Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
[Warning: I am going to make some gender-based generalizations in the following post. The purpose of generalizations is not to capture all of life. It’s to examine patterns in an efficient manner. The thing about using generalizations is that we can’t do it without chopping off a good deal of examples that don’t fit. It is always my intention to do this in a spirit of respect for both men and women. If my statements don’t fit for your experience, please feel free to write me and tell me about your own personal experience because I want to honor outlying viewpoints.]
I was talking with Joyce, a beloved therapist-buddy of mine about communication differences between men and women. She told me a story about a man who complained because his wife used an indirect communication style (“I hear there’s a sale on jewelry”) to ask for what she wanted for her birthday. Men tend to be more direct and forthcoming in communicating what they want. After all, they live in a society where assertiveness translates into getting the girlfriend, the job, the deal. In fact, one of my high-up-in-the-corporate-world clients once told me that hiring managers view the salary offered a man as a starting bid which begins a negotiating dance, whereas the salary offered a woman is often seen by her as fait accompli. The husband of a friend of mine half-jokingly complains, “You women don’t mean what you say and don’t say what you mean.”
Women, on the other hand are socialized to tend to the collective good, and viewed through this prism, making a forthright claim on a limited resource (time, money, energy) is insensitive and even interpersonally aggressive.
But—here’s the interesting thing—the flip side is true when it comes to expressing feelings. Women are socially permitted to notice and express their emotions. From the time we are little, we can talk with our friends and mothers about feeling sad, or angry, or happy, or scared or thrilled, or surprised. As we grow up, we can identify and discuss our more nuanced feelings like pensive, ambivalent, content, relieved, vulnerable, and the like. Women therefore have a level of emotional literacy that translates into comfort with and fluency in emotions.
Meanwhile men are not socially permitted to display vulnerability in front of others. They are not supposed to cry or to be weak. Boys who show fear or delight or sorrow are punished by other boys. There are very few men who have plural male friendships where they can take their painful emotions and get witnessed, validated and receive supportive feedback. As a result, men often don’t know what they are feeling and even if they do, they are not comfortable talking about it.
Women can use direct communication about feelings, but not about desires. Men can use direct communication about desires, but not about feelings. It’s a good thing we are all on this planet together, able to learn from each other’s examples and as a result, nourish our own personal growth.