Tell me what the following sentences mean to you:
1) “Where were you last night?”
2) “I have a headache.”
3) “I’m fine.”
Now if I compiled a list of possible answers and categorized those answers based on gender, the variations would be unreal. Literally, the contradicting results would blow your mind. You’re probably wondering how on Earth these simple sentences could be misconstrued or misunderstood, but it’s how we operate. Men and women, for better or worse, forever and ever, will never be on the same page with one another. The reason is simple: Women speak in a connotative language, while men are fluent in denotative conversation. Let me break it down for you.
It all started one night when my boyfriend and I were having one of those silly arguments I just love writing about. Of course I can’t recall the origin of the fight, but let’s say it was #3 from above, just for kicks. Anyone who knows my boyfriend knows when he’s in a good mood. He’s laughing, making jokes, extremely verbal, and it’s written all over his face. But when he’s any other kind of emotion, he reverts to the same expressionless behavior. He could be bored, hungry, pissed off, or upset; but you’ll never know which one it is because he wears the same emotions on his sleeve. And as his girlfriend, it’s pretty hard to tell which one it is without asking him, straight-up, what’s wrong.
I’m pretty sure this is where the problem stems. See, when women are pissed, we will might answer with an, “I’m fine.” And men, after centuries upon centuries of false proclamations of “being fine” know that the issue is much more severe than that. In fact, it’s probably at the worst and most dangerous stage, so they tread lightly and continue to probe us until we quit the act and unleash that built-up anger we’ve been holding onto so tightly. Our approach isn’t the greatest, and it certainly doesn’t solve the problem any faster, but it is a habit of ours. Literally, we are far from fine. And a quick observation of our tone, facial expression, and body language will suggest that something is eating at us. But we choose to communicate in a connotative fashion. During the pre-argument/very pissed off stage, we say the opposite of what we mean, we act differently than we feel, and we are eerily quiet. For anyone who follows Dane Cook, this is the precise moment when a man has driven into “F***ville, and their girlfriend is the Mayor. This is the point of no return. You are stepping onto a battle-tested warzone. She is about to engage you in a debacle of epic proportions. And you realize how screwed you are because she said, in a most complacent tone, “I’m fine.”
Men can’t understand why we behave this way because men are the exact opposite. They say exactly what they mean, at the exact time when they mean it. They speak in a denotative language. And women, being the connotative creatures that we are, aren’t able to comprehend the information given to us without reading into it. Using the same example as before, when a guy says, “I’m fine,” he is literally fine. No hidden agenda, no tug-of-war between internal feelings, no extra filling. Maybe he’s starving. Maybe he had a bad day at work. Maybe he just lost a game of pick-up. Or maybe there’s a huge small chance that he’s doing just great and you’re reading into it too much. Maybe, just maybe, he’s telling you the truth.
This is why men and women will never understand the behavior of the other; because we’re programmed differently. When a woman is unusually quiet, unaffectionate, and in an overall grumpy mood, she’s probably pissed at you. When a man is behaving in such a way, it could be for any number of reasons—not necessarily involving you. As women, we often forget to take ourselves out of the equation and analyze the situation as unbiased witnesses. If it were any other guy in the room, we probably wouldn’t take their silence personally. But because it is our boyfriend, his bad mood must directly correlate with our previous actions (or so we assume). And you know what they say about assumptions; nine times out of ten, without any substantial proof, they’re wrong.
In our defense, it’s not wrong of us to assume that something is bothering you even if you claim the opposite. It’s what we do, so we never put it past men to follow suit. Being the nurturing caretakers we tend to emulate, it’s in our nature to make sure that you’re OK. It’s our way of letting you know that we’re here to take care of you if need be. But men, men don’t see it that way. Nope, because to men, we’re nagging, digging for information, or looking to start trouble.
