Posts tagged ‘Personal Interactions’

February 5, 2011

Owing, Value, and Worth

[Forgive me, for this will be a rather messy post.  Emotions are complicated, and it’s difficult for me to discern my own emotional philosophy at times.]

Before I start, I think I should state my concepts of “value” and “worth” because they have such similar implications.  According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, “value, worth imply intrinsic excellence or desirability.   [However,] Value is that quality of anything which renders it desirable or useful.  Worth implies especially spiritual qualities of mind and character or moral excellence.”  [I will always have issues with concepts that are placed on a moral scale, but that is an argument for another time.]

I have some serious issues with the connotations of “owing” and “worth” when they pertain to people.  Perhaps it is because I have issues with the socially constructed term “commitment” as well .  As a good friend pointed out, my greatest fear is to be confined.  Quantizing the  worth of a person or relationship is certainly confining to me.  The value of a person or relationship should not be quantized.  Relationships–at least meaningful ones–are so much more than a payment style of interactions.   I feel that just because I become involved with someone in any manner (emotionally, mentally, physically), it does not mean I owe him/her parts of myself.  And vice versa.  The other person, also, should not feel that he/she owes me something–love and affection, parts of himself/herself, or otherwise.  People are whole parts unto themselves.  Pieces of his/her truth must be freely given.   And I will treasure what is willingly volunteered.  But have an understanding that although the parts I end up volunteering of myself  are given as a sign of trust, the other person is not entitled to the majority of myself.  The same goes for him/her.

Want is a whole other territory.  Me wanting to give someone my affection, time, and loyalty is just that.  I believe that to be unconditional on my part.  And while I cannot predict the future, I can currently say that with conviction.  But more importantly, the other person does not owe me any affection, time, loyalty, etc. in return.  It would be much appreciated if they were returned, but it is not a condition of my own choice to give them to someone.   Which is a rather true statement of my contradictory nature I think, for  I am a major believer in reciprocation.  If someone does something for me, I feel an urge to do something in return.   Because “it’s only fair” as they say.  And I would hate for someone else to put in effort without putting in my own effort.

I guess in the end, it’s all about putting in the work for something of personal import.  But with a mental framework of willingness rather obligation.  I actually severely dislike it when people exclaim “you’re working so hard!” about my academic work ethic.  And I don’t like it any better when it is in reference to a relationship.  When it comes to academia, I don’t feel that I work hard at all.  Rather, I feel that I have a willingness to do what needs to be done in order to get where I want to be in life in the future.  Not to mention, to produce a result that I feel is fulfilling.  [I would normally say “worthwhile,” but I having enough issues with the concept of worth at the moment.]  For this, I believe that I am giving value to my academic choices.  But back to “work” in a relationship.  I believe that to be the compromises that people are willing to make.  Again, my stress on willingness–a willingness to set or shift boundaries, a willingness to voice concerns, a willingness to have frank discussion.  Anyone who I am involved with does not owe me this; he/she must, rather, consent to interact with me in this manner.  After all, promises and platitudes are all good and well, but they are nothing without the explicit consent of the person making them.

The topics of “worth” and “owing” has come up often enough in my life lately that I felt an urge to jot down my thoughts on them.  That and having just finished The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua had remarked that “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything…[and that] the understanding is that Chinese children must spend the rest of their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud” (Chua, 52).  Maybe it’s some latent teenage rebellion rearing its head, but I vehemently disagree with that sentiment.  I can certainly feel gratitude towards my parents for pushing me to succeed (although, you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell…), but there is a huge difference between gratitude and obligation.

So there’s my take so far on my personal interactions at the moment.

January 14, 2011

Thoughts on Sex

“Our best definition here is that sex is whatever the people engaging in it think it is.”

-Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt

Amen to that.

October 3, 2009


I think something in us all craves the approval of our parents.  We don’t overtly or obviously tailor our actions to parental approval, but we would rather deal with the consequences ourselves than risk garnering their disapproval.  They took care of us, were our first teachers, nursed us through our teenage years of wild hormones and broken hearts, and taught us to think for ourselves.  So where does it stop?  When do they begin to see us as people as opposed to their daughter or son?  Some of us do the exact opposite of what they wish for us; deliberating carving out a path as far away as possible in efforts to cling onto a sense of independence.  Others follow their parents’ wishes to the letter.  The rest stand somewhere in the middle and maintain a balance between independence and parental input.  I have no idea where I stand.  My relationship with my parents is neutral at best and tense at worse.  They love me; they will always love me.  But loving me does not entitle them to dictating how my life should be run.  Everything around me is rapidly changing constantly; the world as I know it may be different day-to-day.  And yet, as more of the things change around me, the more my parents strive to keep me the same.

