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« Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating | Main | Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating redux »

March 09, 2003

Why Don't You Know What I'm Thinking?

Friedrich Ė

Why does a woman expect her man to be able to read her mind? And why does she feel perfectly entitled to act indignant when it turns out he canít? Iím going to assume this holds roughly true (many exceptions allowed for) across cultures and across time. By the way, have studies been done of this? And if not, why not?

What might be a plausible evo-bio explanation for this tendency? Iíll (bravely and stupidly) try to get the ball rolling here. A woman is hyper-focused and aware of her inner life (her feelings, her body, her urges and needs). When it turns out that her man hasnít got a clue what the hell sheís talking about, let alone feeling, itís quite simply a rude awakening, and rude awakenings make everyone feel irritable. So, two questions: why are women so hyper-focused on their inner lives? What evolutionary advantage does this confer?

Question two? Well, what is a manís role in all this?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at March 9, 2003




Comments

Heh. I don't think it's so much a matter of being focussed on the inner life as being more acutely aware of another's facial expressions and posture as indicators of inner state. In other words, she can "read your mind", so why the hell can't you read hers?

But seriously, I believe "studies show" that women tend to be better readers of subtle changes in expression and posture than men. I suspect this isn't really accurate - after all, there are certainly situations where it's imperative that a man be able to "read" another. (E.g. his boss, his customer, or the guy in the bar whose subtle changes in demeanor indicate a desire to break heads.)

Which brings us back to the indignant woman. She knows perfectly well that a man can read other people's minds when it's important to him, and may assume this is a global mind-reading ability that works equally well in all human interactions. That he is oblivious to her emotional state indicates to her that he doesn't consider her worth the trouble, which pisses her off even more. Combine this with the (ime) greater tendency of females to stew about grievances instead of just putting them on the table, and combine that with the (ime) greater tendency of males to get irrationally freaky-deaky over even comprehensible displays of anger in women, and...well, we're all just doomed. Sorry.

Posted by: Moira on March 9, 2003 12:16 PM



I once read a bioessay supposing men and women
as separate species forming a symbiosis for the purpose of procreation.
makes sense to me;the older I get the less well I understand men; they are good for two things, picking up heavy stuff and I forget what the other thing is....

Posted by: Paula on March 9, 2003 12:53 PM



Kind of leading with the chin, aren't you?

Posted by: j.c. on March 9, 2003 1:35 PM



These comments are hysterical.

One answer for question 2: The man's role is to learn to do the same thing within himself! (if he doesn't already know how)

Really, what do you think? I love guys that are intensely aware of their inner lives.

Gee Michael, I'd think you were a bit that way yourself.

Hmm...maybe you should tell the whole story. Ask "the wife" if she'd care if you told us the event that triggered this entry. Then we'd know more about this inner life that she has, and that you feel you do not have.

Awe, just kidding I suppose.

Posted by: laurel on March 9, 2003 3:17 PM



You like to live dangerously don't you Michael? :-)

There are SO many things I could say about this I don't know where to begin. Maybe I'll write an essay of my own if I ever get my blog back in working order. For now, I have a couple of questions of my own.

1.Why are men less open, less attentive and less talkative with their wives/girlfriends than with almost anyone else? The women he works with think he must be the greatest husband in the world and repeat the common lament, "All the good ones are married," but his wife if she heard this would think they have to be talking about a different guy.

2. Why is it that when a woman tells a man exactly what she wants, he assumes that she "really means" something else, then when it turns out that she really did mean what she said he goes into "I'll never understand women" mode?

Posted by: Lynn S on March 9, 2003 5:52 PM



This type of things takes me back to the days when I was studying anthropology in school and had to read a book on cross-cultural communication for a linguistics class. It detailed the type of things that can be insulting in a foreign land whereas in your own country they can be considered friendly - certain hand gestures, expressions etc.

The most valuable part of the book for me was detailing the different ways men and women communicte. In a group for example, men usually don't talk *to* one another - they don't look at each other, the look straight ahead, and speak side to side - whereas women will look at one another...

There was this whole thing about how men and women communicate to one another that plays on our enculturation and engendering - men are taught to be problem solvers, strategists, and so, when confronted with another human telling them about a problem, or some emotional issue, the man will start giving advice and solutions ; whereas since women are taught to be nuturing and all "relationshippy" they often want sympathy, not solutions, so girls will tell each other stories about similar events and problems. I must say, that since reading this is my early 20s, it has been a guide in most conversations I have with women, and has resulted in some rather wonderful talks over the years. Basically you want to tell your story to give them insight, not advice, so they can figure out their problem on their own. For example -

[advice] Maybe this problem of mind-reading (mind you, some people are just crazy and will be bitchy now matter what) is simply a misunderstanding. She wants to hear your sympathy.

[insight] I was once in a relationship with someone who would drop the ends of sentences in conversation, expecting me to have understood and gotten her point by then - and I would always be like, "what..?" She wouldn't articulate her thoughts, out of shyness or intimidation, and I'd have to guess what the hell she was talking about.

