Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut

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Even though this group is short on male contributors (and therefore readers), I wanted to share this piece–sort of as a public service.

Please remember my previous disclaimer. I love women. Love, love, love them. They are wiser, more beautiful, more loving, and more compassionate than men are. I have many more female friends than I have male friends. So, I hope you will still be talking to me after reading this. Or even better—leave a comment and tell me if, how, and/or why I am wrong. I will offer you my sincerest apology.

But, I’m not wrong. Not about this.

There will be times, many times if your relationship is long-term, when your female partner will come to you needing to talk. She will come to you with a problem about her friends, her work, the next-door neighbor who annoys her, her physical or mental health.

She will be distressed and clearly in need of your compassionate attention, and as a good friend and partner, you will listen patiently, occasionally uttering sympathetic noises (they don’t have to be actual words), indicating that you really care about her dilemma and that she has every reason to feel as though the world is ending and that she is currently, at this moment, the most justifiably unhappy person in the world.

Once she has exhausted herself, she may then look at you expectantly. And now, you must be very, very careful, my friend.

As men, we like to fix things. We are hard-wired to it and conditioned by our society to assess a problem and come up with a solution. If you have been smart enough simply to listen and let her talk uninterrupted, congratulations. But while you’ve been waiting for her to finish, undoubtedly you’ve been thinking about how to fix her problem, thinking about her best course of action. Her solution, you think, is painfully obvious to you.

If you are smart, rather than suggesting any practical solutions, your best play here is to shut the fuck up.

Why? Why not help her with her problem and “fix” it like you would a dripping faucet or squeaky door? After all, she wouldn’t be sharing all of this if she didn’t want your input, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Your solutions are the last thing she wants right now. Why? Because she already knows the solution, already knows what she has to do next. Remember, she is smarter than you.

You look confused. This is normal. Try to get used to that feeling. Embrace it.

All she wants from you right now is for you to empathize with her, to agree with her. In a pinch, you can even repeat things she just said to you with added emphasis to show that you were listening, that you understand, that you care.

In fact, as spontaneous and anguished as her recital may have been, you may be the third or fourth person with whom she has had this exact same rant. She most likely has approached her girlfriends first, and they’ve already sliced, diced, and dissected this problem over wine, chocolates, and ice cream. They will have tried to sooth your partner with affirmations and oddly communicative woman noises that we (males) cannot duplicate or understand, and they have supplied her with the kind of comfort that only calories and alcohol can bring.

Even knowing this, you will have to battle your impulse to help her slap a patch on the problem. If you find yourself start to say something like, “Well, you know, you could…” or “It seems to me like the best thing to do…” or even worse, “Well, if I were in your place, I’d certainly…” put both hands around your throat and squeeze until you are unable to speak.

Make all of your responses as non-specific as possible. Remember, she’s hurt, unhappy, and angry. Take some comfort that it is not because of something you have done. “That’s terrible,” “I can’t believe this,” “You have every right to be upset,” are all appropriate. You can use any of these more than once because it doesn’t matter what you say. What matters is that she thinks you are listening, that you are concerned.

Finally, she may even articulate what she feels is the solution to her problem and what she plans to do. Your job is to agree enthusiastically. Maybe now it’s time to put your arm around her, offer her a glass of wine, take her out to dinner. After all, she’s been sorely wronged by life, and she sought you out to be her person of the moment. You are one lucky guy. Just try to keep your mouth shut.

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Just A Few Things I Don’t Understand About Women

Day 11

First, let me say that I love women. Love them. Could not live without the lovely friend and partner who has been my wife over the past 41 years or any of the women I’m lucky enough to have as friends. And this writing group seems to be populated by so many brilliant and thoughtful women. It has been a pleasure to get to meet you all. In fact, the fact that I get confused by the behavior of women is probably entirely my fault.

Have I put in enough disclaimers that I can broach this subject now?

Gift giving. I have always thought that on any occasion it was best to give your friend or partner something that you know that she wants.   So, early in our marriage, when I the electric wok that I purchased for my wife as an anniversary present was met with less than enthusiasm, I was confounded. I knew it was something she wanted. She had said so repeatedly. To explain her disappointment she actually sat me down and told me, slowly and using small words, that kitchenware of any kind was just not an appropriate gift for special, personal occasions. Honest to God, I had no idea. Where was the manual for gift-giving procedures?

