WOMEN THINK SO | June 11th 2008
They're doing well, holding down a good job, they've probably managed to find a wife and have a family. But can they hold a conversation? Sabine Durrant talks to friends, experts--and even the odd man--to work out why the male of the species seems to be deadlier than the female ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008
Recently, at a friend's 40th birthday dinner, I sat between an advertising executive who expounded upon his son's musical talent, football prowess and academic promise, and a commercial lawyer who was keen to drum home the possessive in the phrase "my team". By pudding, I wanted to push back my chair and introduce them. "John, meet Josh. You've got a lot in common. He's an insufferable bore as well."
In the car afterwards, I asked my partner--who, as usual, had been a mainly silent presence--how his evening had been. Did he answer? It was blood from a stone if he did. Luckily birthday dinners make up only a fraction of our interaction with each other. (Compensations for lack of small talk within the home include coffee-fetching, shared child care, the possibility of regular sex.) But these days most of the men I meet--with the exception of close friends and Gary the postman--are at social functions. It's not their best light. I remember what it is like to have clever, funny companions--at the newspaper where I used to work, there were lots of them--but where have they gone? Have they been turned inside out?
Over coffee at that dinner, the adman with the brilliant son told a joke about accountants which he topped with, "Let's hope you're not an accountant and I haven't offended you." Over the coffee! He didn't know what I did because he hadn't asked a single question throughout the entire meal. As a female friend says, "It's not to say that it is interesting to talk about yourself, but you come away with a better feeling of the experience if you have, even for form's sake, been asked."
Are men boring? A straw poll among friends and relations would suggest the contention is so irrefutable that evidence is barely necessary. In Brighton, my friend Esme Jones, 38, who has just had a baby, spent a precious night out with her husband, a film editor, and said she kept nagging him to talk. "If I'd been with you or another girlfriend, even if we'd seen each other earlier in the day, we'd have been gabbling away 19 to the dozen."
Prudence Barratt, 52, a management consultant, went to a dinner party in Hampstead, where she lives, at which the women sat at one end of the table, the men at the other. "And it was the nicest dinner party I've been to in ages. Normally when you arrive at a party, the women talk to the women because they know they're not going to be allowed to later. It was like in the old days, when the women retired leaving the men to drone on over the port and cigars, but for the whole evening. It was bliss."
Jess Spillane, 44, a teacher in Plymouth, says: "It's to do with macho-ness. The more macho a man is, the more boring he can be--that's why gay men are generally better company. When macho men talk about their work, they have a point to make. They want to drum it home. Or they don't talk at all. There are two types: the pompous and the somnolent. Heterosexual men with macho leanings are the opposite of women who are happy to divulge the downsides of their life or job, the moans, the insecurities. You bond with people when they admit their vulnerabilities. Self-doubt is interesting."
"Of course men are boring," said Maeve Pollard, 48, who cuts my dog's hair in south London, as if I'd asked whether Monday followed Sunday. "If there's just the two of you, the woman thinks, ‘What shall we talk about? Let's talk about this.' The man doesn't bother. If Bob and I go out for an evening with my sister-in-law and her husband, who would I rather make conversation with? My sister-in-law full stop. Well, I wouldn't have to ‘make conversation'. It would already be there. Take Bob earlier. He gave me a lottery ticket to cash in this morning, said we'd won a tenner. I got to the newsagent's, and found out we'd won £60 ($120). I rang to tell him. He went very silent. I said, ‘Are you there?' ‘Sorry, yeah, I'm just doing something else.' I said, ‘Oh well. Suit yourself.' His loss. I'll keep the £60 for myself."
So what is going on here? If heterosexual men are really so crashingly dull, the human race would have bored itself to extinction. It may just be a misunderstanding--a matter of communication. Recent research has shown there are essential differences in the functioning of the male and female brain.
Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of development psychopathology at Cambridge University, argues that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and the male brain for understanding and building systems--though of course not all men have a typically male brain, and not all women a female one.
Baron-Cohen's E-S theory (for empathising-systemising) holds that people with autism show an extreme of the typical male profile--high on systems, low on empathy. It is based partly on watching the behaviour of children in social situations. Give a group of children a camera and the boys will get more than their fair share of looking down the eye-piece. "Less empathetic, more self-centred." Leave out a bunch of big plastic cars for kids to ride on, and the boys tend to ram a vehicle deliberately into another child while the girls, on average, drive round more carefully, more sensitive to others. "When asked to judge when someone might have said something potentially hurtful, girls score higher from at least seven years old. Women are also more sensitive to facial expressions. They are better at decoding non-verbal communication, picking up subtle nuances from tone of voice or facial expression, or judging a person's character."
