a booming market for their product.

The key here is that profound understanding of guy-ness. Dockers managed to get guys to make a fashion decision by positioning the pants as being for guys who want nothing to do with fashion. And they did that in part by applying some very interesting research on how guys think - a way that is (the research shows) distinctly different from how women think.

(Let us pause here to point out that of course there is a small group of men who take a great interest in fashion, who are always smartly and correctly dressed. Or, if they don't have a personal interest in fashion, they have an interest in looking like they do, and have found the right tailor to help them. We are not talking about those men here. We are talking about, as Dave Barry so aptly described them in his Complete Guide to Guys book, "guys.")

The first research in question is broadly referred to as the canned-laughter problem. One important study asked groups of men and women to look at cartoons on slides, while a voice-over read the captions, and rated the people's responses to the cartoons. Under these conditions, men and women reacted pretty much the same way.

Then the researchers added a laugh-track to the voice-over and told the participants that the laughter was from actual people in the room during the taping. Turns out that the canned laughter made women laugh a little harder and rate cartoons as a little funnier than they had before. But for the men, while they, like the women, laughed a little more at the good cartoons, men laughed a lot more at the lousy cartoons.



Why do men and women react so differently?

The explanation is that men and women have different ways we process information. Given two views on how funny something is_their own, and that represented by the laugh track_the women add the clues together to draw their conclusion. Men, on the other hand, tend to pick one piece of information and ignore the other. With the bad cartoons, they got carried away by the laugh track. With the good cartoons, they were strong enough in their opinion that the laugh track didn't affect them.

The general conclusion is that men, when possible, prefer to simplify things, such as seizing on one piece of evidence and ignoring the rest. Women, on the other hand, want to gather every bit of information and use it all to draw their conclusions.

There's another set of studies that bear on the subject, called bandwidth research. Given a large number of objects and asked to group them into categories, men will come up with a much smaller number of categories than women do, thus including a lot more things in each category.


How this affects your relationships

This explains a phenomenon I've observed repeatedly in my singles discussion classes and never understood. In general, if men and women are brainstorming on an idea or issue in same sex groups, when the discussion results are reported men will have fewer terms/phrases/whatever on their lists than women do.

I've attributed this to women just being a lot more verbal, but this "bandwidth" business offers a clearer, and probably more useful, explanation. Because in the discussions women will ask the men, "Well, why didn't you mention X like we did?" and almost invariably the guys will say, "Well, because that kind of comes under Y there, which we did include."

See the implications of this? When she says trust, for instance, she's got a fairly narrow, clear picture of what she means. When he says trust, that includes LOTS of things, like maybe caring, confidentiality, safety, a whole list of terms that she in fact has listed separately. This means that, despite her supposed verbal skills, she's not likely to realize that what he says comes loaded with a lot more stuff lumped in there, and she's going to react not to what he means by the term but by what she means, which is not the same thing.

So this difference in definition, it appears, may not be so much because of cultural differences, genetic differences, or whatever, but because guy categories are big and lumpy and gal categories are precise and fine-tuned.

The article points this out in looking at the text that runs in a number of print advertisements. In one campaign, for the Mercury Mountaineer four-wheel drive sport vehicle, one ad covers two pages, with many photographs, 44 of them small, and lots of text. The other ad is one page, an interior and an exterior photo, and fifteen lines of text. With guys, you want to get to the point. With women, you want to give them lots of input and the thrill of drawing their own conclusions by doing what they do best_integrating lots of information.


Big picture vs details

Wow! It's a miracle we can hold conversations at all, since women are always digging for detail, for implications, for broader conclusions, and guys are doing their best to eliminate detail, reduce the implications and nail down the conclusions. Wow.

This came out clearly in the recent discussion on male/female differences on sex and sexual ethics. Especially in dating, romance and courtship matters, women are looking for what communication studies call "subtext"_why is he saying that, how does he really feel, what is he trying to get across, what game is he playing.

The guys noted that, with the exception of the small percentage of genuine con artists and flaming jerks, the typical everyday guy conversation, even in dating, romance and courtship, has no subtext. What you see is what you get. What he said is pretty much what he meant (providing you mean the same thing by those words as he does, of course).

This is also why he's so hesitant to be pressured into talking about his feelings in early dating. His interest in a particular woman could be described as falling into the following categories:

1. Not my type, no exceptions.
2. Not my type, but I might make an exception.
3. My type.

Consequently his feelings for a particular woman can be described as

1. None.
2. Not much, but maybe. 3. Yes.

He wouldn't be hanging out with her if she didn't fall into the yes category, and he doesn't see what she's getting at in pushing for more information. You're a yes; what more could you want?

Another relevant item the article points out in the approach to selling pants, is that guys don't like to feel self-conscious. The famous "nice pants" ad campaign deliberately does not say "great pants" because great would mean the guy had moved from "just happening to look good to the unacceptable position of actually trying to look good."

And I've found that same attitude in my singles classes. One reason the group discussions work much better than most one to one conversations for this sort of thing is that, for women, they're excited to pool all their ideas and come up with even better, more finely tuned thinking. For guys, the responsibility is diffused and nobody has to stand out, to be self-conscious. Case in point: when the groups report their conclusions to the whole class, if someone says, "Hey, I didn't say this, I'm just the reporter here," it's much more likely to be a man than a woman.

And consider first dates. While she's agonizing over every little detail of makeup, hair, and what to wear so she can make a good impression, his primary goal is to not look bad, to not look out of place, to be comfortable, so he can make a good impression.

By the way, this could explain guys' aversion to formal wear_all that detail! Talk about feeling self-conscious. And with reduced comfort at that. Maybe that's the point of tuxedos at weddings: you know he must really love you if he's willing to go through that.


The danger in mixed messages

The article points out another study that relates to even wider implications for male/female relationships. "If a woman is being asked a series of personal questions by another woman, she'll say more if she's facing the woman she's talking to than she will if her listener is invisible. With men, it's the opposite. When they can't see the person who's asking them questions, they suddenly and substantially open up."

And the explanation? Not that he has trouble expressing his feelings after all. "It's that in a face-to-face conversation they experience emotional overload. A man can't process nonverbal information ... and verbal information ... at the same time any better than he can process other people's laughter and his own laughter at the same time. He has to select."

This is perhaps why men say they have trouble "reading" women. In dating especially, women are quite deliberately sending a complicated package of their nonverbal behavior along with what they say, because she expects him to take it all in and understand her "meaning"_such as whether or not she's interested in him. He, on the other hand, is primarily either listening to what she's saying, or watching how she's acting, and he's reacting pretty much just to whichever one he's focused on. But since neither one is complete, he's not "getting it." No wonder.

And if she is giving him the famous "mixed messages"_saying she's not interested, then cuddling up, squeezing his hand, etc._he goes into serious overload and either picks one or the other to believe or dumps her out of frustration at trying to understand her.

By the way, the guys in the class tell us that another part of this problem is women reading too much into his behavior. He's doing his best to be as straight forward as can be. She's interpreting like crazy and acting on what she thinks he meant. And if her interpretation contradicts what he's saying, she'll tend to believe her interpretation, rather than what he says. And because he said basically what he meant, her "interpretation" is frequently wrong.

It's all pretty mind-boggling, really. I'm going to need to do a lot more reading, more observing, and a lot more discussion before I can integrate all the subtext here, believe me.

Meantime, ladies, when it comes to guys, remember: in most cases, what you see is pretty much what you get. Don't wish-list him into being something he's not.

Guys: take comfort that it's not so much that she's complicated as that she is complicating. Spend a lot of time saying, "But what did you mean by that?" and things should improve.

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