For the most part, women aren’t doing it on purpose—that is, being confusing. Yet I’ve heard and read the frustration of many husbands whose wives expect them to pick up on what she wants based on hints and clues and open-ended questions.
Some men think she’s playing games or trying to manipulate him. I fully admit that some women do play games and try to manipulate, but they’re a minority. We ladies hear those women talk behind your back, and we don’t like what they’re doing either. But that’s not what’s happening for the vast majority of women.
While I have repeatedly explained to wives why they should be much more straightforward with the men in their lives, I also think it’s helpful for you guys to hear from a woman why your perception of her intent or behavior might not be what she’s thinking or doing. It’s more likely a common gender difference in how we communicate. Indeed, it’s mostly hard-wired, meaning it’s how God made us. What do I mean? Let’s take a look at how men and women communicate differently.
Assertive vs. Polite
Have you heard of “nice girl syndrome”? It’s a real thing, believe me. If you are too straightforward or blunt as a woman, you get labeled a, well, a word that rhymes with “ditch.” And that’s about how you get treated too. Women socialize one another to be polite more than assertive, sweet more than strong, “nice” more than bold.
Growing up in the church, one of the verses I heard most was: “Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4). “Gentle and quiet” was often conveyed as “don’t speak your mind.” So having to say something straight out can actually feel like being too pushy, even unfeminine or ungodly.
Status vs. Connection
Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., linguist and author of You Just Don’t Understand Me, has studied gender communication extensively, and she makes the point that men’s conversational rituals are often about exchanging information and negotiating status, while women’s conversations tend to be about building and maintaining relationships.
By our very nature, women’s goal in communication is understanding each other better. We often think that should be your goal too — so why aren’t you trying just as hard to figure us out as we try to figure you out? It’s not a shell game we’re playing; it’s a relational dance we learned while growing up and playing with other girls.
Direct vs. Indirect
One research study about communication differences in the workplace had participants identify strengths and weaknesses in one another. Women said that men were “overly blunt and direct,” while men said that women were “meandering – won’t get to the point.”
Okay, but if the point for her is to build relationships, then just cutting through all the red tape and saying, “I want X” feels like a cheat. To her, the conversation becomes transactional rather than relational. So there’s a reason she’s being indirect, because the point is, again, getting to know each other and showing you understand each other.
Us vs Them
There’s a real debate in the research about whether women are better at detecting emotions than men. More studies have said yes, others have said no, but one interesting finding from two separate studies was that women read women better and men read men better.
Which means that sometimes we think we’re broadcasting an emotion that he should be able to get, because our girlfriends all see it. Sure, we should know better, but people instinctively do this — expect how we view things is how others view them. What helps is to become aware of findings like this and recognize that you have to ask, clarify, and confirm your understandings with each other.
Straightforward vs Subtle
Research has supported what many of we women have also experienced: we pick up on subtlety better than our male counterparts. While men and women are equal in identifying full-blown facial expressions, women are better able to recognize less intense expressions.
God may have hardwired this one, since many women consider this ability key to good mothering. As nurturers, we often need to look at our child and quickly determine what he or she needs. But that also means we can (erroneously) think you in turn can figure out our subtlety.
What are we supposed to do with all this information? Look, I’m not saying that communication should be on her terms. But when we understand that these differences are kind of built into the system, we can at least give ourselves a break for not understanding each other right away and knowing that we may both need to put ourselves in one another’s shoes, or brains, as best we can. So that we can communicate well in marriage.