Exhibit A: Have you noticed that if you question whether or not your boyfriend is, in fact, “fine,” he automatically gets defensive? His reply sounds sort of like this: “If something was wrong, I would tell you. Stop asking.” Sound familiar? I know. It’s because men (and gentlemen, correct me if I’m wrong) think that by asking them more than once if they are fine, it means that we’re accusing them of lying or hiding something. When in reality, all we’re doing is exactly what we expect you to do when we talk one way and act another: uncover what’s really bothering us. As a woman, it’s not always easy for us to be completely open and honest with how we’re feeling. We don’t know how you’ll respond, we don’t know if it’s stupid to feel what we’re feeling, we don’t want to be the cause of a silly fight; the list goes on and on. Regardless of our reasoning, most well-intentioned women refrain from complete disclosure in the initial stages because we’re really hurting. And we don’t, I mean do not, use the “I’m fine” line as a means of being conniving or manipulative. We’re not setting a trap for you to walk into. We’re not luring you into an endless black hole, either. We’re merely shying away from having a conversation that we’d rather not have at the moment. Rather than act fake and pretend everything is fine and dandy, we use the “I’m fine” line to give you a kind of heads up. You’re not the most intuitive of specimen, so we like to drop hints and reminders that something is bothering us without fully coming out and saying what it is right away. Honestly, we’re giving you the chance to take the initiative and start the dialogue instead of allowing it to fall into our laps 95% of the time (you know it’s the truth).
I’d blame it on my zodiac (Pisces are known to be emotional dreamers, constantly questioning life and the deeper meaning behind every situation they’re faced with), but I know it’s strictly a woman thing. When presented with an idea or thought, we always try and find its roots. Where did this come from? What caused him to ask me that? Why did I hear about this news now? We don’t take anything as face value because in our minds, it has to be decomposed. We have to break it down, figure out the facts, study the motives, and then come up with a conclusion; whereas, men don’t question anything. Let’s say you’re on the phone with your boyfriend and something he said has thoroughly annoyed you. For the duration of the conversation your answers are short, your voice is low, and your attention span is at zero. Obviously, this should trigger his attention enough to ask you what’s wrong. If you just started dating, he probably won’t mention a word. If he knows you well, he will ask you once. One shot is all you get with a man because they will take the “I’m fine” for its exact denotative meaning, not the connotative one that is screaming “You’re a jerk and now you have to guess why.”
I just brain ninja’ed myself, so don’t feel bad if you’re experiencing similar symptoms (compliments of Dane Cook, yet again).
Could men and women be any more foreign to each other? Will we ever speak in the same dialect? It doesn’t seem likely based on all of the confused jargon and intended messages we expect the opposite gender to understand. But somehow, in the midst of all this verbal turmoil, we’re expected to engage in healthy, rational conversations. So what do we do? (That is, besides doing what I know every woman has thought about doing at one point or another, and keeping their relationships same-sex only. At least she’ll understand me.) But seriously, for every heterosexual couple out there, how do we move forward knowing what we now know?
My advice to men is this: Stop being so defensive when we question your initial feelings. Sure, you may say you’re fine, but what if you’re not and we leave it alone instead of allowing the real problem to surface? That could lead to you being distant, unnecessary bickering, and a pile-up of frustration that leaves both parties emotionally drained. If you have a girlfriend who knows you, inside and out, who cares about you enough to ask more than once, who is patient enough to wait until you give her a real answer—consider yourself lucky. I know it may seem like nagging (and sometimes, it is), but she must really love you if she’s willing to be that annoying broken record you hate so much.
And women, this is for you: Come out with already. For once and for all, stop harboring all of your inhibitions and paranoia and just be honest about it. When your boyfriend asks you what’s wrong, don’t prolong the conversation fight by pretending it’s nothing when you both know it’s something. You’re going to cave eventually, so why not skip the silly song and dance, cut to the chase, and get right to it. All of those suggestive eye-rolls and sarcastic one-liners aren’t going to make him any easier to talk to, so do yourself a favor and speak your mind. If you’re a relatively logical person, I’m sure whatever it is that you’re feeling isn’t as stupid as you might think. And even if it is, you’ll feel 10 times better once it’s out in the open and finally put to rest.
Stick to these guidelines and perhaps, by the grace of God, we can manage to get along just fine (see what I did there).