They cannot coddle me forever; their attempt to place me in a bubble will eventually do more harm than good. I cannot hope to survive in a world beyond the bubble if my world view is shaped only by that bubble.  If they do not have the confidence in my capabilities then how I can have faith in myself?  Daughters are not as breakable as everyone seems to think they are.  Just as sons are not nearly as irreproachable or infallible as we believe them to be.  We are all merely human.  And being human, it is acceptable to be selfish.  It ensures survival among all the mistakes and stumblings that occur.  Parents are also human; they want what’s “best” for us.  However, their perception of what’s best isn’t necessarily the actuality of what’s best for us.  It is their job to guide us, but they need to allow for growth.  I cannot grow encased in a bubble.  Sooner or later I will outgrow those trappings.  I don’t claim to know the answer as to how my live my life, but I need to discover that for myself.  And if I do things that they disapprove of, well…”we don’t always do the things our parents want us to do, but it is their mistake if they can’t find a way to love us anyway” (Sullivan).


Sullivan, J. Courtney. Commencement. New York: Random House 2009.

September 1, 2009

Facebook, Twitter Revolutionizing How Parents Stalk Their College-Aged Kids

Courtesy of The Onion. So freaky and yet so true. o.0

Facebook, Twitter Revolutionizing How Parents Stalk Their College-Aged Kids

July 5, 2009

life and independence

Had a somewhat lowkey evening although fireworks and chilling out with friends can’t really be a bad thing. Nothing wrong if you’re in good company. Life is in a lull right now I think. Slightly confusing but good at times. Just…all over the place. Of course this wasn’t how I was expecting to spend it. *shrug* But it wasn’t such a terrible loss. It’s good to get out and be with people instead of being left alone to one’s thoughts. I…need someone who can take how much I talk. But until that happens I guess I can just write about.

I’ve been rather lowkey lately. From like March and on I haven’t made concrete plans on like anything. I used to be full of ideas and planning this and that. But once spring in college hit, it was like a slow down button had been hit or something. I’ve lost sight of myself a little because this is the most introverted I’ve been since like college hit. I don’t know. Maybe things have a greater affect on me than I thought. I love college but it brings out mixed emotions. On one hand, it’s a decent university and I have the freedom to do what I like. On the other hand, that freedom is somewhat of an illusion. I can’t do what I’d like and that’s really hard to accept. I can’t have what I want. And while I know you just can’t simply get what you want, I’ve never really wanted something as badly as being able to make my own decisions. And to fuck up and pick myself up again and to put my life back together again. And sometimes, I just don’t want to do anything because it’s hard. It’s really hard to try sometimes; fighting what everyone else wants for me. I guess that could be why I’m being so lowkey. College has reawakened a lot of those dreams I thought I gave up on when I was younger. And that’s frightening. It means that I can’t be the good child who does what she’s told any longer. I’m somewhat fighting who I am. And I guess that leaves me little energy to deal with other people and thus why I choose to be alone a lot fo the times. Who knows. This 3 am post is getting a little maudlin.

June 21, 2009


I can’t believe I spent all Spring quarter wishing for summer. Now that I have it, I recall just how boring those 4 months were. I would rather have work to do. Maybe it might not be something I love or like doing but at least it’s something. I don’t know who I am anymore. How the hell did I become so boring? I don’t do anything anymore besides read, write, perhaps sing, and veg out in front of my computer occasionally looking at fashion. Dude. I know that a lot of my friends have scattered to the four winds for summer but really? This is what I’ve been reduced to? Gah. Forgettable indeed. And it’s of my own making too. How…unfortunate.

I know that I have accepted my lot in life and I can’t simply get the things I want right now but still. This is pathetic, even for me. Not that reading and writing aren’t worthwhile pursuits. But I have to satisfy the more extroverted aspects in me too. I can’t always stay home and be perfect daughter. I’m done being the bobble head doll that nods yes when my parents call. Somehow I became a coward. Of course many people don’t see me that way since I am generally quite daring. But only about things that don’t actually matter. Guys? They come and they go. They mean nothing. A passing interest. Who cares about what people I don’t know think about me?

Of course I’m not going to burn any bridges. That’d be stupid on my part. But I’m not going to take what the world’s throwing at me hands down either. I can’t compromise who I am. In the way I dress or in the way that I talk so much. I can’t stop that. And I shouldn’t have to. So maybe I need to do a little spring cleaning of the people I hang out with if they can’t give me the time of day. I’ve already had one major spring cleaning of something that just wasn’t working out. I should be able to do it with everything else as well (including the people in my life). And find something that matters to me again. Music will always be a big part of my life but I can’t rest of “what ifs” anymore. I’m no more a music prodigy than the average person standing next to me at the bus stop. I like to sing but that’s about it.

I guess in the end it always comes back to fashion. I could never give that up. Dressing to suit my mood is who I’ve always been. And I shouldn’t have to change that. I know that certain things will end up influencing me, but overall I like to stay true to myself in terms of fashion. No matter how much college is trying to destroy it. Or how my friends and people puzzle over it. It’s not for them. It’s for me. So they can just fuck off. Sorry if I don’t fit in the neat little boxes they want me to. That includes you too mother.

