Recently, my eighteen-year old son and a friend of his who happens to be female were rummaging around in our kitchen. He was telling her about a bad experience he’d just had earlier and she responded with, “Oh, I’m sorry!”
To which he replied, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Vive La Difference!
What he didn’t realize, and I didn’t understand until I was well into my thirties and read Deborah Tannen’s book, “You Just Don’t Understand,” was that she was not apologizing as he thought. Rather she was empathizing with him.
Fast forward a week or so and the theme of my Toastmasters club meeting was, “If You Were A Superhero, What Would Your Superpower Be?” For you non-Toastmasters, the theme is used to assist in introducing those who have speaking roles. Flying was the most popular super power; invisibility was next.
My response to the theme was, “if I had a super power, it would be the ability to understand women,” something that still trips me up even though I’ve been happily married for 21 years.
Years ago my wife (and the ten women who reported to me at work) had to beat into me the fact that women didn’t always want me to solve their problems; many times they just wanted someone to listen and empathize. (I still struggle with that as I’m sure many men do.) Once I figured that out, I jokingly told people my office voice mail had a menu option that said, “Press “one” if you want empathy; press “two” if you want solutions.”
Meanwhile, back at the Toastmasters meetings, one of the women members stated that her husband didn’t listen. I considered approaching her after the meeting and asking her for more details, but then I realized there I was trying to solve problems again. So I just nodded my head as if I understood.
We Men Can Be So Tone Deaf
This also manifests itself on the national stage as the recent controversies over contraception had a US Congressional House committee selecting a half dozen or so males as witnesses and the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church opposing the Obama administrations requirement that Religious owned hospitals be required to offer contraception to employees.
I wonder if the responses of both groups above would have been different if half their leadership had been female.
But thinking that all people are exactly like yourself isn’t just restricted to gender. I see this all of the time in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors where managers make decisions that assume that everyone is like them. What I’ve come to learn is that practically every organization has customers who may have common needs which bring them to that organization, yet that doesn’t mean that all customers are alike or respond the same way. Successful organizations divide their customers into different segments based upon interests and needs. The more effective an organization is at doing this, the more likely they are to be effective at meeting their business goals.
Back to my son, one of these days I might have an opening to talk to him about the differences between the genders. Perhaps I can increase his learning curve so that he learns more rapidly than I. But then of course, we run into that teen thing where Dad doesn’t have a clue. In this case, he’d be half right.