Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Magic Words: That Sucks

This week's episode of Parks and Recreation (Season 6, Episode 12 "Farmers Market") included a fantastic lesson to live by. Ann was starting to voice her displeasure at the more bothersome aspects of pregnancy, and Chris's efforts to tend to her every complaint were only quietly compounding her frustration, as his excessive proactive thoughtfulness was stifling her venting. Ron, Tom, and Donna counseled Chris on where he was going wrong:
Ron: You've fallen into a classic trap, Christopher—trying to fix a woman's problems, instead of just listening to what they are.

Tom: Hey, man, if Ann needs Tylenol, she can get it herself. What she needs from you is to just look her in the eyes, nod your head, and say those two magic words.

Donna: That. Sucks.

It's absolutely true. I've witnessed the magic of these words many times and even put them to use myself. What I've found, however, is that this advice works just as well when dealing with men as it does with women. Also, my own use of this trick has less to do with compassion than with keeping other people's issues at an arm's length.

One time, an older gentleman was confiding in me about how his marriage of more than twenty years was now a shambles. In fact, I barely knew this guy and could not comprehend why he was being so loose with such deeply personal information. He was neither a friend nor even a friend of a friend, but it was a situation where we both had a lot of time to kill and only each other for company. And, whereas I would have been content to silently read news articles to myself on my smartphone, this guy—well, he was a talker. He had quite a lot to say—stuff that had clearly been weighing on him, all the more so because the life partner he had grown accustomed to confiding in was now the person he needed to complain about. I'll spare you the sordid details; suffice it to say this guy's whole world was falling apart, and it was all happening very suddenly. He was at a loss as to how he was going to get through even that day. He finally stopped talking only because he ran out of details to share. Nothing was concluded. Nothing was resolved. There was an awkward silence. I supposed it was to me to say something. Awkwardness and silence are two things I savor, so I let it linger awhile, as I pondered how best to proceed.

I must confess, I have had relatively few male friends in my life, and the few male-male friendships I have been privileged to be a part of have been founded primarily on shared geeky interests, rather than on any kind of uniquely masculine bro-bonding. Through a weird set of circumstances (again, I'll spare you the details), however, I have, in the past, been able to play the part of observer to instances of guys being emotionally available for their bros. At least, the pretense is one of emotional support. The reality, when traditional-values males are "there" for other traditional-values males, is considerably more shameful and potentially very negative.

A guy bonds with his boys over beers and NFL Sunday, but it's not intended to be just a fun escape from their nagging ladies. It's a refuge, where guys can feel safe to share life and be real with one another. One guy or another spills his guts about his issue of the moment (e.g. marriage on the rocks, career setbacks, disheartening workplace politics, etc.) to the supposedly sympathetic ears of his bros. That's when the arrangement unravels. The other guys are all more than ready to offer their advice, and every guy's idea of advice is really just a lecture in disguise. Turns out, they all love to hear themselves speak, but none of them is very good at listening, except to hear openings for interjecting their own opinions. The reason this setup is ultimately self-defeating is because these masculine egos, even as they are supposed to be supporting one another, still retain the streaks of one-upmanship that persistently motivate them. They seize other guys' adversities as opportunities to demonstrate their own intellectual or moral alpha-ness via condescending lessons on the proper way to live.

Back to the situation I found myself in, as the unlikely confidant to this guy's marriage troubles, I considered, was I now supposed to condescend to him about how to handle his wife (as if I, being a never-married man half his age, had any clue)? I had gleaned enough from his soliloquy to determine that he fit the mold—husband, father, NFL fan, Bible-thumper, highly opinionated—so he was probably familiar with the routine. Was a lecture what he expected and wanted now from me? In fact, those are two separate questions. These guys surely know to expect the lecture, since it's what happens every time (and they probably really do confuse advice with admonition), but then they also tend to push back when it is offered.

That's when I considered, in contrast, how my female acquaintances worked with one another through their difficult days. For years, I spent most of my workday lunches with female coworkers, so I had observed many instances of this as well. And what I observed was that, instead of combating their sisters through their tough times, the girls would simply listen and then succinctly sympathize, and, amazingly, that would be enough to send them off in a better mood.

What I realized was that, when a woman is going on over lunch about the frustration of the day or week or month, she's not asking for advice or a solution (and especially not for your opinion); she just needs to vent. All she wants of the sympathetic listener is for them to listen and then to sympathize. And I thought, are guys really so different? Does any guy, already feeling crappy, really want to get a lecture in exchange for opening themselves up? Unless he specifically asks your opinion, maybe he just wants to vent (even if guys don't as often apply that word to themselves).

I hadn't had a chance to test my theory before applying it in the case of Mr. Shambles (can't say I was ever exactly eager to be anyone's sympathetic ear), but, after careful deliberation, I decided that, better than a lecture (or the third option (and my usual go-to) of offering zero acknowledgment and just waiting for the other person to walk away), I would offer a succinct and sympathetic "That sucks."

He chuckled and said, "Yeah. Yeah, it does."

That was the end of that episode. I'd like to think he got out of it just what he needed (at least as much as anyone could realistically offer in the way of comfort). If nothing else, I got what I needed, which was a graceful way of making it clear that, although I felt bad for him, I had zero interest in dealing with other people's problems.

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