You can’t make me the perfect daughter. You can’t make me want to be at home all the time or like physics. Or math. You can’t think that I will also think that exercise is the cure to the world’s problems as well. Or will I go to bed “on time.” News flash. I am completely different from you. You focus on me because you gave it all up. You did exactly as your father told you and look for that got you? Why don’t you go find something that makes you feel happy again instead of lecturing me about who I should be? And about how things are soooooo easy for me. Cuz they’re not. I’m not going to cry over the material needs and shit but I have fuck ups too. And issues. And no matter what you say, I will always care about different things. I’m selfish. SO WHAT. As long as I am willing to compromise over things in my life, then I will be fine. So look behind the tissue-thin rebellious daughter image and see who I really am. Even if I don’t know who I am myself, I am still learning. And you need to learn with me. If not, you can just stay the fuck away from me in the future. Because once I have that Bachelor’s in my hand, I’m going to go find myself. As retarded as that sounds, it’s true. I’m going to find something to make me feel powerful and alive again.

May 4, 2009

Taking Stock of My Life

I’ve been so easily distracted lately. I know they say that relationships take up a lot of time but I didn’t quite expect to be so wrapped up into it. But it’s not just that. The weather and the dryness of my professors make me wanna run as far away from the lecture hall as possible. And if I had to choose doing nothing of my own making a comfortable spot or doing nothing in a lecture hall where I can’t really distract myself, I’d do the former. What’s wrong with me? Where’s my drive? I don’t know where it went. Or where exactly my identity went. As much as I would hate to admit it, I’ve changed quite a bit.

Some people have a profound impact on our lives. I’ve met 2 such ones this quarter (obviously each affect me differently). I’ve never been so mushy in my life. Ever. It’s quite odd to look back on all the changes in my life lately. I worry more. Or I should say I worry about not worrying. haha I’m such a lazy ass in spring. However, this is quite a new case of it. There are new uncertainties and new variables added to the equation. My brain is busy wrapping itself around the more emotional changes in my life as opposed to the intellectual changes. I find myself quietening down in order to internally categorize the on-goings of my life. Of course, I keep up my normal chatter but half the time I’m not even fully cognizant of what I’m actually saying other than the fluff. I wonder if he notices. If he knows me well enough to see the internal disquiet that goes on. Probably not. He’s not nearly so philosophical or examining at life as I am. Not everyone has to watch and read what is going on. Sometimes people just go with the flow and live life. I would like to be one of those people. However, I don’t quite think that I am.

It’s nice having him around though. The insecurities are silenced at those moments. And it’s nice. I’m usually too busy feeling to really overthink things; living in the moment if you will. And that’s great. I swear I’m already fucked in the analytical department since being a girl has somehow genetically wired overanalyzing into my system. I’ve seen way worse but I don’t like the extent to which I have it myself. My brain is on constant repeat. And I don’t like it. I want other interests. I want things to keep my busy, to stimulate me, to challenge me. I want some of my own identity back. And while I love the togetherness we share, I don’t like how much I’m changing. Or how open I am. It’s like he systematically knocks down all my barriers without even trying. It’s like slightly alarming at how easily I am disarmed. I’ve never been this open before. Ever. I don’t know if I like it. Openness means vulnerability. And I can’t account for that or for what happens. gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

That’s not the only thing. There’s a number of things I’ve been thinking about over the year. Strange how I can change so much in the transition from high school to college isn’t it? I always saw myself as independent and while sheltered for most of it, I was ready to reach for life. And if I fell on my ass, so be it. I guess I didn’t expect the way things turned out. I’m quite maudlin and happen to make this sound much worse than it actually is. I guess I worry too much. I have too much control. I don’t even know where that comes from. The need to be always in control of situation, of having to read people. I haven’t had any life tragedies. I just happen to be an American-Asian girl who is stuck with Asian parents. No one cares so much for finding identities beyond doing what needs to be done in order to be the engineer or doctor, or lawyer. Happiness is not in the equation.

I am who I am. I cannot make excuses or change myself because other people wish it so. I can’t be who they want. I can’t even satsify myself let alone other people. And I shouldn’t have to. But until I am free (Disko’s definition of it), I must play the game. I am always hunting for that spark. The thing to push me and drive me. To make me better. Maybe one day I’ll find it. I need to work on myself before I can even attempt to deal with others. Maybe a day of silence is needed. Disconnect myself from my social network and my oh so important electronics.

Signing off,

April 22, 2009

Rules of Attraction: Girl Hot vs. Guy Hot

Glommed off of Teen Vogue blog:

This is so terribly interesting as different things attract about people attract me. And there is a huge difference between dressing girl hot and guy hot. Now come to think of it, I think I work harder on an outfit when I see my friends that I do when I go on a date. Girls will notice details and judge you based on how pulled together you are. Guys don’t seem to care as much. But then again, as girls, we tend to overanalyze things. Well I don’t mean to overly simplify it, but there is some truth to it. And as I’ve had more than my share of people looking at me, things I notice when a girl checks you out (I would know since every Asian woman/girl does not like me, especially middle aged Asian women lol) are hair, face, outfit, and then shoes. When a guy checks you out: the key things become face, boobs, exposed skin (perhaps stomach), ass, and legs. lol Greatttt. hahaha Here’s Teen Vogue’s take on it:

