The world watched last month as Prince William of England married his longtime sweetheart. But I once heard a story about the courtship of his grandmother, England’s beloved Queen Elizabeth II, which made a deep impression on me. The Queen confides that, before she got married, she in fact had two suitors to choose between:
Of Suitor #1, she said: “Whenever I was with him, I thought he was the most interesting person in the world!”
Of Suitor #2, she said: “Whenever I was with him, I thought I was the most interesting person in the world!”
Guess whom she married? You got it. Suitor #2 is now known to the world as her husband, Prince Philip, while Suitor #1 has been lost to history forever.
This is an important lesson for us all. Being the world’s most fascinating, beautiful, accomplished man or woman may help us achieve in the workplace, but it’s no guarantee of success in the love department. As Prince Phillip shows us, the key to catching your life partner – and indeed the key to any personal or professional relationship – is the ability to relate effectively to the other person.
This is easier said than done, because other people can be downright mystifying, and none more so than people of the other sex, who sometimes can seem like they’re from another species entirely.
Men and me
My own relationship with men got off to a slow start. As a kid in grade school in the States in the 1970s, my English was horrible, so I rarely ever spoke. I never knew what the kids at school were talking about anyway, since my parents were extremely conservative and didn’t allow TV in the house. The world saw China as monolithic, poor and backward, where people wore funny clothes. This image refracted onto me as well. I was the strange, silent Chinese girl with thick glasses and slant eyes.
All those years, more than anything, I just wished I was blonde.
In middle school and high school, boys ignored me entirely.
But things turned up for me as China opened up to the world in the 1980s and 1990s. Along with China’s economic fortunes rose my social prospects. Sometime during college, Americans’ perception of me changed from strange and ugly to exotic and beautiful.
Naturally I welcomed this twist of fortune. Just one problem.
I had no clue how to talk to men.
I had to learn fast because, after graduating from college, I chose a profession full of men. I wanted to be a real-estate developer, for a firm called Maguire Thomas Partners, which was famous for having built the tallest office buildings on the West Coast .
Sky-rise commercial development is a rarefied corner of the real-estate world. If you build little apartment buildings, you can build one, rent out the units, then reinvest your capital to build another. But you can’t build a 70-story office building in phases. As a result, each project involves a gigantic bet involving huge sums of money. And as a result of that, this corner of the real-estate world attracts the most aggressive, the most risk-taking, and the biggest-money men around. I don’t even need to go into the phallic nature of contests to build the world’s tallest building – the imagery speaks for itself.
I realized that I’d better learn how to talk with men. My career and my love life depended on it.
So, I set about learning about men the Chinese way: library research. Back then, there was no Internet, so research meant books. More than from anyone else, I found answers in the work of Georgetown University linguistics scientist Dr. Deborah Tannen.
Men and women live in different worlds
Dr. Tannen’s research method involves attaching tape recorders onto the clothes of male and female volunteers, and then painstakingly transcribing their conversations, to understand how people actually talk. She finds that men and women engage the world very differently, and thus that male-female conversation is actually cross-cultural communication. In short, men focus on competence and status, while women focus on intimacy and connection. That’s why conversational “rituals” – her term – among men often involve joking, teasing and playful put-downs, while rituals among women are often about maintaining an appearance of equality.
I’ve moved house many times since then, but I’ve always brought Dr. Tannen’s books along with me. In thinking about this blog post, I looked up one particular passage to share with you, from her book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work:
Deirdre and her colleague William both gave presentations at a national conference. On the way back, Deirdre told William, “That was a great talk!” “Thank you,” he said. Then she asked, “What did you think of mine?” and he told her – in the form of a lengthy and detailed critique. Although she found it uncomfortable to listen to his criticism, she assured herself that he meant well, and that his honesty was a signal that she too should be honest when he asked for a parallel critique of his performance. As a matter of fact, she had noticed quite a few ways in which he could have improved his presentation. But she never got a chance to tell him because he never asked. An unpleasant feeling of having been put down came over her. Since she didn’t tell him how he could have done better but only complimented him, she felt she had left him with the impression that his performance had been flawless. Somehow she had been positioned as the novice in need of his expert advice. The worst part was that she seemed to have only herself to blame, since she had, after all, asked what he thought of her talk.
But had Deirdre really asked for William’s critique? When she asked what he thought of her talk, she wasn’t expecting a critique but a compliment. In fact, her question had been an attempt to repair a ritual gone awry. When Deirdre complimented William she was simply uttering a pleasant remark she felt was more or less required following anyone’s talk, and she had assumed he would respond with a matching compliment about hers. When William did not offer the expected compliment, Deirdre prompted him by asking him directly. But he responded instead with criticism, so she figured, “Oh, he’s playing ‘Let’s critique each other,’ rather than “Let’s pat each other on the back.’” The game “Let’s critique each other” would be another symmetrical ritual, not the one she would have initiated but one she was willing to play. Had she realized William was going to give her a literal answer and not ask her to reciprocate, she would never have asked the question in the first place…
Men are more likely to be on guard to prevent themselves from being put in a one-down position, because of the social structure of the peer groups in which they grew up. Because boys’ groups tend to be more obviously hierarchical than girls’, and the lives of the low-status boys can be made quite miserable, many men learn to avoid the one-down position and develop strategies for making sure they get the one-up position instead. In contrast, many women learned from their experience as girls that human relationships should maintain the appearance of equality…
In this framework, it is easy to see how the opportunity to offer Deirdre suggestions for improvement could have appealed to William. Giving a critique was something he probably felt quite pleased to do. So comfortable was William in this role that the next time they both presented at a conference, he did compliment Deirdre – on how well she had learned the lessons he taught her. “You did much better this time,” he soothed.
Years ago when I first read this passage, I cringed. I would have said and thought precisely the same things as Deirdre. Dr. Tannen’s analysis helped me to understand William’s position. Because he was simply responding to the words of his friend. He was simply trying to help.
Conversational styles don’t explain everything that goes wrong between two people. Every conversation is full of individual issues. But over the years there’ve been countless times when I’ve felt “boy, something is either really wrong with me or really wrong with him!” and then realized upon further reflection that this is just another instance of two people expressing themselves in different ways.
The better we can understand the differences in how people talk, the better we can identify actual conflicts, and also find ways to resolve those conflicts.
It’s not enough to “just be yourself”
There’s a big trend these days toward personal authenticity, with experts telling us to just be ourselves. But it is not enough to just put yourself out there. To succeed in work, dating and life, we also need to consider how we will be interpreted. We need to learn to hold back our initial gut reactions, evaluate our own assumptions, and think about how best to communicate in ways that others will understand.
Even more so in the love department. Recently, I was chatting about love with a romantic young Chinese woman. I asked her what she was looking for in a husband. She replied, “I want a guy who will understand me without my telling him what I want! I want him to just be able to guess my feelings.” She added that most of her friends want the same thing.
“Sweetie,” I told her, “if you wait for a man to come along who will know your thoughts without your having to tell him, you just may be waiting your entire life.”
From my research, there is a phenomenon called “mental telepathy,” but it appears to exist only within the realm of science fiction. I think it’s natural to wish for someone to come along who can somehow read our minds, and know instinctively how to love us the way we want to be loved. The reality is that when we better understand the differences in the way men and women engage the world, we’ll all be better equipped to get and to give the love we want.
I welcome your comments, in English or Chinese, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.