In “Listening to Men, Then and Now,” author Deborah Tannen uses historical anecdotes from Shakespeare to Hollywood to describe the differences in male and female communication styles. Her essay reminds me of a fellow in my army unit whom everyone for the most part liked. Tall, good-looking, and well spoken, Mike had only one annoying trait. He was one of those people who had seen it all, been it all, and done it all. If you mentioned something you did that was especially fun or exciting, not only would he have done it, but he would have done it first and he would have done it better. Most of his sentences began with, “That’s nothing! Once I….. .” I remember though, a time when a bunch of the guys were hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and bragging, I happened to catch Mike in a lie regarding one of his exploits. His details conflicted and when I realized it, I leapt across the table, thrust my finger in his face and shouted: “Ah hah! You are such a liar!” I then proceeded to unravel his story in classic Sherlock Holmes style.
What was it that gave me such satisfaction in putting Mike in his place? It was, after all, just typical male posturing. Wasn’t it? If I add the fact that aside from the seven or eight men playing cards, there were several good-looking single women, the satisfaction begins to make sense. If I tell you that there was a young lady there that I had my eye on and that she also happened to be Mike’s ex-girlfriend, it becomes crystal clear. I was strutting my stuff to attract a mate every bit as much as I was putting the braggart in his place. I used words to win the woman who would become my first wife. But somewhere along the line, those words no longer worked.
Starting when they are boys, a pecking order is established. Boys fight. They tell jokes. They push each other around. And, eventually, boys rank one another. This ranking is based on abilities that may include pitching a ball, throwing a punch or tossing off a witty joke. Many is the comic who relates his childhood escapes from the bully’s fists by using humor.
So, there is a point to male posturing. It is a survival tool. I’ve never been good at sports, but I’ve always had a gift with words that has kept me rather bruise-free. However, there is another gift, perhaps more precious to my eye, which comes from the way men communicate. Tannen sums it up beautifully when she says, “Women are the audience and men are the show.” She says that she hears repeatedly that a woman fell for a guy because he made her laugh. Men seem to mirror this sentiment when they say they like a woman who laughs at their jokes. While there seem to be some women who are, for some reason, genuinely impressed with a man who can throw the ball -- or the punch -- it appears that the majority of intelligent women want a man who can and will converse. They want someone who will entertain them.
Looking at my own life, one would think I was setting out to prove John Gray’s premise that “Men are From Mars and Women are from Venus.” Oh, I have the talk down. In the early days of my relationships, I laugh, joke, boast, and sweet-talk with the best of them. But, after six months or so, there seems to be a change. It’s not that I speak any fewer words. It is more as if I stop speaking in a language that women understand. The languages of touch or action go unheard by the woman. Eventually the lines of communication break down altogether. My formerly entertaining, Academy Award-winning banter has become a flop.
Tannen claims that when men feel close to someone, they don’t feel that it calls for “a story performance.” Perhaps the truth of the matter is that when men seem to “clam up,” it is an indication that they are feeling safe and secure in their relationships. They no longer feel the need to strut their stuff to attract their mate. While Tannen makes good points in her essay, we must remember that everyone is different. “Don’t judge someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” is no mere cliché. Good relationships are built only when both partners realize the differences in each other’s communication styles and strive, in love, to understand.