Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Where are all the women from Venus? I'd like to meet some of them

The argument of the self-help classic, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is that the two sexes have different communication styles that create an obstacle to their compatibility.

As a key example of this difference, the author John Gray argues that when men complain, they are seeking solutions to their problems and when they hear complaints, they snap into problem-solving mode and offer solutions. In contrast, women who complain want empathy, and they offer empathy when complaints are described to them.

But in my experience, the "men problem-solve, women empathize" generalization has no truth whatsoever.

For starters, I find there to be no single dominant male response to complaining about or to hearing other people's problems. When I complain, I'm more likely to be looking for a good listener to say "that's really too bad" or be a sounding board to help me think something through without telling me what to do. I'm not a big advice seeker, and I haven't noticed any tendency of men to be seeking advice with their complaints.

As for hearing complaints, some men try to problem-solve some of the time, sure, but men are just as likely to emphathize -- "yeah, that really bites!" -- or to react with some version of "why are you telling me this?" followed by an uncomfortable effort to change the subject.

Women, on the other hand, are the problem-solvers. I've had many conversations with many women friends over many years in which I've described something that was bothering me in the hope of getting empathy. But instead, I get problem-solving, almost every time.

In my experience, if you say to a woman, "I'm really tired," her response will be "well, then, get more sleep!"

If you describe a relationship problem or a workplace problem, women immediately launch into "strategies" for how you can communicate better or how you can reconfigure your life. Women do not say, "poor baby!" unless they are making fun of you. Women just don't have any special empathy gene as far as I can tell.

I see three possible explanations for this divergence between the Mars-Venus thesis and my personal experience.

1) Maybe the Mars-Venus thesis is just a bunch of self-help-book BS.

2) Maybe my women friends are not a representative sample of their sex. Maybe, my population of women friends are overrepresented by the well-educated and career-oriented compared to the general female population, so that they're more likely than women in general to be "problem-solvers" rather than "empathizers."

3) Maybe women empathize when hearing other women talk about their problems, but go into problem-solving mode when hearing men talk about their problems. I find this the most interesting of the three explanations. Basically, it hypothesizes that women view complaining in men as a sign of weakness. Male complaints are a sort of trigger that brings out the domineering mother in women: "Okay, here's what you need to do, you whiny little boy."

Can you help me figure this one out? Or maybe just empathize?

The first problem, is that MAFM,WAFV was written by a man. The second problem (and this is conjecture because I've never read that book) could be the definition of "complaint".

If the "complaint" from the woman is The garbage is all over the place, and it's starting to smell, it's not so much as a complaint as a request phrased as a complaint (the request being "Take out the garbage"), and the "solution mode" response is the man in the relationship deciding that any complain-y utterance is actually a request for action on his part, but phrased in that obtuse way.

Conversation is a different beast when you are talking with your life-partner instead of talking with friends or colleagues.

After time, I believe, partners (and other family members) stop listening, at least with their full attention. They hear the beginning of an utterance and decide "oh, here we go again" and fill in the rest of the utterance themselves before the speaker has even said anything. Complaints arise when the speaker finds that direct communication is ineffective. If one has to say "Please take out the garbage" for 3 days and then winds up carrying the bags out one's self, they may try a different tactic.

A request may get a lower priority than a complaint. A complaint says to the person hearing the complaint, "Uh oh. My partner is unhappy. If he/she is unhappy, I may be sleeping on the couch tonight. So I'd better do something to change his/her mood." And then leaps into "problem-solving" mode.

Your friends offer advice because (a) saying "you poor baby" is patronizing and (b) they want you to solve your issue so you will do more enjoyable things with them besides complaining.

However, what is not mentioned in this discussion at all is the concept of validation of feelings. I have noticed that men (and especially men I partner with) are not terribly astute at validation. Validation is not necessarily empathy (although it can seem like it on the surface), but it's a "reality check" - and I think THAT is what women are really looking for when they complain - they want reassurance that what they are feeling is a logical or rational response to a given set of circumstances, instead of them being "crazy" for feeling in a particular way.

I see no faster way to an escalation of negative feelings into a full-blown argument than to have one's feelings dismissed out of hand. And that's where the Mars/Venus dichotomy arises.
So it sounds like what you're saying is that you're confused by the book's premise? (That was my best "reflective listening" for empathy!)

It sounds like you would *love* (note the sarcasm) his book "Children are from Heaven" since you loved this one so much...
OMG he's got *another* of those things out now? Heaven, eh? Wonder if he's ever had to live with any. I mean, I adore children, but if you're responsible for one or two, there are other things than Heaven that frequently cross your mind.

Wouldn't be so bad if he weren't adding to the not entirely undeserved reputation of my town and the whole county for being full of airheads.

Anyway, I note that women in my life do indeed tend to produce solutions when I complain. To be sure, if they reallly care, the solution is likely to be on the lines of "Why don't you just walk out of that situation? You don't have to put up with that." Which, come to think of it, is a strong expression of sympathy (and generally more of that than a usable piece of advice), so maybe it cuts both ways.

I think we fundamentally agree. The empathy I am looking for is validation.

On the other hand, unwanted advice when you're looking for empathetic validation, is not validating, it's dismissive and patronizing. It implies that you're too dumb or hapless to figure out how to deal with the situation yourself, and is usually motivated by a feeling of "just solve your damned problem and stop whining to me!"

Psycgirl: Me? Confused?
You poor baby... (sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Gray oversimplified for the average reader of course, but at least he put his finger on the difficulty of anyone communicating with anyone else. After struggling for years trying to talk to my husband and stepsons, I was infinitely grateful to see it wasn't me but the way I phrased things and how this was translated.

Semantics, different upbringing, misunderstood expectations, past history with the other person... all of it creates this miasma of confusion. We really are talking in a fog.

The person who is responding to a need for validation is responding in a manner she would like others to respond to her, or she is showing you how efficient she is because she's sure you want that lack of emotional content in the work place....

Most people would be stunned to find out how they are viewed by others.

P.S. I'm just writing this to validate my own emotional needs....
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