What do women really want? How do men really feel? If you've ever found yourself reading an article that attempts to "decipher" the "code" of male or female behavior, congratulations, you are grasping at straws (or hate-reading). I, too, have read approximately 14,000 bajillion of these pieces over the course of my life, as hopeful as anyone that an article can divine that which is unknowable. Hint: It cannot.
Look, I get it: This is a question as old as time, I suppose: What's he thinking? Does she like me? People have been wondering if this thing is actually called love for as long as they've been able to sidelong glance up the dude in the next rock formation. Here's the thing though: I always naively think that you can only ask "he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me on Wednesdays, he loves me only when that other chick isn't available" so many times before you just give up the ghost of guessing and simply accept that you cannot know another person's thoughts, not really, unless they want you to.
As someone who lived through dating in the 90s, and I was sure that after He's Just Not That Into You rocked the advice circles, that all such debates were settled. That the articles on what men really mean and women really mean would disappear. That, like, the discovery that earth, is, in fact, round and not flat, the crowd would thin out, the chatter would die down, and everyone would go home, realizing there's nothing to see here. Not because I think that book is the gospel of all advice — it's oversimplification porn, is what it is — but because it did actually inadvertently distill Something True, which is that your best gauge of someone's actual interest in you when that interest is unclear would be their behavior more than words. If there is anything that a cumulative number of years on earth has taught me, it is this.
But I suppose that as long as there are newly vague and infuriating text messages, terrible breakups, confusing interludes, mysterious exits, weekends apart, there will be new iterations on this theme to guess at people's real feelings. And we will all find ourselves at one time or another, whether single or hitched, trying to figure out what the fuck someone means in the greater scheme of things.
I do not mock the need to know. What I reject is the attempt to do so through some automatic gender roadmap. Yes, we are all a result of cultural influence, but the shortest path to confusing communication is to hear a person talking and assume it's code. Articles which purport to tell you what a guy means when he says X or what a woman means when she says Y are bullshit articles because there is no way to know this purely depending on gender identity of the person in question. It would be easy to dismiss them as dumb Internet shit if so many people didn't believe them, and also the fact that they motherfucking won't go away.
For instance, this shit shows up in my feed about once a week somehow:
People always act like this sort of thing is a total riot of hilarity, but it seems actually incredibly damaging to me, and I will laugh at all "your face" jokes, so this is not a maturity issue. They all pretty much reflect this idea that women alone get mysteriously pissed for no discernible reason and that your first clue doesn't even show up until she's already mad and being cryptic.
She never means what she says, that much is for sure:
Or the idea that a woman says she's fine but, duh, she's not fine, because she is a liar. Here is how often she is really fine:
The more insidious version of "What Women REALLY Mean" is the virtually identical list of things women say vs what they mean, but this time it's called "DEADLY," because look the fuck out, angry woman incoming:
I admit, I'm fascinated by these stupid gender Rosetta Stones. They seem so meaningless but they represent actual real perceptions of the "differences" between men and women I've heard from both men and women my whole life, and I find them to be so maddening because at best, they are people hiding behind culture instead of just having to talk about what they feel. And at worst, they add to the anxiety in any relationship by poisoning us to think that we are all weird secret two-faced liars who can't say things outright because vagina.
The interpretations of men's allegedly real intentions are just as ever-present, only they typically tend to mine actions for intent — how to decode his text messages is an entire cottage industry. A recent HuffPo piece called "What it Really Means When a Guy Says He's Scared," treads pretty familiar ground:
I happened to turn to the "Today Show" the other morning just as Matthew Hussey, a relationship expert, was giving advice to a woman whose story, unfortunately, is way too familiar to way too many of us. This woman said she had been dating a guy for a while. He had told her she was the "one," he was in touch with her daily, he introduced her to his friends and family as his girlfriend... you know, the whole she-bang. But then a week ago, she got a text from him simply saying, "I really like you, but I'm too scared. I need some time and space." She hasn't heard from him since then, and needless to say, is devastated. She asked what she should do. Of course Hussey addressed the awful way of breaking up with someone via text, but I want to address what he said regarding the "I'm scared" excuse, as it is something that will forever change the way I view a situation in the future if a man uses that reasoning for needing space or breaking up. And I hope it will help other women out there see it in a different light as well so that the next time it happens, they can move on quickly.
Dating: Check. "The One": Check. Cryptic texts: Check. Devastation: Check. You'll be happy know that only 1 in 10 guys really means it when he says he's scared: Check. The rest are using a Jedi mind trick to garner both sympathy and an out simultaneously: Check. Brilliantly devious, those men! Just like those angry women you can't predict, men, too are up to no good. Check.
It was all but impossible to keep reading — not because the advice ended up being toxic or unhealthy, it actually pretty much pulls a He's Just Not That Into You, only in this case, it's called "Fuck Yes or No," and basically has a shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach to moving anything forward (if someone isn't super into you and it isn't super obvious, don't do it). Which is perfectly decent advice if you can't do the other thing that's easier: ASKING THEM.
My beef is that the advice never says: ASK THEM WHAT THEY MEAN.
It never says: Stop reading these articles and books and ASK. The advice never says: The whole problem with the premise of this advice is the way it makes men and women seem like two different species speaking in code that you need an expert translator for WHEN REALLY YOU SHOULD JUST ASK. I know, asking is not fun or quite as mysterious, it's so much better to trail off in a murmur and then stare off into the distance instead of resolving this plot.
And in a way, I see the enormous appeal of playing a part: If women act one way and men act another, it might be confusing but at least the decoder ring works, at least it means there's a place to go to sit in a room with other men or women and decide how the other half really is, right, without having to ASK?
But the smartest and best thing anyone who wants to know what someone else is thinking can do is ASK THEM.
If asking does not work, ASK AGAIN.
If asking again still doesn't work, it is time to decide how many times you want to ask to get the answer, or how long you'll stick around when the answer is not the one you want, or how often you're willing to go down with the ship of someone who doesn't believe it's OK to ASK or OK to ANSWER. No, it sure as fuck is not clarity in the traditional sense, but in a way, it's better than clarity: It's taking things for what they are, and not what you wish they could be. This has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with growing up.
Image by Jim Cooke.