You can see how in a social situation, no matter how fascinating each person's individual history, these traits lead to easier companionship.
Typical male strengths--focus, dedication, self-belief--might thrust men up the ladder at work, and lead them to do most of the talking in certain contexts--in meetings, in parliament, in the law courts, in tutorials, in panel discussions on the television: contexts in which conversation has a purpose. But the same qualities are more likely to transmute into weaknesses--tunnel vision, limited interests, self-absorption--in social situations, where talking is just an end in itself. There's a popular contention that in an average day a man utters 2,000 words and a woman 7,000, which nobody seems to have proved. But a lot of research has been conducted into what men and women mean by the words they use.
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, imagined in her book "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (1990) a simple scenario of a man and a woman driving along in a car. The woman says, "Would you like to stop for a coffee?" The man says, "No", and the woman seethes for the rest of the journey because she would have quite liked to stop for a coffee. In her mind, her enquiry was the opening to a negotiation. In his, it was a question requiring a simple yes or no. When Tannen herself was working in a different city from her husband, and acquaintances expressed sympathy at her plight, her instinct was to indulge in it (thereby admitting to the vulnerabilities that create bonds, as Jess Spillane argued). Tannen's husband responded defensively, listing the advantages of their circumstances. "For males", she writes, "conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy."
The American neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine goes further. "Connecting through talking", she wrote in her book "The Female Brain" (2006), "activates the pleasure centres in a girl's brain. We're not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It's a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm."
You can conclude from all this that, biologically, men are not good at conversation for conversation's sake, that they can, on the surface, appear boring--lacking in the charisma that Patsy Rodenberg discusses in her book, "Presence: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation" (2007). Through her experience as a voice coach at the National Theatre and elsewhere, Rodenberg has developed a theory that a person can be in any of "three circles" of energy in relation to other people. In the first circle, your focus is inward, in the third, you give energy out. Only in the second do you give and receive energy in equal measures. By concentrating on this middle way, she concludes, all your relationships will improve. She has worked with actors who, speaking in broad strokes obviously, are more likely to be in touch with their "feminine side". One wonders what generalisations she might have made if bankers had been her guinea-pigs.
Such theories also explain how different a relationship can be with men you work with, where conversation is directional, where jokes and interests are shared. What they don't explain is the general feeling, at least among women of a certain age, that men have got more boring, that the specimens they meet nowadays are duller, more self-centred, than the ones they used to meet. "Men don't start boring," Maeve Pollard believes, "they end up boring."
Jess Spillane sighs. "Looking back, the boys I was at school with had the same ingredients as the adults--the same self-obsession, the same tendency to be one-tracked--but they were exciting, young, there was the frisson of potential."
Prudence Barratt makes a similar point: "Men now are not interesting because they are not interested in you. They've stopped making an effort to look beyond themselves because there is nothing in it for them. Perhaps it's something to do with the drop in testosterone." (And there I was looking for an orgasm.)
Jane Finnigan, 40, a lawyer who has quit to look after her children, recently moved to Geneva, where she finds the men marginally less dull than the specimens she left
behind in Manchester: "They ski at weekends, they walk, they don't lead such drudgy lives." In general, though, she finds men more boring than when she was younger. "It's because I have less choice in the matter. In your 20s, you make friends with men and women on their own merits--you meet them through work, or whatever. You select the men you see socially. As you get older, women tend mainly to meet other women--you make connections through children, through school. And generally, let's face it, the social life is organised by these women and the men get dragged along.
"There seems to be a genuinely primitive pairing," she goes on, "between vivacious chatty women and men who are the opposite. Bright, lovely women who are full of life tend to end up with men who are not full of life. Most of my friends' husbands are just deadly. And my husband agrees."
It's a theory that Paula Hall, a counsellor with Relate based in Warwickshire, doesn't dismiss. "Jungian personality types. The introverted is attracted to the extroverted. The introvert gets quite tired by external stimulation, but the extrovert needs it, it's what animates them. It's an interesting thought." Hall often hears a complaint from women that men "just sit there".
Her sympathies are divided. "Often it's true, it is the wife's friends. ‘I have nothing in common with these people,' the husband might say. It depends on your job, but successful men, as well as women, work long hours. Socially, they want to relax. Listening to other people's conversation or spouting off is fine, but to actively engage and explore and find out feels like work. Personalities vary enormously. Some people are not interested in people--that's why they chose to be an accountant. If your brain has been active all day and you're at a manager level and you have to read people, using emotional skills all day, you don't want to do it in the evening. As a psychotherapist who spends all day asking questions, probing, you think I'm up for conversation in the evening? Forget it. I've been at work all day, let's talk lipstick."