“‘Slim, boobs, butt, gorgeous face, and great hair,” lists New York City native Lucie, sixteen, when asked what she thinks guys like in a girl. And what are considered attractive qualities for girls by fellow girls? “Bone structure and body proportion,” notes Kara, 20, of Chevy Chase, Maryland. “And personality,” adds Samantha, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore in Newark, Delaware. When it comes to looks, the battle of the sexes rages on. “Girls and guys have very different standards on what’s attractive,” Lucie explains. “We notice the shape of someone’s face, but boys notice how you look in a bikini!” Now a new study is backing up their point of view. In February, researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that men and women process beautiful images differently–guys with the right side of the brain, and girls with both sides of the brain. Separate medical research in the past has shown that the right side of the brain is associated with fantasy and imagination, and the left side governs logic and communication. While the Proceedings study is far from conclusive, it could in part explain why girls take a more well-rounded point of view when rating beauty. “The study doesn’t surprise me,” says Anthony Youn, M.D., a Michigan-based plastic surgeon. “Generally, men are visual–they tend to find women with that Barbie-doll look, like Heidi Montag, attractive. Most women, though, feel that someone like Lauren Conrad is prettier than Heidi. Lauren is natural.” Samantha agrees: “I think guys base hotness only on body and face, whereas I care about the whole package, including her sense of style.” Indeed, being fashionable ranks highly among girls. “Nicole Richie is attractive because of her overall look,” says Kate, eighteen, from California. “But I’ve never heard my guy friends call her hot.” In the end, Victoria, nineteen, from Toronto, says the opinion of the fairer sex matters more to most females: “Girls dress for other girls. If we think we look good and our friends think we look good, then we’re happy!” And top trainer Brett Hoebel urges teens to celebrate what they have: “Because of pop culture, the waif look is the current standard for girls and is largely achieved through plastic surgery or Photoshop. But the most important part of being attractive comes from within–your opinion of yourself is all that matters.'”

Credit: Teen Vogue Daily

March 11, 2009

Man vs. Woman

I’m sure by now that I have driven all my friends crazy about fashion week. But they’ll live. Paris only last until Wednesday anyway. And I can be done being seen as the airhead for enjoying fashion (news flash: wanting to look good and enjoying fashion, which includes reading fashion magazines, does not suddenly turn women into bimbos); that is not to say that I won’t continue to post about fashion. This is, after all, my own personal blog; it’s sole purpose is for what I want it to become. And now for my first writing post.

Recently, I read an article about the differences in communication between men and women. Women apparently want involvement while men prefer independence. Also they tend to generally grow up in different subcultures, in which certain principles are emphasized. For example, young girls tend to play in small groups and cultivate the relationship with the “best friend” whereas boys tend to play in larger groups where competition is key. Language in that case is not really trust communication, but is, rather, feeding the competitive spirit. It’s all quite fascinating. Maybe that’s what accounts for the utterly ridiculous, but hilarious to an outsider, snits couples find themselves in. It’s a circular argument where no one seems to quite understand each other but are rather shouting his/her respective point at the top of his/her lungs, each thinking that the other has the faulty logic. And of course they get nowhere because no one yields. It is the adult equivalent to the arguments in childhood (“yes you did” “no I didn’t” “yes you did” and so forth). Pointless but amusing to an observer. Of course, it’s not like we really can help it. It’s the way we are brought up; it becomes a matter of being able to move beyond that lack of communication.

And then there is the idea of metamessages, which quite frankly, makes it worse. Woman have a tendency to pick up on them better than men, probably because their own insecurity makes them hyper aware of the tiniest things that can set them off. Also they look for those things because their subculture emphasizes it. Men, on the other hand, tend to put more value in what is being said instead of what isn’t being said. Tone, body “language,” facial movements, those are all metamessages that women tend to read into, perhaps because they are trained to be aware of them. Men never really had a need to. Until they are in a relationship where the woman suddenly wants them to pay attention to it. However, they have had no training this; how is it a woman can expect it?

Whichs lead me to wonder whether I am more like a woman communicator or a man communicator. I am a tomboy at heart, despite the outter packaging saying otherwise. I have more guy friends than girl friends, although I like to think that I have a best friend. I value independence more than involvement. I use an awareness of metamessages to my advantage, but I don’t exactly call someone out on it. It’s almost like I’m at a middle ground. I was raised around a lot of boys, despite being an only child, and most definitely have that competitive edge. How ever, I run at the sign of “we have to talk.” That’s just foreboding. hahaha so what does that make me? Half n half? hmm a question for another day perhaps. Here’s the article so you may judge for yourself:

Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers
by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen is a language scholar who says her marriage broke up because of a classic breakdown in communication: She employed a literal style, trying to say exactly what you meant, whereas her husband used the indirect style of people who hint at what they want and expect other people to pick up the hints. Tannen, who studied at Berkeley under linguists focusing on language as an interactive social medium, reached a large public with two books on the undercurrents and hidden messages in how people talk: You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.Her focus is on the metamessages we send- the messages that go beyond what we say outright. Literal-minded people miss much of the subtext of communication – what lies below surface meanings. The mere fact that people bother to talk to us already sends a message (they care enough to give us some of their time), just as their refusal to talk to us also sends a message. Tannen’s most recent book is Talking from 9 to 5(1994, on the role of language in the workplace. A reviewer of the book said that much of the secret of her success is “that she is writing about the single most common social activity in the world; everyone talks, although not everyone reads, writes, or reasons.” Dr. Tannen’s scholarly essays have been collected in Gender and Discourse, published by Oxford University Press.

