I have pulled this up from the "Different languages" discussion because a member has been showing it to men and women and getting very different reactions. What do you make of it. If the woman asking a straigh-forward question and the man being evasive or is the woman being aggressive and the man trying to avoid an argument, or what?

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I'm interested that nobody has responded to this item so far. I'm wondering if that is itself a symptom of the taboo that I mentioned in a different thread in this group. My own reading of the cartoon is as follows:

SHE: I sense that there is something wrong with our relationship and i don't want it to be my fault so I'm going to imply that it is your fault.

HE: This feels dangerous. What's she talking about?

SHE: I can't understand you. That must be your fault. Why aren't you the way I want you to be?

HE: If you can't see me the way I am there's not much hope of us having a sensible conversation.

SHE: I'll push a bit harder, maybe I'll get the reaction I want.

HE: This is getting even more uncomfortable. I'll try a sharp put down and imply that she is being really childish.

SHE: It's not me that's being awkward, it's you.

HE: Now I just want to run away. I better be very careful what I say or I'll be in big trouble.

I think that the cartoon illustrates fairly well the different ways that (some - well, quite a lot of) men and women respond to emotional difficulties. Conversation of this type must be not that infrequent and does not really offer much prospect of mutual understanding because it is difficult for each party to sense how it is for the other, partly because they process emotions differently, and partly because the whole interaction is like a ping-pong game. Of course, we cannot tell what tones of voice are used. What looks rational in transcript can feel very differentaccording to how the words are pronounced.

Ah, I see that I had missed Adams' comment on the comment wall.

Can you help this man and woman?

What I notice and recognise in this cartoon is this:

A woman will often talk about the relational level in communication, the way something is said and the way someone behaves and how it affects her. The man is responding and talking about the content, about the subject that she has just been expressing. This leads to a big misunderstanding because they are not talking at all about the same subject.

 I think this is a concrete difference between man and woman, a difference between styles of communication. When you are aware of this and accept the difference it can give the possibility to switch to another level and reach the other one so that both are talking about the same subject again.

 So I looked at the cartoon again and I asked myself these two questions:

What response would she want from the man? I suppose a question….

And what could she say differently to keep the conversation going on with the man?

What is your suggestion?

Yes, I think that what Elja has just written is broadly right. Moving to a higher level may be the only way of finding a way our of this kind of snarl up.

If we speculate about what happened before this little sequence of pictures, it might have been something like this.
1. Something happens in the course of daily life that provokes an emotional reaction in the man. It could be anger, sadness, resentment, whatever. The man says a few words about what is happening for him. What he says is succinct, though perhaps not completely clear, and might even have been expressed as a sarcastic or cynical remark. [see footnote one]
2. The women picks up on the emotional content and immediately and enthusiastically responds by telling a story about her own experience of a similar or related emotion. This story flows easily and goes on for some time. [see footnote two] At this point the woman is feeling happy that her man has said something emotional and she has responded in what she believes to be the best possible way.
3. The man, however, is now feeling abandoned. It cost him something to say what he did. That effort has not been acknowledged. As far as he can see the woman is only interested in the sound of her own voice and he is wondering when she is going to stop. He resolves to himself not to make the mistake of sharing his feelings again. Keeping a straight face he resolves to humour her and nods at appropriate places in her story.
4. As the man is not responding the way a woman would, the woman tries harder. She launches into a second, third and fourth story. She is now feeling a bit resentful that, as she sees it, she is carrying the whole weight of the interaction. The man has, to her, become difficult to read. She has correctly picked up that he is just putting up with her and not having much fun. However, this seems to her most unfair. After all, is it not she who is making all the effort here while he is just sitting there with a blank face?
5. Now follows the discussion in the cartoon in which, to the man, the woman talks nonsense [see footnote two] and, to the woman, the man is thoroughly evasive and fails to provide her with the emotional support she wants.

FOOTNOTE ONE: In the brain of the man the left and right hemispheres are more sharply divided. Emotion (mostly right brain) is not readily associated with vocabulary (left brain). When the man is in his left brain he is concerned with other left brain functions, like logic, action, and humour. Men are, therefore, worse at expressing emotion but better at keeping logic and emotion in separate compartments. Men therefore stay closer to the literal meaning and use concrete metaphors whereas women are more expressive and less precise, a style that often annoys the man because the implied meaning does not necessarily coincide with the logical meaning.

FOOTNOTE TWO: In the brain of the woman there are a lot of cross brain connections. Emotions are readily associated with words and words with emotions. Furthermore, the vocabulary storage area in a woman is larger. Her capacity to tell stories of this kind, broadly factual, perhaps somewhat exaggerated as she warms to her topic, is a skill men seldom match. Among women, telling such stories serves an important function. They can sit over coffee for hours sharing in this way and it asserts friendship. It also provides a growing stock of stories that she can store in her vocabulary to repeat to others, thus consolidating cohesion in the female group and also providing the means for positioning vis-a-vis rivals.

DIAGNOSIS: Both parties started out in good humour and did their best but the result was a disaster. How could they avoid it? With some difficulty, I think, since each is simply being the way that is natural to them. If one or the other has some psychological insight he or she might, as Elja suggests, be able to move the conversation to a new level or might be able to get into the discourse mode of the other for a while. It seems unlikely, however, that this kind of scenario can always be avoided since it is a product of inherent differences. What provides satisfaction to one party is not the same as what provides it to the other.