Christmas gift giving seems to be more easy-going. Three months, three full months, before a recent Christmas, my wife saw a hanging lamp in a favorite boutique shop that she declared to be the perfect replacement for a dated chandelier-type lamp that had hung in our dining room for years and years. However, she declined to buy it at the time, and I swooped in like a shark. The very next week, I went back on my own, bought the lamp and put it away. On Christmas day, I saved it for after she had opened the more personal gifts (having learned my lesson from the wok debacle), and she seemed truly surprised and delighted as she unwrapped it and opened it up. Hah! I knew it! Perfect gift, perfect surprise! Then she made maybe the most contradictory statement I have ever heard any woman say, “Gosh, honey, this is great, but just because I say I want something doesn’t mean you have to rush out and buy it for me.” WHAT!!?? I thought it was EXACTLY what we were supposed to do. I thought it was exactly what the attentive and thoughtful spouse would be expected to do after 40 years of careful observation. Hmmmm.

Those three little words. Every partner cares about three little words. However, I suspect that the exact words may be gender specific. For me, there is nothing more heart-warming, nothing more life-affirming than hearing my wife whisper in my ear, “you were right.” On the two or three occasions per year that this happens, I usually feign deafness so I can have her repeat it once again, just to extend the satisfaction of the moment.

The expectation of the power of mind reading. As a high school English teacher I worked primarily with female colleagues and individually, I could hold my own with them. But once they assembled in a friendly group, they would all begin talking at once with lots of gesturing, head-nodding, eye-rolling. I would watch them smiling, frowning, smirking all in quick succession all leading to a lull and a sense on my part that something had been decided. Finally, as the token male I would be asked, “What do you think about it, Tom?”

“About what?” I’d ask.

Ah, thank goodness I get to stop at 500 (actually 600) words. I suspect I am in enough trouble already.

 

 

 

Texting: Proceed With Caution

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When I taught a short story elective, I loved using Dorothy Parker’s wickedly satirical story “A Telephone Call.”  It’s a wonderful example of the use of internal monologue as a (more than) slightly obsessed young woman literally waits by the phone, expecting a call from a young man that she is apparently dating.  Published around 1930, I had to build some context for the students.  Yes, phones used to have dials. Yes, women used to wait for men to call first.  At the time, it was considered forward and inappropriate for a woman to be perceived as the aggressor—to take the initiative in a relationship.  They honestly looked at me as if I had somehow slipped into a foreign language.

The young woman in the story dramatically ponders every encounter she has had with the man and every word he has said to her previously as she tries to convince herself that the man’s tardy phone call is no reason for alarm:

This is the last time I’ll look at the clock. I will not look at it again. It’s ten minutes past seven. He said he would telephone at five o’clock. “I’ll call you at five, darling.” I think that’s where he said “darling.” I’m almost sure he said it there. I know he called me “darling” twice, and the other time was when he said good-by. “Good-by, darling.” He was busy, and he can’t say much in the office, but he called me “darling” twice.

Upon finishing the reading, the class was quick to claim that she was simply crazy, obsessed, ridiculous.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve never gotten a note, or a message, or a text and spent considerable time reading and re-reading it, trying to guess at exactly what the person’s intent and tone was?”

“Ooooh, yeah,” they laughed.  Virtually all of them had stories of messages about which they had obsessed–the more important the person, the greater the examination and analysis.

I am not immune from this. However, my first experience was when my bride-to-be and I dated long distance for two years during the early 1970’s.  We depended on the U.S. mail almost exclusively, writing each other two or three letters a week.  For me, each trip to the mailbox was full of sweet anticipation.  How would she have responded to my most recent verbal advances?  Would there be some vague promise of greater intimacy that would keep me entirely on edge until I could see her over the weekend?  Exactly how would she sign it?  Was “thinking of you” better than “love you” or a generic “see you this weekend” or the ambiguous “luv ya!” ( I mean, really, what does that mean?).

I saved most of these letters and occasionally I’ll grab one, in part to examine the artifact of the 7¢ stamp, but more to enjoy suddenly being cast back 40 years into my past, swept up by the youthful enthusiasm of a first love, feeling caressed by the warm words of affection that have lost none of their impact over the years.

I don’t bemoan the advances in technology or long for the time when one had to wait days for a loved one to receive a letter or to get a response, but I have discovered great dangers in the instantaneosity (I just made up that word) of our communication.

Lots of people struggle with this transition.  I remember when phone message machines first gained popularity and almost every message I got began with “Oh, gosh, I just hate talking to these machines!”  At least for me, that changed pretty quickly to feeling disturbed and a little betrayed when a person actually answered his phone when all I wanted to do was to leave a quick message and wasn’t mentally prepared for all the social niceties that go along with an entire phone call.