Male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication. Culture is simply a network of habits and patterns gleaned from past experience, and women and men have different past experiences. From the time they’re born, they’re treated differently, talked to differently, and talk differently as a result. Boys and girls grow up in different worlds, even if they grow up in the same house. And as adults they travel in different worlds, reinforcing patterns established in childhood. These cultural differences include different expectations about the role of talk in relationships and how it fulfills that role.

Everyone knows that as a relationship becomes long-term, its terms change. But women and men often differ in how they expect them to change. Many women feel, “After all this time, you should know what I want without my telling you.” Many men feel, “After all this time, we should be able to tell each other what we want.”

These incongruent expectations capture on of the key differences between men and women. Communication is always a matter of balancing conflicting needs for involvement and independence. Being understood without saying what you mean gives a payoff in involvement, and that is why women value it so highly.

If you want to be understood without saying what you mean explicitly in words, you must convey meaning somewhere else – in how words are spoken, or by metamessages. Thus it stands to reason that women are often more attuned than men to the metamessages of talk. When women surmise meaning in this way, it seems mysterious to men, who call it “women’s intuition” (if they think it’s right) or “reading things in” (if they think it’s wrong). Indeed, it could be wrong, since metamessages are not on record. And even if it is right, there is still the question of scale: How significant are the metamessages that are there?

Metamessages are a form of indirectness. Women are more likely to be indirect, and to try to reach agreement by negotiation. Another way to understand this preference is that negotiation allows a display of solidarity, which women prefer to the display of power (even though the aim may be the same – getting what you want). Unfortunately, power and solidarity are bought with the same currency: Ways of talking intended to create solidarity have the simultaneous effect of framing power differences. When they think they’re being nice, women often end up appearing deferential and unsure of themselves or of what they want.

When styles differ, misunderstandings are always rife. As their different styles create misunderstandings, women and men try to clear them up by talking things out. These pitfalls are compounded in talks between men and women because they have different ways of going about talking things out, and different assumptions about the significance of going about it.

Sylvia and Harry celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at a mountain resort. Some of the guests were at the resort for the whole week-end, others just for the evening of the celebration: a cocktail party followed by a sit-down dinner. The manager of the dining room approached Sylvia during dinner. “Since there’s so much food tonight,” he said, “and the hotel prepared a fancy dessert and everyone already ate at the cocktail party anyway, how about cutting and serving the anniversary cake at lunch tomorrow?” Sylvia asked the advice of the others at her table. All the men agree: “Sure, that makes sense. Save the cake for tomorrow.” All the women disagreed: “No, the party is tonight. Serve the cake tonight.” The men were focusing on the message: the cake as food. The women were thinking of the metamessage: Serving a special cake frames an occasion as a celebration.

Why are women more attuned to metamessages? Because they are more focused on involvement, that is, on relationships among people, and it is through metamessages that relationships among people are established and maintained. If you want to take the temperature and check the vital signs of a relationship, the barometers to check are its metamessages: what is said and how.

Everyone can see these signals, but whether or not we pay attention to them is another matter – a matter of being sensitized. Once you are sensitize, you can’t roll your antennae back in; they’re stuck in the extended position.

When interpreting meaning, it is possible to pick up signals that weren’t intentionally sent out, like an innocent flock of birds on a radar screen. The birds are there – and the signals women pick up are there – but they may not mean what the interpreter thinks they mean. For example, Maryellen looks at Larry and asks, “What’s wrong?” because his brow is furrowed. Since he was only thinking about lunch, her expression of concern makes him feel under scrutiny.

The difference in focus on messages and metamessages can give men and women different points of view on almost any comment. Harriet complains to Morton, “Why don’t you ask me how my day was?” He replies, “If you have something to tell me, tell me. Why do you have to be invited?” The reason is that she wants the metamessage of interest: evidence that he cares how her day was, regardless of whether or not she has something to tell.

A lot of trouble is caused between women and men by, of all things, pronouns. Women often feel hurt when their partners use “I” or “me” in a situation in which they would use “we” or “us.” When Morton announces, “I think I’ll go for a walk,” Harriet feels specifically uninvited, though Morton later claims she would have been welcome to join him. She felt locked out by his use of “I” and his omission of an invitation: “Would you like to come?” Metamessages can be seen in what is not said as well as what is said.

It’s difficult to straighten out such misunderstandings because each one feels convinced of the logic of his or her position and the illogic – or irresponsibility – of the other’s. Harriet knows that she always asks Morton how his day was, and that she’d never announce, “I’m going for a walk,” without inviting him to join her. If he talks differently to her, it must be that he feels differently. But Morton wouldn’t feel unloved if Harriet didn’t ask about his day, and he would feel free to ask, “Can I come along?,” if she announced she was taking a walk. So he can’t believe she is justified in feeling responses he knows he wouldn’t have.

