Thursday, September 16, 2010

P4E.180 - Now What? - Part 10

In his book, "Cultural Literacy," E.D. Hirsch, Jr. makes the case that communication is intimately connected to what he calls "cultural literacy." He says that our ability to communicate is greatly affected by shared knowledge. Even the perception of what is shared knowledge can affect our ability to communicate well.

A friend who is a professor at Cal State Fullerton once told me that during a discussion in his classroom he happened to mention "Alice in Wonderland." By the blank looks on his students' faces he could tell that he had made a reference to a piece of literature that they were not familiar with. The analogy he was trying to draw was therefore lost on them and he was not able to accurately communicate his point. He had to resort to another reference that they could relate to before they understood his meaning.

Hirsch says that if people, "take a lot for granted, their communications can be short and efficient, subtle and complex. But if [people] share very little knowledge, their communications must be long and relatively rudimentary."

For those of us who are attempting to mature spiritually and acknowledge that our growth as Christians is linked directly to relationships, this is critical information. As a husband, I'm looking at my ability to communicate with my wife and children. My emphasis has shifted from the desire to be understood to the desire to understand my wife and children. My friend and mentor, Ken Nair, says that women speak a language that is foreign to us men. He calls it "womanese." The Urban Dictionary playfully defines "womanese" this way:

a. the mysterious language of the species 'woman', which men find extremely difficult to grasp. It's primary function is as an almost impenetrable code only fully understood within their own circle.
b. a form of female telepathy used to confound men. Involves giving impossibly subtle verbal clues which the man is expected to know before they are spoken.
c. a method of communication that involves not saying something in order to communicate something.
d. Any conversation within a circle of women; or any word that does or does not come out of a woman's mouth.

Some stereotypes are stereotypes because they accurately reflect some common characteristics of a group. When women speak to each other they use emotional/relational language because they are emotional/relational creatures. They can be subtle and complex with each other because they take for granted that each knows what the other is trying to communicate. Their conversations go to the relationships in their lives.

Men, on the other hand, rarely talk about relationships. Instead we focus on work, hobbies, sports and politics. We may talk about our children in relation to the sports they are involved in. We are short and efficient in our communication because we are mechanically minded.

Husband: "What?"
Wife: "Nothing..."
Husband: "Uh, ok..."

I am not here asking the question "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" (Speaking of shared knowledge, that is the title of a song from the 1956 Broadway musical "My Fair Lady," which in turn was based on George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" and was later made into a movie) I am however, challenging myself (and any readers up to the challenge) to learn a new language; womanese. As part of becoming a keen observer of my wife so that I'm able to take her physical/verbal cues and connect with her on a spiritual level, I need to increase my knowledge of her dialect of womanese.

As I've watched and listened, I've realized that my wife is an expert with respect to relationships and I have a lot to learn about her, my children and my relationships with others. I've learned to ask her questions and seek her advice about impending meetings or relational interactions. God gave me great help and I'm sure he did you too. It's just a matter of learning the language and taking the advice.

Peace, Kim


  1. I reference E.D. Hirsch's "What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know" books for this very reason--to expose my kids to stories and information that should (you would think) be universally familiar to most Americans...what an amazing story about the ignorance about Alice in Wonderland. I suppose by now they would all be somewhat familiar with it due to the newer movie that came out last year. We can thank Johnny Depp for that! :)

    Also, your post reminded me of the introduction to _Made to Stick_, the book that HCB is using for book club on Mondays. In it, they talk about a tapping experiment. Here's a link explaining the experiment, and I think you'll see how it relates--the tapper "hears" the song in his/her head and can't for the life of them imagine why the listener can't guess the tune!

    Thought-provoking post.

    I think my husband, a man of few words, does a good job trying to understand and appreciate my communication style. It's a beautiful thing to read how you are trying to do the same!

  2. Thank you Ann. Yes, my friend told me this story before the Johnny Depp movie was released. I will check out the link. Thank God for your husband's pursuit! Blessings, Kim

  3. My dad has always been fluent in "womanese." I think it's because his mom was single for many years. In the months since my mom died, I've been amazed to begin to appreciate the many, many lifelong friends (mostly female) that my parents shared.

  4. Megan, what a blessing to have such a father! Here's hoping you marry(ied) a man just like dear old dad...