Imagine a six-year-old, first grade girl on a playground at recess. She falls and skins her knee. Then she starts crying. What do all the little girls do? They run to her, help her up, inspect her wound, hold her hand, and walk her to the nurse’s office. It’s also likely that a full two hours later, they’re giving her an extra cookie at lunch and asking her if she’s ok.
Now imagine the same playground, but this time, it’s a six-year-old, first grade boy. He falls and skins his knee. Then he starts crying. What do all the little boys do? They laugh and point and call him names. It’s also likely that a full two hours later, they’re still shunning him…keeping their distance to avoid being associated with the ‘crybaby.’
Why does this difference happen? Are little boys inherently mean? ‘No’ is the simple answer.
Here’s how it works: People (as much as we fancy ourselves a sophisticated bunch) learn in essentially the same way as our pet dogs. When we want to teach our dog to sit in response to the command ‘sit,’ we pair the command and the behavior of sitting with a treat, a hardy petting, or some other desirable motivating feedback for the dog.
Similarly, we humans tend to repeat behavior that is rewarded, and we tend to avoid behavior that is punished. From the time the typical American boy is born, he is barraged with messages about toughness, not crying, and avoiding anything that is cast as ‘feminine.’ He learns this at home, in the extended family circle, among peers, at church, etc. By the time a boy enters grade school, he’s already keenly aware of the rules of engagement for his gender, and he unknowingly becomes a propagator of these rules of engagement.
Over the course of the years of the boy’s life, he is consistently confronted with messages regarding what is considered acceptable and unacceptable emotional expression for a male. Most common among these messages is that any negatively-valenced male expression of emotion should be anger. Frustrated? Anger. Scared? Anger. Tired? Anger. Sad? Anger. Defeated? Anger. The free expression of sadness or fear in male adolescence is potential social suicide.
Meanwhile, the course of the girl’s life is painted with reward for the free expression of emotion. The tears are permitted to flow openly. She is encouraged by her home, extended family, peers, church, etc. to articulate her emotional experience on a nearly infinite range of topics. In fact, females are often relationally punished for not doing so – facing labels such as b*tch, cold, or ice queen if her free expression of emotion isn’t deemed robust enough.
Bottom line, boys tend to be punished for emotional expression and rewarded for presenting as stoically flatlined. Girls tend to be punished for not being emotionally expressive enough and rewarded for the free and unbridled expression of emotion.
While this discussion could go many directions (e.g., that it can be damaging to rob boys of healthy emotional expression, that it can be professionally impairing to fail to teach girls time-and-place with regard to emotional expression), my point in writing it is to illuminate the ways in which these reward-and-punishment paradigms can erode effective relationship communication.
By the time the little girl and little boy have grown into a woman and man and decide to leap head-first into a relationship, the woman has a vast and deep emotional vocabulary – the equivalent of a dictionary. She quickly senses when she feels different, and she has been taught to communicate these feelings, their changes, her hypotheses about them, etc. Meanwhile, the man has the equivalent of a trifold brochure of emotion-related vocabulary. He’s been taught to ignore emotional changes, not investigate their origins, and deny their existence. So when the woman talks to him readily, frankly, and extensively about her emotional experience, he might be hearing something akin to white noise.
Here’s a flip-side example: My husband of 23 years is mechanically inclined. Over the years, he has worked on all of our cars – usually out of abject necessity. I’ve learned a lot from him about engines, car maintenance, etc. But he always has to speak at my level – build a knowledge foundation and expand from there. As soon as he says words like “camshaft synchronizer,” my brain short circuits, and I’m no longer following what he’s saying. And if I don’t understand the words in his sentence, my brain just kind of checks out. I feel myself getting agitated as he talks, because I know the loving and respectful thing to do is to pay attention to what he’s saying – but he’s not speaking my language. [It’d be like me staring intently and with sustained enthusiasm while someone is speaking to me in Korean. (I don’t speak Korean.)] Lately I’ve gotten better at stopping my husband when I don’t understand and asking him to translate. Then he says words like “the thing that tells the computer how to time the spark.” Suddenly, I’m following; I’m reengaged…and he doesn’t feel like I’m disinterested in what he’s saying.
In the early years of our relationship, I was guilty of speaking to him in overly emotional terms that weren’t relatable or translatable to him. His brain short circuited when I communicated things through an emotional lens and/or asked him to be emotionally supportive. (In his mind, the only things that were supportive were I-beams, trusses, rebar, etc. How would something invisible lend support?) I spoke from my perspective – with no consideration of his perspective. But neither of us knew that at the time. You can’t communicate what you don’t know. So I interpreted his nonresponse as uncaring, and while he vehemently denied the accusation that he was uncaring, he didn’t have the words to communicate that I needed to translate for him.
Fast forward 20 years and we have settled somewhere in the middle or our respective societally-influenced worlds. I use less words to describe my emotional experiences (so that his brain doesn’t check out). I try to do a better job of making my explanations relatable to him (so that he doesn’t feel frustrated). I take accountability for my own feelings and for self-soothing (so that I’m not displacing blame onto him). He, rather than defaulting to expressions of anger, has learned to articulate if he’s feeling moody – even if he doesn’t know what the particular mood or emotion is (so that I don’t personalize his mood). He regularly articulates his feelings toward me (so that I developed security in where I stood with him). He listens when I do share my emotions (so that I know my experiences are important to him).
Once we understand the common discrepancies in relational communication, it’s so much easier to fix them.
While writing this blog, I had yet another couple come in and describe their difficulties in communicating. This couple has been married for over 30 years. The wife said, “I know when he gets angry, there’s something going on in his head,” to which the husband responded, “She says that, but there’s nothing going on in my head.” I abruptly stopped them and fetched the draft of this blog from my desk. As I read it to them, they both nodded knowingly…over and over. By the time I finished, they both had smiles (or at least smirks) on their faces. They knew this was indeed the canyon between them, and like any couple, they were tired of professionals and self-help books prematurely concluding that it was one person’s fault or the other.
Is it my fault that I don’t speak Korean? Or the Korean’s fault that they don’t speak English? Neither. It just is. And if we want to learn to communicate effectively, we will work to master one another’s language.
Joye Henrie, PhD
(Note: This post contains some generalizations and absolute language. This is not intended to stereotype or be dismissive of outliers. Rather, it is done for expediency in addressing a common issue that arises in the course of psychotherapy.)