These processes are dramatized with chilling yet absurdly amusing authenticity in Jules Feiffer’s play Grown Ups. To get a closer look at what happens when men and women focus on different levels of talking things out, let’s look at what happens in this play.

Jake criticizes Louise for not responding when their daughter, Edie, has called her. His comment leads to a fight even though they’re both aware that this one incident is not in itself important.

Jake: Look, I don’t care if it’s important or not, when a kid calls its mother the mother should answer.
Louise: Now I’m a bad mother.
Jake: I didn’t say that.
Louise: It’s in your stare.
Jake: Is that another thing you know? My stare?

Louise ignores Jake’s message – the question of whether or not she responded when Edie called – and goes for the metamessage: his implication that she’s a bad mother, which Jake insistently disclaims. When Louise explains the signals she’s reacting to, Jake not only discounts them but is angered at being held accountable not for what he said but for how he looked – his stare.

As the play goes on, Jake and Louise replay and intensify these patterns:

Louise: If I’m such a terrible mother, do you want a divorce?
Jake: I don’t think you’re a terrible mother and no, thank you, I do not want a divorce. Why is it that whenever I bring up any difference between us you ask me if I want a divorce?

The more he denies any meaning beyond the message, the more she blows it up, the more adamantly he denies it, and so on:

Jake: I have brought up one thing that you do with Edie that I don’t think you notice that I have noticed for some time but which I have deliberately not brought up before because I had hoped you would notice it for yourself and stop doing it and also – frankly, baby, I have to say this – I knew if I brought it up we’d get into exactly the kind of circular argument we’re in right now. And I wanted to avoid it. But I haven’t and we’re in it, so now, with your permission, I’d like to talk about it.
Louise: You don’t see how that puts me down?
Jake: What?
Louise: If you think I’m so stupid why do you go on living with me?
Jake: Dammit! Why can’t anything ever be simple around here?!

It can’t be simple because Louise and Jake are responding to different levels of communication. As in Bateson’s example of the dual-control electric blanket with crossed wires, each one intensifies the energy going to a different aspect of the problem. Jake tries to clarify his point by overelaborating it, which gives Louise further evidence that he’s condescending to her, making it even less likely that she will address his point rather than his condescension.

What pushes Jake and Louise beyond anger to rage is their different perspectives on metamessages. His refusal to admit that his statements have implications and overtones denies her authority over her own feelings. Her attempts to interpret what he didn’t say and put the metamessage into the message makes him feel she’s putting words into his mouth – denying his authority over his own meaning.

The same thing happens when Louise tells Jake that he is being manipulated by Edie:

Louise: Why don’t you ever make her come to see you? Why do you always go to her?
Jake: You want me to play power games with a nine year old? I want her to know I’m interested in her. Someone around here has to show interest in her.
Louise: You love her more than I do.
Jake: I didn’t say that.
Louise: Yes, you did.
Jake: You don’t know how to listen. You have never learned how to listen. It’s as if listening to you is a foreign language.

Again, Louise responds to his implication – this time, that he loves Edie more because he runs when she calls. And yet again, Jake cries literal meaning, denying he meant any more than he said.

Throughout their argument, the point to Louise is her feelings – that Jakes makes her feel put down – but to him the point is her actions – that she doesn’t always respond when Edie calls:

Louise: You talk about what I do to Edie, what do you think you do to me?
Jake: This is not the time to go into what we do to each other.

Since she will talk only about metamessages, and he will talk only about the message, neither can get satisfaction from their talk, and they end up where they started – only angrier:

Jake: That’s not the point!
Louise: It’s my point.
Jake: It’s hopeless!
Louise: Then get a divorce.

American conventional wisdom (and many of our parents and English teachers) tell us that meaning is conveyed by words, so men who tend to be literal about words are supported by conventional wisdom. They may not simply deny but actually miss the cues that are sent by how words are spoken. If they sense something about it, they may nonetheless discount what they sense. After all, it wasn’t said. Sometimes that’s a dodge – a plausible defense rather than a gut feeling. But sometimes it is a sincere conviction. Women are also likely to doubt the reality of what they sense. If they don’t doubt it in their guts, the nonetheless may lack the arguments to support their position and thus are reduced to repeating, “You said it. You did so.” Knowing that metamessages are a real and fundamental part of communication makes it easier to understand and justify what they feel.

An article in a popular newspaper reports that one of the five most common complaints of wives about their husbands is “He doesn’t listen to me anymore.” Another is “He doesn’t talk to me anymore.” Political scientist Andrew Hacker noted that lack of communication, while high on women’s lists of reasons for divorce, is much less often mentioned by men. Since couples are parties to the same conversations, why are women more dissatisfied with them than men? Because what they expect is different, as well as what they see as the significance of talk itself.