The thought leads her to a simple suggestion. "Couples need to look at why they are going out. If the husbands are just sitting there, why not let them stay at home and babysit?"
Beyond the biological and social factors, there are environmental ones. Jock Encombe, a corporate psychologist and psychotherapist practising in Edinburgh, points to the spirit of the age. "Firstly," he maintains, "life is more boring than it was. It's the J.G. Ballard view--the world is more homogeneous. Modern life is characterised by boredom and anxiety, particularly in the world of business. Is it fair to point a finger at professional men? Yes is a simple answer. Like with modern athletes, it's due to the pressure of specialisation and intensification. A ruthless focus on shareholder value leads to both career success and a narrowing of outlook.
"The guys in their 40s and 50s now who are running corporations--their formative years were the 1980s, so they are likely to have those sorts of values. They have less room in their lives for broader interests. They work very, very hard, they see their family, they go to the gym. They have less time to develop their hinterland. It's become noticeable in the past 15 years. A narrow focus leads to less broad conversation.
"Secondly, one of the key drivers of what makes people boring is egocentricity. It can take two forms. Negative egocentricity--’I'm useless'; being boring can be linked with depression, with the classic midlife crisis--or the other, ‘I'm full of myself.' They're both the same, they both mean you're wrapped up in your own stuff and see other people merely as extensions of your ego needs."
Have people become more egocentric? "Research would suggest so. But are men more at fault than women? Men are more extreme--you're more likely to get more Nobel prize-winning men and more male drunks on the street, more brilliant musicians and more men who are tone-deaf. Men have a wider bell curve. Therefore one can say there are more interesting men, and more boring men. Women are averagely boring, but when men are boring they are spectacularly boring."
They can also, of course, and I say this not just for the sake of balance and the continuation of the benefits in paragraph two, be spectacularly interesting. "Yes of course they can," says Esme Jones. "When they are not boring they are really good company. The not-boring men are arguably some of the best company. Funnier than most women. Much better at telling jokes and stories. Though they do tend to be the men who are most like women, the least male men. In reality, of course," she adds, suddenly chastened, "no one is boring. Everyone has an internal life, everyone has a background and a history and reasons for being as they are. Humankind is complicated--that is the opposite of boring. It comes down to how you express yourself."
And it's hard not to ignore another voice, too, the one that's nagging, in the tone of one's grandmother, that to find someone boring may well simply to be boring oneself.
"The most boring thing", I airily said to the psychotherapist Jock Encombe, "is arrogance, isn't it?"
"And what", he replied, "could be more arrogant than accusing other people of being boring?"
At the 40th birthday party where I found the lawyer and the ad exec so particularly tedious, was it really tedium I felt, or irritation, or chippiness, a sense of being put out by the "team" and the precocious son? If I had run with both, forgiven them their maleness for a moment, maybe we could have broken through our communication difficulties. The journalist and novelist Jane Thynne, who lives in Wimbledon, agrees that women can be complicit in the dreariness of men. "Men believe that disgorging maximum detail on abstruse topics counts as communication, as in ‘But of course I talk to you! I just gave you a blow-by-blow account of the entire Arsenal-Man U game!' All too often women exacerbate the problem because of misplaced notions of male sensitivity. Take Casaubon in ‘Middlemarch'. Instead of encouraging him in his dullness, why did Dorothea not say what was plain as a pikestaff to everyone else: ‘Your book is massively dull, it will never sell.' She didn't want to hurt him, of course. But the male psyche is made of Teflon!"
Small talk, in the opinion of Carole Stone, who has written books on networking and is the managing director of YouGovStone, a London opinion research company, is "a secret weapon". She is persuaded that many men have not gained the art of social conversation ("maybe, now you mention it, I might write a book on that"), but takes her own responsibilities very seriously. "If I'm the host I'm constantly on the alert for someone being bored. The important thing is gently to investigate what people are interested in, find out what their interests are before an event you attend, put them at their ease." Keep probing, she says, and there are few occasions in which your companion will not prove entertaining. "I would also say don't worry if you're snubbed. I have only once sat next to a man who wouldn't speak to me at all. I said, ‘You're being extraordinarily rude. If you want to change places, so would I.' He looked appalled. He said, ‘I'm so sorry, I've got a big deal coming up.' And after that everything was fine.
"I hope it will change but men are more likely than women to be in the top job, to be in a position of power or influence, to be somehow accountable--and that is interesting. I tend to think it's men who get the raw deal.
"To be honest," she adds, quite crushingly in the circumstances, "I more often feel sorry for my husband."
(Sabine Durrant is a novelist and Guardian feature writer.)
Picture credit: Salim Virji/flickr