Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Men of my generation

What is it about men of my generation? I'm talking about those who grew up in the 40's and 50's, struggled through the 60's in a variety of ways, had wives and families by the 70's, divorced eventually, and started looking for new female partners.

I've been single since 1980, had a few good relationships and several less-good ones, and try to stay open to the possibility that out there somewhere there may be a man of my generation who can carry on a conversation without trying to control it, who is interested in me as a human being rather than a role, a captive ear, a potential caretaker, a possible golddigger, a sex kitten (don't laugh--I've had my moments!).

But nearly every fellow I've met socially in the past several years has seemed to be caught in a 50's/60's trap of society's expectations: that men control conversations, that women are to listen and nod approvingly, and that women are lucky to have a man in their lives and need to accept their role as listener, cheerleader, caretaker, and be happy about it.

Most recently I've met a couple of fellows through online resources and, within a week of each other, they each self-destructed in my eyes in the same way: talking on and on about themselves and their interests and passions, never seeming to notice my look of resignation and my efforts to redirect the monologue.

In one case, I reached across the table we were at and said, "please stop. We're not having a conversation here." And this otherwise-intelligent man looked at me confusedly and said, "we're not? what are we having?" My reply: "a monologue, and I'm not interested in any of it. Can we please talk about things I can also talk about?"

He was gracious, if that's the right word, and asked me to talk for awhile, which I did, about my own history and interests, and yet it wasn't conversation, just another monologue, this time about myself.

I recognize that I have to bear some responsibility for this state of affairs. I'm not much for small talk and these days non-small talk seems to focus on the terrible state of the world, which isn't very much fun to talk about either. And I don't have an arsenal (yet) of handy-dandy conversational topics where I feel on equal ground. Clearly I've got to come up with one if I want to continue my openness to a partner.

The minister bit also complicates things. I'm very interested in talking about church, about religion, about ideas, but in these arenas, the role of minister comes back and bites me, because I am often imbued by my friend with ministerial authority even though this is just a date, not a pastoral moment!

I want a man who invites discourse, real back-and-forth conversation about ideas, where we each ask the other's opinion and we listen to it and respond to the ideas expressed. I have these kinds of conversations with my women friends all the time; why can't I have them with men?


LinguistFriend said...

As a starter, of course, women on the average are nicer people than men are (although they are being cultured out of that one; note recent events at HP). I have commented occasionally that if I were a woman I would probably hope to be bisexual, since there are some nice men, but not enough to go around, and the statistics get worse with age, since women are better designed than men in terms of longevity.
I suspect that men are still more often accustomed to a world in which one has to sell oneself and establish one's competence (at least rhetorically), as a first step towards being heard. (In some groups and professions, of course, that is different.) They are less well represented in the helping professions, except in an administrative capacity, although that seems to be changing (my middle son is a clinical social worker). Many men need help on the level of Carl Rogers' interview technique to behave like human beings, and permission to do so.
But, of course that gets their personalities and experiences out, and not yours; there must be a complementary process, such as taking off from the other person's momentary focus, to move towards reflecting on one's own experience (I think that there is a term for that technique that I have forgotten). But that cannot make the man interested in inquiring into you as a human being. Men rarely have the personal skills that you are looking for, although reasonable values may occasionally be displayed by them almost inadvertently. That is a cliche' with considerable truth, I think.
I tend to meet reasonable men in places like boards of community organizations, where their presence comes as a result of a self-selecting process. To do such things successfully, one's own life must be under control, and there is some human objective which is of mutual importance. It also of course gives one a chance to observe behavior, sometimes under stress.
Good luck. I seem to myself to have just been musing about it out loud for a few minutes when I happened to be at home and read your post, although it certainly is a topic that I have wondered about in watching my women friends and their interactions.

Joel said...

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, I know, but I suuspect that the reason that it's hard to finnd good male conversationalists is that your definition of good conversation is a feminine one, and a man who could engage effortlessly in it would have other shortcomings to a woman who respects masculinity. Men are kind of wired to relate better to things than to people, and it shows in our conversation. Talking is a way of conveying information more than sharing personalities.

Linguistfriend, you describe the process better than I do, but would you not agree with that?

fausto said...

Getting to know people is awkward. So is allowing someone to get to know you. No matter what generation you belong to.

However, it's even harder once you've reached the age where the stakes are higher, the opportunities are fewer, the hormones are less urgent, and it's no longer comfortable to allow loud music and recreational substances to mask the awkwardness.

Are you perhaps unfairly blaming the guys personally for the inherent difficulty of the process?

LaReinaCobre said...

My sweetheart and I have a lot of conversations about masculine and feminine ways of engaging in conversation. I had spent most of my life thinking men just didn't understand women or how to communicate, but what I'm learning is that women also don't understand a lot about men. We take for granted that the way we are is the way they should be, and that if they aren't like us they are deficient.

