Why Communication Between Men and Women Sometimes Fails

Understanding why men and women sometimes have trouble communicating.

Posted Oct 30, 2016

Consider the following scene involving a conversation between Sarah and Jack, two seventeen year-olds who have been good friends for a while. They are both academic high achievers, and they have both just gotten back test scores that were fine, but not what they were hoping for, and they are worried about getting into a competitive college.

“This sucks,” Jack complains. “I had better do better next time or else I might not get into my first choice.”

“Yeah, I am sorry you did not get what you were expecting, I know that is disappointing,” Sarah says. “But it is ok. You have lots of positives. I am sure you will get in.”

“Whatever,” Jack says, somewhat dismissively.

Sarah waits for a while, expecting him to say something about her situation. He does not say anything and finally, she says, “I was not happy at all with my scores either. Definitely lower than what I was expecting.”

“What are you worried about?” Jack asks, in a somewhat annoyed voice. “You are our valedictorian. You are basically a shoe-in.”

This comment feels completely out of left field for Sarah, and she lets him know it: “Jack, you are so rude! I am always there to support you and you never support me when I need it.”

“What are you talking about? What did I say that made you so pissed?” Jack says, exasperated.

“What do you mean? Why are you so clueless?” Sarah exclaims, also flustered.

Jack and Sarah miss each other here because of common gender differences in how their conscious experience frames their world. Like many girls and women, Sarah’s consciousness is more “relationally oriented”, which means that she is naturally more inclined to pick up on and respond to the needs of others and show emotional signs of affiliation and support when she sees folks in need. She also expects others to have the same basic experience of the world, which means that if they do not show the support toward her that she expects then she becomes angered that she is not being attended to in the way she deserves.

Like many boys and men, Jack’s consciousness is more “agentic and instrumental”, meaning that he thinks in terms of problems that face him and possible solutions. He expects others to have the same experience of the world. He is certainly willing to support others in the problems they face and in many situations is very giving and helpful. However, he is much less attentive to the subtle needs for emotional support and thinks mostly about support in terms of helping others solve their problems, rather than recognizing or validating their emotional world.

Let’s apply this lens to the conversation above and see why, because of their differences, they are missing each other in this exchange. Notice Jack’s initial response to the situation is to be constructing possible solutions in terms of what he needs to do to address the issue. Sarah’s consciousness attends to his emotional signals of disappointment and she tries to validate that by labeling it and offering an encouraging word. But instead of being grateful for this, Jack seemingly rejects this supportive communication from Sarah. Why? Because having the experience of being “disappointed” does not solve anything for Jack (or at least that is what many men intuitively believe). Indeed, experiencing disappointment may well result in the secondary feeling that he is weak or ineffective and that is the last thing he wants. Instead, he wants to resolve the situation by identifying an instrumental solution to the issue.

Sarah, on the other hand, believes she has just offered him some understanding and validation, and thus is put off by his rejection of this “gift of love” (see here for different “love languages” that people speak). And, understandably, she wants it to be reciprocated. And since they have been long time friends, she assumes he must know this about her. So she waits. In doing so, she is essentially testing him to see how much he values her. He fails this test by not saying anything. So, she moves to an easier test, offering him up a “softball” that basically says what she is feeling and all he needs to do is let her know he “sees” her feelings. A basic comment, such as, “I am sorry you are disappointed, but keep in mind how strong your applications is” would have passed (and it seemed so easy and obvious to Sarah—after all, that is exactly what she just showed him she wanted by giving that response to him).

But instead of getting validation, she feels him attacking, distancing and dismissing her. This seems outrageous and uncalled for from her perspective, given that she was there for him. From his instrumental-agentic perspective, he is basically saying she doesn’t have a real problem, so she should not be concerned. And he is actually subtly acknowledging that he is in worse shape than she is. In doing so, this raises another reason why he wants to avoid thinking about her negative feelings like disappointment, shame, or helplessness. If she is feeling those things and he is in worse shape, then he really should be feeling those things. So, his dismissal of her feelings is him saying, “you are easily defended and you have solutions…so get those negative feelings out of your head and move on”.

Sarah directly voices her concern, calling him out for being basically a jerk (which he was, from her relational perspective). But from his perspective, her attack comes out of the blue. And he thus frames it “as a problem” and because he does not see the attack as justified, it is a problem with her. And thus, there they are: two long term friends who both received very similar pieces of news, completely baffled and then annoyed by the response of the other.

The reason for their confusion is that their conscious experience of the world is different in some fundamentally important ways. Because they are not aware of the difference and both assume that each person experiences the world and relationships as they do, they are confused by the response of the other. However, if they had insight into the fact that Jack has a more agentic-instrumental way of being in the world and Sarah had a more relational way of being in the world, then they would at least have a valuable map of the situation and have a much greater chance of avoiding this kind of miscommunication that leaves both parties feeling frustrated and misunderstood.