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Sometimes it Really is About the Nail: Women, Men, and Communication

If you haven’t watched this video yet, I urge you to immediately stop everything that you are doing and click play. On second thought, even if you have already seen this video, you should probably do the same thing. I don’t want to oversell this, but you are about to witness true relationship genius. Your chance to see it, before I spoil it with this article, is going, going, gone!

For those who didn’t watch, I’ll do my best to summarize what you missed. We join a couple in the midst of a conversation about an issue that the female partner is having. She’s describing the painful symptoms and woeful emotions that she is experiencing (e.g., pressure, aching feeling in her head, snagged sweaters), when her partner makes the imprudent mistake of offering a rather practical suggestion for fixing the problem. The unexpected twist…she’s not describing the type of stressor you’ve imagined; she actually has a nail in her head! When her partner suggests removing the nail, she accuses him of never listening and of being emotionally unsupportive. A funny play on the belief that women would rather talk through an issue than solve it, even when it’s as straightforward as having a nail in the head!

Of course, as a relationship researcher, I couldn’t just watch this video and walk away. I immediately begin thinking about how this relates to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” stereotype that permeates our society. Although popular culture, and this video, may have us believe that men and women are so different that they can barely communicate, our similarities actually far outweigh our differences.1,2

With that said, this video playfully magnifies gendered communication differences that relationship partners may have to navigate. Specifically, this clip highlight’s a female’s tendency to be expressive (an orientation towards emotional communication that displays sensitivity and feelings), in contrast to a male’s propensity for more instrumental communication (an orientation that emphasizes active, confident, and independent discourse).3 Although both genders have the capacity to communicate in a highly expressive fashion, females are often more encouraged than their male counterparts to focus on their emotional experiences. This leads them to seek out and engage in dialogue that connotes warmth and compassion.4,5 In contrast, males often learn to utilizes traits like assertiveness and decisiveness to focus on “fixing a problem.”

Sound familiar? It probably does. Although I’ve only been married for a very short time, I’ve already found myself playfully saying to my husband, “It isn’t about the nail!” Thankfully, even with the light handy-work that comes along with moving in together, I have managed to steer clear of nail guns. However, I haven’t been able to avoid this all too common communication pit-fall. At times during the past few months, I’ve felt wronged by acquaintances, colleagues, or a rehearsal dinner photographer. Although my husband has been ready to pounce into action, particularly when there is a relatively obvious solution to a problem, I’ve found that sometimes I’d rather sulk than solve.

I think that it’s important to keep in mind that although men and women may prefer to discuss matters in different ways, we share the necessary tools to successfully communicate about relationship issues. We just need to keep in mind the importance of feeling supported and understood. Satisfied and successful relationship partners work to show respect and validation for each other’s point of view (even when they don’t agree with it).6 So, the next time you find yourself frustrated by your loved one, try to put yourself in their shoes.  Doing so should make it easier to take their perspective and demonstrate your respect and empathy for their position. Men, you do not have to concede that talking about the nail is better than removing it, but your willingness to demonstrate support for the emotional needs of your female partner will likely go a long way towards keeping the communication functional.

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1Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592.

2Carothers, B. J., & Reis, H. T. (2013). Men and women are from Earth: Examining the latent structure of gender. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 285-407.

3Parsons, T., & Bales, R. F. (1955). Family socialization and interaction process. New York: Glencoe Free Press.

4Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

5Fox, A. B., Bukatko, D., Hallahan, M., & Crawford, M. (2007). The medium makes a difference: Gender similarities and differences in instant messaging. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26, 389-397.

6Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S. L. (1994). Fighting for your marriage: Positive steps for preventing divorce and preserving a lasting love. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger... Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger... Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (1)

It's still a little unclear to me - does the research indicate that there are significant gender differences in terms of communication or not? Is there an empirical basis for the "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" hypothesis? Or is it more an unjustified stereotype?

November 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous
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