Are Men Really Emotionally Clueless?

5 psychological reasons why some men don’t seem to get it.

Posted Jan 04, 2020

It’s a common stereotype: the clueless male who doesn’t seem to understand his female partner’s feelings, motives, or actions. Is this stereotype accurate? Are men actually clueless, or do they just appear that way? Some of the answers may be found in psychological research.

1. Are men emotionally clueless?

Research consistently shows that there are sex differences in the ability to “read” others’ emotional expressions (what is called “nonverbal decoding”). Women tend to be much better than men at recognizing facial expressions of emotions. As a result, emotional cues displayed by a partner or other individuals may not be recognized or decoded by men.

So, in some regards, men (as a group) may indeed be “clueless.” [It is important to emphasize, however, that these are average, group differences, which means that there are men who are good at decoding emotional expressions, and there are women who are poor at it, but, on average, women are better.]

2. Are men less empathic?

There is some evidence that women are also more empathic than men. This makes sense, because the first step in being empathic is to recognize another’s emotional state, and we have already seen that men are more deficient in recognizing emotions.

But empathy involves not only recognizing another person's emotion but also expressing sympathy back through one’s own emotional expressions. And research shows that men are less emotionally expressive than women. So, men may indeed appear less empathic than women, although, in some instances, they may simply not be reading the other’s emotional state or may not be responding empathically.

3. Why is my male partner clueless, while my female best friend gets it?

When a woman experiences some negative emotional state—distress, sadness, anger—she may find that her male partner, rather than being supportive, typically goes into problem-solving mode. Female friends, on the other hand, tend to offer emotional support and show concern.

This is because there is a fundamental difference in how many men and women approach such situations. Males tend to be agentic—action-oriented—trying to solve the problem. Women tend to be more communal and offer support and caregiving. And, being a woman, communal care is what is usually sought.

4. Why does my male partner always have to talk rather than just listening to me?

Although there is a stereotype that women talk a lot, research shows that men tend to talk more than women. This is particularly true in mixed-sex groups, where men tend to dominate conversations.

5. And why is he always interrupting?

Men have a tendency to be more dominant (one of the reasons they simply talk more), and they may feel freer to interrupt others when they are speaking. This contributes to some males’ tendencies to “mansplain" and may also increase the perception that men are clueless.

How can we make things better?

  • Men: Work on emotional sensitivity and expressiveness; work on being a better listener. Ask questions, and try not to interrupt.
  • Women: Be explicit. Don’t expect your male partner to be able to read your subtle emotional cues. Express feelings both nonverbally and verbally. Ask for what you want from your partner, male or female.
  • Both Men and Women: Be tolerant and accepting of one another.

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Riggio, R.E. (1986) Assessment of basic social skills. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.

Eisenberg, N., & Lennon, R. (1983). Sex differences in empathy and related capacities. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 100-130.