Posted by: Timothy C on March 10, 2003 12:35 AM



I think Moira hit the nail on the head, so I second that emotion. I will add, though, that I think women are more naturally disposed to, and get better at, reading body language because they are typically the primary caregivers for infants, who can't talk and whose only communication is body language. I noticed my wife's mind reading abilities doubled after we had our first child.

I also think Lynn S. asked a really good related question: "Why are men less open, less attentive and less talkative with their wives/girlfriends than with almost anyone else?"

As time goes by, I've notice this really seems to be the case for most couples. Both men and women do it, but men are much worse about it, in my observation. One of the challenges of marriage seems to be noticing this and deciding to do something about it, or not. I think one of the primary indicators of a potential successful marriage is a couple (or if it's just the guy doing it, the guy) turning this "natural" tendency around, and re-connecting with his/her mate. What seems to be the cause is settling into the comfort of a long relationship and not keeping up with the other's life beyond you. Just because you are with someone a significant amount of time does not mean that you are intrinsically aware of his/her inner life, or even his/her life away from you. The trick, I think, is to keep asking, stay interested, and learn the complex task of living every day "next to" someone as opposed to "with" - if that makes any sense.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 10, 2003 11:37 AM



Upon reflection, my last post seems presumptuous. Here's where it comes from. In my cul-de-sac, we often get together for parties, so my wife and I see a lot of couples interacting. My post is the result of conversations my wife and I have been having over what we've observed from the other couples', and our own, interactions. It seems the longer a couple is together, the more likely they are going to ignore one another, and if they do interact, it's a snipe. So, my wife and I have been working out how we can avoid making that same mistake (which seems to work - we have been married longer than over half of the other couples), and we have had some good examples of how not to fall into the common nastiness via observation of the two or three couples who are respectful and seemingly still deeply in love. I apologize if my last post seemed a little preachy.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 10, 2003 2:38 PM



But it's not simply a matter of women being more emotionally aware, so from their standpoint (which naturally expects equal awareness) it would make sense for Winifred to assume that George knows how she feels about whatever-it-is and feel aggrieved when he doesn't.

The point I notice is that women I know well (and sometimes not-so-well) keep assuming I know background facts and incidents that I have no possible way of knowing but are essential to the story they're telling. I always assumed the difference had something to do with the greater masculine tendency to think of personal connections as part of an impersonal public order. It's not hard to think of evolutionary explanations for that.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on March 10, 2003 7:35 PM



Lemme think, lemme think... "You Just Don't Understand," by Deborah Tannen -- that's it, from 10 or 15 years ago. Viewing women and men as two different cultural groups, almost like two different nationalities, with contrasting styles and expectations. And why not take the kind of care communicating over the sex hurdle as you would over the nationality hurdle? A really good self-help book, as I recall. Did anyone else enjoy it and learn a little something useful from it?

Fun bunch of observations and questions, thanks. Though I do notice that no one has come up with much of an answer to my main question. Not that it matters, but I'm still eager to hear what your thoughts about it might be.

OK, everyone sometimes talks or babbles without sufficiently explaining the setting or context. I notice (and many men friends tell me they've noticed) that when you call a guy on this, he'll generally say, oh, sorry, and then will fill in the necessary blanks and return to what he was saying. If/when you try to call a woman on this, she'll often look at you with indignation. She'll zing you. Ie., conveying the conviction that you damn well ought to be able to follow what she's saying without any explanation. Ie., you really should be able to read her mind.

If a guy conveyed an indignant "you really ought to be able to read my mind" attitude, you'd think he was a psychopath. But many women convey this attitude routinely, and we sort of expect it, and think that it's basically ok. (Which I guess it is.)

But why (in evo bio terms) are we prone to accept this? And (in evo-bio terms) where might the behavior, and the expectation of it, come from? I guess my hunch is that it's one method women have evolved for getting their men to behave -- a way of making them feel a little anxious, inadequate, and eager to do better.

Hey, if we make a list of everything we've noticed and every question we've asked, and poke around in each of them some, maybe we could all have ourselves a bestselling self-help book.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 11, 2003 3:34 AM



Is this such a mystery? Men are more likely to think of the world as a objective public order constituted by concepts, functions and facts. Women are more likely to think of it as a subjective personal order constituted by particular people and their feelings and relationships. All that's old hat.

A consequence though is that for men the distinctiveness of persons is primary. People start off being separate, existing apart from each other in a neutral public space, so that each connection is something particular added on. The arm's length relationship is the basic standard.

For women, there is less of a sense of a neutral public space. Connections are primary: they are what constitute the world. As a result, persons seem less distinct from each other than they do to men. There is less of a notion that one exists separately from others.

