Your voice says "no, no," but that sideways glance said, "Yes, yes."
Given this vast wash of information, however, it's also not that surprising that we get things wrong from time to time. When we go to apologize to someone and patch things over, what do we say? "I think there's been a misunderstanding." What are we all told to work on to make relationships function? Why, our "communication." What are we often taught to do in therapy? We're taught to "listen," to other people. (Some of you are no doubt forming opinions about my own past experiences here). The issue here is that with so many modes of information transmission, and our own impressive but still limited ability to process it, glitches in communication are inevitable.
It really becomes quite fascinating once you start thinking about it. Our society has had to develop a whole host of mechanisms to deal with the reality of muddled communications. One of the most important ways that we do this is through interpretation and inference. Since errors in communication are unavoidable, we rely to an extent on our understanding of a situation to "fill in the blanks." Quite possibly this ability is also implicated in Thomas Schelling's concept of tacit coordination. The ability to fill in blank spots during interaction may derive in part from the ability to coordinate with another person without interaction. In either case, part of our success relies on making intellient guesses about what's happening now, and what will happen in the future.
Of course, this gossamer web of interpretation and guesswork is always vulnerable to failure, particularly given that frequently the listener will want to believe one signal, or put one interpretation on a situation, instead of another. This reality at least partly underlies the feminist statement that "No means no." Part of this admonition is against relying on any form of communication OTHER than the literal content of a woman's statements. This is not, of course, to imply that all rape, or even most rape, is a result of miscommunication. Men don't rape in many cases because women have "led them on," or any such claptrap. It is also to our collective shame that men who rape, frequently do so quite deliberately, perhaps even with substantial premeditation on a particular target. This is more to say that in some cases, particularly when one or both parties are inebriated, a male may choose to interpret one of those many channels of communication as giving consent because HE wants consent to be given. At least part of the above feminist statement is intened to indicate to men, "There is only one mode of communication through which consent may be given, and it ISN'T a coy look." The act remains rape, and disgusting as a consequence, but one can at least see the interference of multiple types of communication and interpretation at work.
For anyone who can't tell from my above paragraph, I'm currently reading Susan Brownmiller's seminal classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. A review will no doubt eventually show up here. For now, let me just say that it is a well-researched, interesting, if occasionally questionable, book that more people should read. If you haven't read it, particularly if you are male, you should go out, find a copy, and read it. I mention this to explain why the above example sprang so quickly to mind.
In any case, our society is riddled with many, many approaches to dealing with some of these failures of communication. Men have been learning, with greater or lesser success in specific cases, that women both have a right to consent to or refuse sexual activity, and that they will do so verbally, for some decades now. It seems, however, that women are now being given a similar lesson, though on a slightly different topic. "Drek, what the hell are you talking about," you ask?
I'm talking about this article in Monday's edition of the Washington Post. This article discusses the recent book by author Greg Behrendt, a consultant for the popular television series Sex and the City, titled He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys.
I know, I know, it seems like a fairly ridiculous book on the face. Hell, it's a fairly ridiculous title. The intent, however, reaches into the same difficulties in communication that we (And by "we" I mean "I,") have been discussing so far. Communication is hard, even when both sides are trying to speak clearly and listen carefully. Yet, when one side wants to hear something particular, it makes the whole process more difficult. And, just as men have previously been (and often still are) taught that women say "no" when they mean "yes," women have been taught some things about men too. Or, as the article says:
There's plenty of dating advice, God knows, and most of it is for women trying to deconstruct the hearts of men. The premise, of course, is that men are complicated, emotionally stunted creatures incapable of direct action. And so women spend years obsessing with understanding girlfriends, wildly hoping that deep down he's really in love and wants to be with them.
The very idea is fairly ludicrous. Men are supposed to be the angry, violent, blunt sex that says what it means and doesn't mince words, right? Yet, when it comes to relationships, they are apparently given to almost Machiavellian subtlety. All of this is, of course, based on sexual stereotypes, but that's the whole point. Stereotypes can provide certain cognitive and interactional shortcuts, allowing us to complete encounters with people we barely know with minimal difficulty, but they can also lead us into wildly incorrect assumptions, particularly if those stereotypes are out of date or just plain wrong.
It doesn't help any that men may NOT be completely up-front about wanting to avoid seeing a woman a second time. As the article author writes, "Behrendt [writer of the book in question] believes men would rather chew off their arms than admit the truth." Leaving aside Behrendt's reasons for this, can we easily think of a time in polite society when it's easy and ok to tell someone that you just don't like them very much? It isn't just a romantic thing- we've all had those friends or associates we see too much of and can't get rid of. Yet, do we just tell them that? Maybe, but probably not very often. It's possible men are just cowards, but I think it more likely that our cultural programming is the real culprit, not some failing in men or women.
So, we're left with a most unusual situation where the best advice, at least for the time being, may not be to listen to what someone says, but to attend to what they do. Is this the best way to do it? Hell no, I'm a big fan of blunt speech and plain meaning (as should already be apparent), but change doesn't occur overnight. Creating a polite exception to the "Don't tell people that you don't like them," rule is not going to be an easy affair. Still, as a man I have to encourage my fellow men to try to be more upfront about such things. I've been working on that in my own life and, while I can't claim total success, I'm getting there. Similarly, however, I'd like to urge women to maybe take us seriously if we DO come right out and say it, to understand that we're trying to be truthful rather than mean, and to take seriously what our actions are really saying. You know, for those times when we do wimp out. (And yes, I know I'm including a number of crass generalizations about men and women here. So what? I'm critiquing stereotypical gender behavior here, which we are all guilty of to a greater or lesser degree. Doing so without referring in some way to those stereotypes is quite beyond my skills as a writer. Perhaps if this medium were more accomodating I could use some form of interpretive dance to make my point but, alas, that is not to be) Until such time as we manage all that, however, Behrendt offers us this handy advice for telling when a man is NOT interested in a woman:
He's not into you if he's breaking up with you, or disappearing with no explanation, or married to someone else, or abusive.
Is there anyone out there who really thinks they can disagree with that?