First, let’s consider the complaint “He doesn’t talk to me.”
One of the most common stereotypes of American men is the strong silent type. Jack Kroll, writing about Henry Fonda on the occasion of his death, used the phrases “quiet power,” “absurd silences,” “combustible catatonia,” and “sense of power held in check.” He explained that Fonda’s goal was not to let anyone see “the wheels go around,” not to let the “machinery” show. According to Kroll, the resulting silence was effective on stage but devastating to Fonda’s family.

The image of a silent father is common and is often the model for the lover or husband. But what attracts us can become flypaper to which we are unhappily stuck. Many women find the strong silent type to be a lure as a lover but a lug as a husband. Nancy Shoenberger begins a poem with the lines “It was your silence that hooked me, / so like my father’s.” Adrienne Rich refers in a poem to the “husband who is frustratingly mute.” Despite the initial attraction of such quintessentially male silence, it may begin to feel, to a woman in a long-term relationship, like a brick wall against which she is banging her head.

In addition to these images of male and female behavior – both the result and the cause of them – are differences in how women and men view the role of talk in relationships as well as how talk accomplishes its purpose. These differences have their roots in the settings in which men and women learn to have conversations: among their peers, growing up.

Children whose parents have foreign accents don’t speak with accents. They learn to talk like their peers. Little girls and little boys learn how to have conversations as they learn how to pronounce words: from their playmates. Between the ages of five and fifteen, when children are learning to have conversations, they play mostly with friends of their own sex. So it’s not surprising that they learn different ways of having and using conversations.

Anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker point out that boys and girls socialize differently. Little girls tend to play in small groups, or even more common, in pairs. Their social life usually centers around a best friend, and friendships are made, maintained, and broken by talk – especially “secrets.” If a little girl tells her friend’s secret to another little girl, she may find herself with a new best friend. The secrets themselves may or may not be important, but the fact of telling them is all-important. It’s hard for newcomers to get into these tight groups, but anyone who is admitted is treated as an equal. Girls like to play cooperatively; if they can’t cooperate, the group breaks up.

Little boys tend to play in larger groups, often outdoors, and they spend more time doing things than talking. It’s easy for boys to get into the group, but not everyone is accepted as an equal. Once in the group, boys must jockey for their status in it. One of the most important ways they do this is through talk: verbal displays of other boys, and withstanding other boys’ challenges in order to maintain their own story – and status. Their talk is often more competitive talk about who is best at what.

Feiffer’s play is ironically named Grown Ups because adult men and women struggling to communicate often sound like children: “You said so!” “I did not!” The reason is that when they grow up, women and men keep the divergent attitudes and habits they learned as children – which they don’t recognize as attitudes and habits but simply take for granted as ways of talking.

Women want their partners to be a new and improved version of a best friend. This gives them a soft spot for men who tell them secrets. As Jack Nicholson once advised a guy in a movie: “Tell her about your troubled childhood – that always gets ‘em.” Men expect to do things together and don’t feel anything is missing if they don’t have heart-to-heart talks all the time.

If they do have heart-to-heart talks, the meaning of those talks may be opposite for men and women. To many women, the relationship is working as long as they can talk things out. To many men, the relationship isn’t working out if they have to keep working it over. If she keeps trying to get talks going to save the relationship, and he keeps trying to avoid them because he sees them as weakening it, then each one’s efforts to preserve the relationship appear to the other as reckless endangerment.

If talks (of any kind) do get going, men’s and women’s ideas about how to conduct them may be very different. For example, Dora is feeling comfortable and close to Tom. She settles into a chair after dinner and begins to tell him about a problem at work. She expects him to ask questions to show he’s interested; reassure her that he understands and that what she feels is normal; and return the intimacy by telling her a problem of his. Instead, Tom sidetracks her story, cracks jokes about it, questions her interpretation of the problem, and gives her advice about how to solve it and avoid such problems in the future.

All of these responses, natural to men, are unexpected to women, who interpret them in terms of their own habits – negatively. When Tom comments on side issues or cracks jokes, Dora thinks he doesn’t care about what she’s saying and isn’t really listening. If he challenges her reading of what went on, she feels he is criticizing her and telling her she’s crazy, when what she wants is to be reassured that she’s not. If he tells her how to solve the problem, it makes her feel as if she’s the patient to his doctor – a metamessage of condescension, echoing male one-upmanship compared to the female etiquette of equality. Because he doesn’t volunteer information about his problems, she feels he’s implying he doesn’t have any.

His way of responding to her bid for intimacy makes her feel distant from him. She tires harder to regain intimacy the only way she knows how – by revealing more and more about herself. He tries harder by giving more insistent advice. The more problems she exposes, the more incompetent she feels, until they both see her as emotionally draining and problem-ridden. When his efforts to help aren’t appreciated, he wonders why she asks for his advice if she doesn’t want to take it. …

When women talk about what seems obviously interesting to them, their conversations often include reports of conversations. Tone of voice, timing, intonation, and wording are all re-created in the telling in order to explain – dramatize, really – the experience that is being reported. If men tell about an incident and give a brief summary instead of re-creating what was said and how, the women often feel that the essence of the experience is being omitted. If the woman asks, “What exactly did he say?,” and “How did he say it?,” the man probably can’t remember. If she continues to press him, he may feel as if he’s being grilled.