If all that's so, it's natural for the woman to assume the man knows things he can't possibly know, for the man to be puzzled by the assumption, and for the woman to feel that the ignorance and puzzlement are offensive, since they deny the full validity of the connectedness that constitutes her world. All that follows from basic features of the masculine and feminine outlook, so it's not a special mechanism for putting men off-balance and keeping them in line. (The situation does work that way I admit.)

As for evolutionary explanations, these differences have to do with a sexual division of labor, with men more concerned with the public and functional side of things and women with the immediate and personal. Adam Smith says division of labor is good for efficiency, and that principle ought to apply to hunter-gatherers as well as to pin factories. So the differences exist basically for the same reason men have more upper-body strength and think about space more geometrically.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on March 11, 2003 7:41 AM



Could you folks address whether those patterns are cross-cultural before you start talking about men and women in general and how it all might be evolutionary biology?

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on March 11, 2003 9:19 AM



Why?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on March 11, 2003 1:11 PM



Jim,

What is the source of your supposition here? The things I posted above are all from personal observation, thus anecdotal rather than based on research, samples, and results. However, your statements have a more formal appearance, so where are they from, I wonder? I ask because you seem to delineate internal states - approaches to reality at large - which typically are not quantifiable in any reliable sense. And, again based on personal/anecdotal experience, I don't see men and women having that large of a difference in their perceptions of individuals as they relate to group dynamics or self vs. other assessment, e.g. "men are more objective about people and women are more subjective"? That doesn't match my experience on how men and women describe those perceptions. So I'm curious as to the source of your statements. Thanks.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 11, 2003 3:17 PM



Jim,

What is the source of your supposition here? The things I posted above are all from personal observation, thus anecdotal rather than based on research, samples, and results. However, your statements have a more formal appearance, so where are they from, I wonder? I ask because you seem to delineate internal states - approaches to reality at large - which typically are not quantifiable in any reliable sense. And, again based on personal/anecdotal experience, I don't see men and women having that large of a difference in their perceptions of individuals as they relate to group dynamics or self vs. other assessment, e.g. "men are more objective about people and women are more subjective"? That doesn't match my experience on how men and women describe those perceptions. So I'm curious as to the source of your statements. Thanks.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 11, 2003 3:23 PM



Note: I didn't submit that twice. I don't know what hiccup occurred. Apologies.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 11, 2003 3:41 PM



Did anyone else enjoy it [Tannen book] and learn a little something useful from it?

Years ago my boss passed it on to me; he thought it was terribly insightful. As I remember it, it was mainly anecdotal, and I thought all the men in said anecdotes came across as cretinous boors, the women as barking mad, and both sexes as mired in permanent adolescence. These people may be representative, but I wouldn't want them in my living room.

OK, everyone sometimes talks or babbles without sufficiently explaining the setting or context. I notice (and many men friends tell me they've noticed) that when you call a guy on this, he'll generally say, oh, sorry, and then will fill in the necessary blanks and return to what he was saying. If/when you try to call a woman on this, she'll often look at you with indignation. She'll zing you. Ie., conveying the conviction that you damn well ought to be able to follow what she's saying without any explanation. Ie., you really should be able to read her mind.

I'm not sure what you mean. A concrete example would be helpful. What, do you think we can read your mind?

Posted by: Moira on March 11, 2003 5:10 PM



So Michael, you've read Tannen's, "You Just Don't Understand" and you continue to have problems?

Hmm...I think you'll be interested in her latest book entitled, "Still Misunderstanding But Happily Blogging!" Ha!

No really, Tannen's book was great as I recall. I think I need to reread it. It might help me with my old relationship schism caused by politics! Geez, now that I think about it...maybe the problem wasn't about politics at all. Maybe it was more about the different styles of communication between men and women. Oh man, where is that darn book?

Posted by: laurel on March 11, 2003 5:15 PM



Hi Yahmdallah,

What I gave was a summary of my experience, observation, reading, reflection and what not. I've thought about it a lot, but if it's completely at odds with your understanding of things, so you just draw a blank when someone says "men emphasize logic and function, women emphasize personal relationships," it probably won't be of much use to you.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on March 11, 2003 6:11 PM



Michael, here's some armchair biopsych: For hundreds of millennia, women stayed in the villages with the children on the African plains, while the men went out stalking animals. (That's where we get the armchair biopsych about men having good sense of direction.) Women raised the kids. Kids, whether male or female, need training in emotions in order to become healthy adults. Women are wired to be interested in reflecting on emotions, so that they can become good at it and better coach the younguns in it.

Posted by: Jim on March 11, 2003 9:53 PM




As they say in the neighborhood: bollocks! What about me - I've never gotten lost in my life and never aimed a gun at anything without hitting it...

Men are just simple. But, like the simple cock-a-roach, they are able to wreak havok in the lives of more complex creatures.

Posted by: j.c. on March 17, 2003 4:41 PM



'May you live all the days of your life.' - Swift

Posted by: Hall Carolyn on May 3, 2004 6:03 AM






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