Why are human interrelationships so difficult? We all have a friend, neighbor, colleague, or relative with whom meaningful communication seems impossible. Many people are more comfortable and better equipped to communicate with their pets than with family members. Sometimes it is as difficult to articulate a thought with a family member as it would be to articulate that same thought with a stranger in a foreign language. Is there an anthropological explanation for this phenomenon or is it a cultural failure? Are we doomed to wallow in misunderstanding and recriminations?
Popular culture would divide us into men and women with cheerleaders on each side ranting about what is wrong with the other side’s communication skills. But that does not explain why women also have difficulty talking with other women and men have trouble talking with other men. This problem goes beyond the sex of the speaker.
Dr. Heidi Reeder, internationally recognized expert on human communication, and associate communications professor at Boise State University, explains that first we need to understand the difference between sex and gender.
• Gender involves the psychological and societal constructs that define male and female roles.
• Sex refers to specific physical aspects of being male or female.
Once we understand this distinction we can see that it is actually gender that drives communication. Gender is not an either/or. Gender is a sliding scale with individuals exhibiting a mixture of psycho/socio roles. Thus, communication depends upon context. We need to consider the social and cultural relationships that mold the way we talk with each other.
• Is there a familial relationship?
• Is there a power imbalance?
• Are there cultural constraints?
• Are there religious constraints?
• Is there an age difference?
• Is there a family history of specific communication styles or patterns?
Personally, I believe that last item may actually be the most critical and the most difficult to understand and manage. We learn social roles and communication patterns from observing our elders. It is these deeply ingrained automatic reactions that seem most troubling. These are the infamous “buttons.”
We all know someone who interrupts, or who so kindly finishes the other person’s sentence for them. Or how about the person who gazes into the distance and abruptly changes the subject? Some speakers seem bent on demonstrating how much they know, while others seem content to ask questions. Some people blur sentences into long rapid-fire paragraphs cutting off input from their listeners. Others speak painfully slowly or quietly. I believe each of these modes of communication has been learned either from an early parental pattern or for survival in early childhood relationships.
We may refine our initial communication styles based on the cultural expectations.But it is those initially imbedded, often unconscious communication styles that pop up repeatedly. They are the “button pushers” that bedevil us. They are as difficult to change from within as they are to cope with as a recipient.
So, are we doomed to miss our cues, to inadvertently push one another’s buttons? I may revisit this topic, meanwhile, maybe you, wise readers, may have some thoughts?