All these different habits have repercussions when the man and the woman are talking about their relationship. He feels out of his element, even one down. She claims to recall exactly what he said, and what she said, and in what sequence, and she wants him to account for what he said. He can hardly account for it since he has forgotten exactly what was said – if not the whole conversation. She secretly suspects he’s only pretending not to remember, and he secretly suspects that she’s making up the details.

One woman reported such a problem as being a matter of her boyfriend’s poor memory. It is unlikely, however, that his problem was poor memory in general. The question is what types of material each person remembers or forgets.

Frances was sitting at her kitchen table talking to Edward, when the toaster did something funny. Edward began to explain why it did it. Frances tried to pay attention, but very early in his explanation, she realized she was completely lost. She felt very stupid. And indications were that he thought so too.

Later that day they were taking a walk. He was telling her about a difficult situation in his office that involved a complex network of inter-relationships among a large number of people. Suddenly he stopped and said, “I’m sure you can’t keep track of all these people.” “Of course I can,” she said, and she retracted his story with all the characters in place, all the details right. He was genuinely impressed. She felt very smart.

How could Frances be both smart and stupid? Did she have a good memory or a bad one? Frances’s and Edward’s abilities to follow, remember, and recount depended on the subject – and paralleled her parents’ abilities to follow and remember. Whenever Frances told her parents about people in her life, her mother could follow with no problem, but her father got lost as soon as she introduced a second character. “Now who was that?” he’d ask. “Your boss?” “No, my boss is Susan. This was my friend.” Often he’d still be in the previous story. But whenever she told them about her work, it was her mother who would get lost as soon as you mentioned a second step: “That was your tech report?” “No, I handed my tech report in last month. This was a special project.”

Frances’s mother and father, like many other men and women, had honed their listening and remembering skills in different areas. Their experience talking to other men and other women gave them practice in following different kinds of talk.

Knowing whether and how we are likely to report events later influences whether and how we pay attention when they happen. As women listen to and take part in conversations, knowing they may talk about them later makes them more likely to pay attention to exactly what is said and how. Since most men aren’t in the habit of making such reports, they are less likely to pay much attention at the time. On the other hand, many women aren’t in the bait of paying attention to specific explanations and facts because they don’t expect to have to perform in public by reciting them – just as those who aren’t in the habit of entertaining other by telling them jokes “can’t” remember jokes they’ve heard, even though they listened carefully enough to enjoy them.

So women’s conversations with their women friends keep them in training for talking about their relationships with men, but many men come to such conversations with no training at all – and an uncomfortable sense that this really isn’t their event.

Most of us place enormous emphasis on the importance of a primary relationship. We regard the ability to maintain such relationships as a sign of mental health – out contemporary metaphor for being a good person.

Yet our expectations of such relationships are nearly – maybe in fact – impossible. When primary relationships are between women and men, male-female differences contribute to the impossibility. We expect partners to be both romantic interests and best friends. Though women and men may have fairly similar expectations for romantic interests, obscuring their differences when relationships begin, they have very different ideas about how to be friends, and these are the differences that mount over time.

In conversations between friends who are not lovers, small misunderstandings can be passed over or diffused by breaks in contact. But in the context of a primary relationship, differences can’t be ignored, and the pressure cooker of continued contact keeps both people stewing in the juice of accumulated minor misunderstandings. And stylistic differences are sure to cause misunderstandings – not, ironically, in matters such as sharing values and interests or misunderstanding each other’s philosophies of life. these large and significant yet palpable issues can be talked about and agreed on. It is far harder to achieve congruence – and much more surprising and troubling that is hard – in the simple day-to-day matters of the automatic rhythms and nuances of talk. Nothing in our backgrounds or in the media (the present-day counterpart to religion or grandparents’ teachings) prepares us for this failure. If two people share so much in terms of point of view and basic values, how can they continually get into fights about insignificant matters?

If you find yourself in such a situation and you don’t know about differences in conventional style, you assume something’s wrong with your partner, or you for having chosen your partner. At best, if you are forward thinking and generous minded, you may absolve individuals and blame the relationship. But if you know about differences in conventional style, you can accept that there are differences in habits and assumptions about how to have conversation, show interest, be considerate, and so on. You may not always correctly interpret your partner’s intentions, but you will know that neither are your responses unfounded. If he says he really is interested even though he doesn’t seem to be, maybe you should believe what he says and not what you sense.

Sometimes explaining assumptions can help. If a man starts to tell a women what to do to solve her problem, she may say, “Thanks for the advice but I really don’t want to be told what to do. I just want you to listen and say you understand.” A man might want to explain, “If I challenge you, it’s not to prove you wrong; it’s just my way of praying attention to what you’re telling me.” Both may try either or both to modify their ways of talking and to try to accept what the other does. The important thing is to know that what seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style. We have to give up our conviction that, as Robin Lakoff put it, “Love means never having to say ‘What do you mean?’ ”