I guess it’s a bit of a truism that women are usually better listeners than men, and that men tend to give more advice, while women give more sympathy. What’s interesting to me is that there may actually be some factual basis for this.
According to a fair amount of reliable research, women tend to score higher on something called ‘agreeableness’ than men do. Now I can sense a bit of scoffing coming on, so let me explain. Agreeableness is reckoned to be one of the ‘big five’ enduring personality traits, and it is just what you would expect it to be - an aggregate of qualities like kindness, warmth, sympathy, cooperation and so on. And women are slightly better at this stuff than men, as evidenced by the way that they listen.
Now lets turn back to that listening thing. I can’t speak for all the other gents out there, so I’ll have to reveal a bit of myself. If I’m honest, a lot of the time when I’m listening, I’m mostly just planning what to say in response. Let’s say that you just told me about how you missed your fight and got stuck in the airport for ten hours. I have three kinds of responses that I can give. I can be sympathetic, analytical or competitive. Sympathetic is obviously the most agreeable thing to be, so I should listen carefully and then say something along the lines of ‘Ag, shame, hey. That must have been terrible.’ Interestingly, I’m most likely to say this to a woman, or a close family member.
But if you’re a dude, or if I’m not feeling especially agreeable, then most of the time while you’re describing your ordeal, I’ll be planning one of the following responses. I can get analytical and ask you tons of detail questions as if your role in the conversation is to get the story straight in my mind. ‘Was it a connecting flight? Why was it delayed? Did you try…?’ Sometimes this involves advice, but really what’s happening here is that I’ve missed the bloody point. It doesn’t matter what you should have done, or the mechanics of how it happened. The other thing that I tend to do, especially when I have a beer in my hand is to start preparing my own story of a travel snafu that rivals yours. This usually happens in group situations and generally leads to a free-for-all story-telling contest.
Stuck at the Airport
Was there wifi? Was there electricity?
Turning someone’s complaint into a story telling contest is not exactly sympathetic, but it has its time and place. In a social setting we can all share our stories and we can all gain a little perspective while bonding with our mates. No trouble there.
The response that really annoys me though, is getting analytical, and putting the onus on the sympathy seeker to get all the details straight and to somehow justify the sympathy that they want from us. Most of the time, the very act of seeking sympathy is justification enough to give it.