Texting has taken this dynamic to a whole new level.  In talking with my former students, especially those involved in some kind of romantic relationship, texting seems to be the primary means of communication, possibly exceeding face-to-face conversation.  When they have described their day or even week-long texted “conversations” to me, I become convinced that they have thrust themselves into starring roles in a Dorothy Parker short story.

I get a lot of questions from former students, mostly young women who are now friends, particularly if relationships come up as an issue.  If they are in the midst of some intense texting with their intended, I get asked to help interpret–“after all, you used to be a guy.”  Yes, once, long ago.

“I mean, what does it mean when he says he loves me, but he needs some time, some space?  (“Means he’s dumping you”) “ How can he say he loves me and then just treat me like crap!” (He’s cheating on you) “But he texted me at 2 AM and it really sounds like he means it this time.” (No, it means the bars just closed, he’s drunk, and feeling nostalgic, not romantic).  “How long should I wait before I respond?”  (“For. Ever.”)

 In truth, I never say any of the things above that are in parenthesis.  In truth, I have no idea how they should respond and what they should do.  Mostly I just listen and try to figure out what they are hoping that I will say, and reassure them that yes, eventually, everything will be just fine.

Texting has been problematic for me also.  I have found that sarcasm does not translate well in texting, so I have had to resort to an occasional 🙂 to let the person know I’m teasing and not savaging them with some off-hand remark.  However, most emoticons are a mystery to me and I don’t use them because they seem silly and confusing.

But the greatest danger I have found in texting is not in being misunderstood.  After all, you can always go the extra mile and actually talk to the person. No, far more dangerous is texting under the influence.  Because, let’s face it, we often use words to shield ourselves from the raw emotions we might feel in the moment.  Take away that filter, that safeguard, with two or five beers, and anything might happen.

Recently, I flew from San Diego to Phoenix to see the great James Taylor in concert, a concert I had been waiting to see for 40 years.  Lucking into ninth-row seats and getting close enough at intermission to have him autograph my ticket, left me walking back to the hotel full of the afterglow of a night I had waited for for a very long time.  I was exhausted, but just didn’t want the night to end.  Have you ever felt that way?

I ducked into the hotel bar around midnight, hoping to slip in before last call.  Well, it turns out that “last call” was a pretty flexible concept to the bartender, and I was content to have a beer, watch basketball highlights, and eavesdrop on a blonde sitting nearby who was spewing profane and angry invective about her ex-husband and life in general to an anxious looking guy who I think was listening patiently and hoping to get lucky.

Pretty soon, those two cleared out (the guy never actually had a chance it turned out), and it was just me and Brian, the bartender.  One beer turned into three and then after a bit, my glass just kept getting refilled without me even asking.  I figured out later that once Brian and I had hit it off, he simply wanted someone to talk to while he got the bar closed up sometime around 2 AM.

I suppose that it’s not universally true, but it seems that anytime after 2 AM, alone in a hotel room, is about the loneliest place I have ever found myself.  I would be home in less that 12 hours, slightly hung over, but surrounded again by all things familiar, but somehow the need to reach out and make contact with a friend right then and share something about the wonderful concert, the too-long stay at the bar, my guilt over realizing that I should know better, seemed overwhelming.  I composed a text about the night that I had just spent but feared sending it to anyone.  My sister in Maui and my wife in San Diego were sound asleep, and I knew I could not disturb either of them.  In the end, I picked on a friend, a teacher in New York City, someone who I convinced myself just might be awake, someone who I knew would forgive an ill-timed text.  I was surprised to get a quick response, somewhat garbled although she claimed to be awake already, reassuring me that if I drank some water, took some Advil, and went to bed, I’d be just fine in the morning. She was right of course, and I did just that.  Eight hours later sitting at the airport, I wrote her a much more sober apology text, an I’m-such-an-idiot text, which she laughed off forgivingly.

Texting, like every use of language, is imprecise and subject to misinterpretation.  It can create confusion, anxiety, heartache and is the worst tool to be used for a break up since the post-it (“I’m sorry, I can’t, Don’t hate me”).  However it is an extraordinary advancement in aiding the most human of needs—the need to stay connected; to reach out to a friend on a lonely night; to share a picture with your son; to make your daughter laugh; to remind your wife that you haven’t forgotten the days of the 7¢ stamp.