  1. Woman: I’m feeling lonely and unloved. I’m feeling insecure around you. 

Man: I am here for you. 

  1. Woman: I am confused about how I’m feeling and what you have to do with it, so I’m not sure if what I hear is what you mean or what you mean is what you say or how I feel is what I think or if I...

Man: really? 

  1. Woman: My confusion is because I don’t want to feel my emotions in my own body, my loneliness and feelings of being unloved in my own cells, is so great I don’t know if I want to be your friend. My friend. Friends. 

Man: really? 

  1. Woman: Help me! Teach me! I am lost inside myself and you seem to be out there and very real and sure and knowing and together and I need reassurance that I have worth. 

Man: I’m not sure what I’m doing. Here or anywhere. I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. 

Thank you, Charlene - very nice. Made me chuckle, though, of course, these kinds of misunderstanding do cause a lot of grief and angst.

Nice translation of the struggle from the two in the cartoon. Yes in this way the conversation will be much better i think.... thanks Charlene...  

Thanks David. Yes, I found it a little funny in the vein of "human, all too human." And Elja I'm glad you see this as improvement. That is what is meant. Thank you!

Hi, this conversation is fascinating. If I didn't already know whether I was a man or a woman I would be able to tell quite quickly from reading the comments about how women and men communicate.

When I first saw the cartoon I read the woman as saying that she really liked the man and wanted to take the relationship further but because the man never seemed to initiate she wanted to check in before trying to move forward. She could just let things continue but she really wants more so she takes a risk and asks him if he really likes to be with her. She appears to me to be looking for clarification and, ideally, for reassurance, though she is risking quite the opposite. Instead he seems to be almost deliberately misunderstanding her. He answers all her questions with questions as she tries more and more to clarify. The irony is that her line of questioning is not neutral, in asking she is actually creating the very situation she feared. It something I could see myself doing.

So I asked a man I knew what he thought and he said started out by saying that the woman had brought this on herself because she begins the communication by attacking the man and that he saw her as being aggressive. I was completely taken aback by this response. So I started showing the cartoon other people I knew.

Here are three other responses to begin with: Ron: the communication is a mess on both sides. This doesn't bode well for the relationship. If it has come to this then it is probably already too late for the relationship to work. It has already broken down. Bert: the woman is asking for more certainty then the man is willing or able to give so he gets uncomfortable and tries to use avoidance to get himself out of a situation he doesn't know what to do about. Susan: well, the man is obviously being passive- aggressive. The woman is trying to get some clarity and he isn't going to give it to her but she keeps trying. This is familiar to me. When I was much younger I got caught in dialogues like this. Now I would never engage. The man is already giving plenty of clues, she needs to learn to pay attention to his actions as they are more truthful than anything he would say anyway. If he isn't interested enough to initiate and engage with her than asking him about it isn't going to change anything.

Overall Ron is the most neutral. Bert sees this as the woman making a demand and the man getting uncomfortable. Susan sees the man as passive-aggressive. Generally it seems that the men's sympathy lies with the man and blame with the woman. For the women it is the other way around.

I have been stewing over this for a while now, wondering what it all means. Writing this I have looked at the cartoon again. Now, seeded in way by all these other comments, a funny thing has happened. What I call the necker cube effect, that I can shift my perception back and forth and actually hear the character's voices in different ways. I can still hear what I originally heard but now I can hear it from the man's point of view. It isn't a cognitive understanding, it is a direct feeling/perception... This is a relief — phew those men were not all crazy... But it leads me to feel quite a bit of general perceptual uncertainty particularly when talking to men. How can I trust my own responses? Am I doomed to nasty surprises thinking I am being reasonable and clear and sensible when, in fact I am conveying who knows what?

Finally is it for sure what was said? Is it possible that the reactions are biased because the readers identify with their own sex? To test this I am thinking that I could switch the cartoon around giving the man the woman's dialogue and vice-versa and see whether responses change.

Thanks Carol for chipping in with your research results. Yes, it is a bit of a minefield. Of course, as you say, in real life there would be further cues from tone of voice, but they can also be deceptive. What sounds like rejection can actually be fear. What sounds like criticism can actually be anxiety. Finding out what is actually going on underneath the surface may take time and sensitivity. However, talking about it is not a panacea because people then have feelings about the feelings that the other is expressing (all of them based on fantasy projection, anyway) so the whole thing can easily go into a tailspin.

I wonder if this was what my friend Ron was getting at. That if you get to this point there really is no way to resolve things. With friends it is less of an issue, perhaps, especially if the friendships revolve around common interests and activities. But for intimate relationships, or for situations where there is an interest in moving to a more intimate level, it is more complicated. What role does trust play here? Is it a matter of basic compatibility? We have a social mythos that says that some people are right for each other and some people aren't and you can't force it. But what if all the hit and miss-communication really erodes relationships with good potential. Might there be exercises in communication and could take the edge off the fear and anxiety enough to build trust. If there was some basic established trust and good will to begin with wouldn't that help?

When a man and woman having a misunderstanding like in the cartoon, the relationship don't have to be in a very bad shape. The conversation is stuck for a moment. A perfect example of a classic misunderstanding between a man and a woman.... My suggestion; notice that you are stuck for this moment and take a break for a couple of hours... It can make a huge difference... 

Carol English said:

I wonder if this was what my friend Ron was getting at....



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