We can throw some light on men and women’s different ways of dealing with emotion by considering two different ‘conversational templates’: drawing out and chipping in.
Women commonly converse by drawing each other out. One will say something and the others will pick up on what she said and draw her out about its further significance. They will ask for further details. They will get her to paint a fuller picture of the experience she is talking about. Since women are used to this kind of relating they approach conversations with each other with this kind of expectation.
So one woman might only venture a short comment, but the others immediately suspect she wants to say more on the matter. So they ask her questions.
Then she responds. They follow up with further questions, and she responds further, and so on. Each woman gets a turn being the centre of attention, and because the others pick up on her agenda and run with it for a while she feels that she has been heard and valued.
Men generally have a different conversational template. One will say something. The others are unlikely to start drawing him out on what he means, but will try to think of similar experiences they’ve had. So one will respond, “The same thing happened to me once,” and launch into an account of his own experience. Others might chip in similarly. At any point the conversation might go off in a different direction, depending on which comments get the best reaction. At each point what any man says could lead to a branching off on a different topic. No one expects the others to value his contribution over that of anyone else’s.
Each is responsible for his own contributions, not for picking up and running with someone else’s.
Since this is the kind of conversation they expect, men are more likely to launch into fully developed stories or anecdotes or accounts of something. In some circumstances it can become a kind of performance with the best response going to the most entertaining. Some can get into the habit of launching into longish monologues, knowing from experience that they might not get another turn, and making sure they say their piece while they have the floor.
At Cross Purposes
When it is spelt out like that it’s easy to see why conversations between men and women might involve a bit of a learning curve. Until they learn something about these dynamics it could lead to frustration, mystification and disappointment. This often begins in the dating environment. When a young man and woman are alone together, and begin talking to each other with no one else around, they can find it a bit hard to connect.
She might venture something about herself, expecting that he will pick up on it and ask her some questions to draw her out.
But he hears what she says and tries to think of some similar experience, and responds with something about himself. Each time she ventures something about herself he responds with something about himself, so the familiar ‘drawing out’ template never gets going but sputters out.
On the other hand, if he begins by talking a bit about himself, to get the ball rolling, she follows up with further questions to draw him out, to which he responds. He simply thinks, “Hey, she finds me interesting”, and keeps going, not realising it is simply standard practice for women’s conversations. He can easily get caught up in the momentum of that, enjoying it because it is an unfamiliar experience having someone paying him sustained attention. Yet since he doesn’t recognise that it is actually a whole different conversational template, he doesn’t have any clear sense that she might want him to respond in kind by trying to draw her out. She starts to feel that he is not really interested in her because he doesn’t try to draw her out.
'This is what conversation is'
This situation is compounded by the fact that neither might have picked up what it really is that goes on in the conversations between men, and the conversations between women. A woman might have often observed a group of men talking with each other and noticed the kind of dynamic described above. But she probably just puts it down to a ‘man thing’ that only applies when men are with each other.
She probably assumes that when a man is with a woman he will adopt a different manner of relating.
But he doesn’t know that he is using a particular ‘conversational template’. He doesn’t think about it at all, having the sense simply that ‘this is what conversation is’. So when he is with a woman he simply goes about things the same way, and wonders why it doesn’t seem to work.
Similarly, a woman probably thinks of what men are doing as some kind of banter, something of an exception they employ in social situations, and assumes they adopt other kinds of conversation at other times. But for men the adjustments to other situations tend to be only a matter of degree, not of kind. So the basic dynamic remains the same, whether exchanging light banter over a few drinks, discussing politics, or in one to one conversations. In any of these situations it is unlikely that men will adopt the ‘drawing out’ template.
Conversation and Emotion
So why do women 'draw out' and men 'chip in'? These two conversational 'templates' are not just two approaches to conversation but two different ways of engaging emotion.
Women's conversations are more likely to revolve around interpersonal relationships than men's are. The subject matter being discussed is particular individuals and the way they interact.
Such conversations evoke more personal feelings and are oriented towards how one treats other people.
It is not as abstract, but takes into account people as they are, with their particular circumstances, personalities and idiosyncracies.
It makes sense then that women are not looking for one right answer, or some general solution. They are looking for different angles and various perspectives from which they can find a way forward. In this type of conversation the person's feelings comprise the actual subject matter, so it makes sense to try and draw out more of what someone is feeling.
Men's conversations are more likely to revolve around social realities mediated by meaningful structures or forms of some kind. For example, a game is a cultural form that gives meaning to patterns of action. Work revolves around actual tasks or the institutional forms in which they must be accomplished. The feelings of individuals are more incidental.
Emotion is more likely to be evoked in relation to perceived performance of tasks, adherence to codes of behaviour, or the ability to find some humour or philosophical perspective on things.
It makes sense then that men would share about these things by each 'chipping in' his perspective on them. It could be via humour, sarcasm, anger, suggesting solutions, or detailed discussion of how to achieve some desired result. Just as women don't really expect individuals to change much, men don't expect the ways of the world to change much. Their feelings are shared by the manner in which they express themselves on these things.
Men and Women in Conversation
When a man and a woman talk with each other they each tend to bring this background with them. Unless they have learnt differently, men will tend to embark on the kind of conversations they have with other men, and women will tend to embark on the kind of conversations they have with other women. It can take a while, even a long time, for them to realise what is going on and how to interpret it. It would be helpful if young men and women could learn some of these things so as to make relationships run more smoothly and successfully, and for each to realise that the other is not necessarily being obtuse or self-centred.