I agree with Linguist Friend's entire response. He is very insightful. What especially popped out to me is what he noted about men being accustomed to having to sell themselves and establish their competence. I had never seen it this way until my DH said almost the same exact thing to me a few months ago. I've experienced a lot of what you described - men who just talk and talk about what they want and do and how good they are at this and that, and puff themselves out, not realizing that I'm not interested in their (often overly exaggerated) image of themselves. I don't[ know how capable some men are overcoming this, just as I don't know how capable some women are of learning how to communicate with men more effectively. And also, I would say that these things take time. A person can be very brusque or seemingly clueless initially but as they feel more comfortable and trusting they stop resorting to learned patterns of unhealthy behavior with you.

I would say that the best place to find people who act outside the box is to wherever people are living outside the box. That could be any number of places, of course, but they will often be doing unconventional things or involved in work that challenges the status quo. Lastly, I'd agree with Joel that a lot of men puff themselves up because their experience has shown them that women lose interest in a man who isn't conventionally masculine. So many of us walk into a first date with unconscious expectations. We walk in dressed, coiffed, and projecting an image that we think will go over best for the *average* man or woman.

Joel said...

Lareinacobre, I may have phrased what I was saying badly. I didn't mean anything about men puffing themselves up (although we do, entirely too much, sometimes). What I meant was that the "informational" approach to conversation is a part of a man's mental circuitry, as much as any of the aspects of masculinity that women find appealing. It's kind of a package deal; we kill spiders but don't have sharing conversations.

Which is not to say "we're incapable of it, so learn to live without it." What it means is that it doesn't come naturally; it requires conscious effort, and probably won't be our usual mode of conversation.

LaReinaCobre said...

Ahh, I see, Joel. And I would agree with that, too.

LinguistFriend said...

I will restrict my comments to Joel's question, although I am grateful for the thoughtful comments of La Reina Cobre. To be honest, I don't assume a lot about the hard-wiredness of particular personality traits such as you describe as found in men, or women. They come from a complex cascade of effects in which (for example in men)androgens affect muscle and brain, and then social patterns develop around them. My comments could only refer to how I find men to behave in North America in recent decades, and I am sorry that I did not make clear that limitation. To watch heterosexual Egyptian men strolling and chatting affectionately hand in hand in Cairo is another world.
In recent years, I have come to know well a couple of my students with Turner's Syndrome ("complete or partial absence of one of the two X chromosomes in the female", following Merck), the complexity of whose development in terms of the interaction of sexual structures, physique, and personality traits, caused me some fundamental thoughts(see "The Merck Manual" for a beginning)and some reading about how much (or little) can be taken for granted in this area. Transsexuals also cause some thought. One of my lesbian friends observed one person as "an attractive lesbian" (her phrase, with which I agreed), and that person turned out to be a surgical transsexual, originally male. Her history as I eventually heard it from her was startling, especially about the legal ramifications of such issues.
Some of these things are hard wired, some of them are quite susceptible to training, e.g. in those fields in which the professional objective is to gain skills necessary to change people's behavior. Some of them change with hormone administration, some need surgery. As the father of 1.5 gay sons (well, one heter, one bi, one gay), I have been startled at how complex such things are, sometimes related to family dynamics and sometimes to specialization of a region of the brain. That is a separate area from Miss Kitty's observations, which I do feel are overall accurate. Before someone asks, I am indeed a member of the
generation which Miss Kitty discusses.

ms. kitty said...

Wow, what a rich conversation! Thank you all so much for your observations; you have enlightened me and provoked me-----very exciting responses indeed. My gratitude to you all.

PeaceBang said...

Girl, I hear you. I just wish I had the courage to interrupt as you did and to say, "STOP! PLEASE!"

The other comments have been thoughtful and intelligent. I want to be crass and simplistic: to spend 45 minutes blathering on about oneself and one's own accomplishments is just socially retarded, boorish behavior. Simple as that. I don't think it's so much about men and women's different modes of communicating as it is about someone having been indulged all his life for being a dolt. There are plenty of women who do the same thing, only they've more likely been busted for it by men (or female friends) in their life who told them to shut up, already.

ms. kitty said...

I do think there's something to the group theory, that people do better conversation in a group of like-minded folks.

However, I attended a meeting today in which a man (of my generation) monopolized, interrupted, and shot down others' opinions. I was sitting beside him, so when he interrupted the speaker again, I put my hand on his arm, said "don't interrupt" and asked the speaker if he had finished what he was saying. The speaker said he had not and went on to finish his remarks.

A little later, the interrupter did it again, this time to me, and I said, "please don't interrupt me" and he flared up. "You interrupted me", he said. "No, I didn't", I said, and finished what I was saying.

He did behave himself the rest of the meeting!