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How to communicate with a loved one
May 23, 2009 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Is there any reason why some people don't like to be "put on the spot" to answer questions?

If it's true that everyone has their own way of communicating, mine is to ask questions. To me, it helps me learn something I didn't know, or solve a problem by asking questions that help me get to its root. But there are a couple people I know that say questions make them feel like they're being forced into an answer. They prefer statements of preference, since they say, statements make others to talk about themselves and their own feelings rather than trying to pull something out of someone else. They say I should ponder their statements and parce their truth from those statements rather than asking direct questions of them that they say make them feel anything from disrespected to attacked. I care about these people, so I'm not trying to make communication difficult, or sabotage it. But I don't see how an exchange of statements, and parcing truth from time spent "pondering" them improves or progresses communication or a relationship. Sometimes, I get frustrated because it feels like they're just dodging what I'm trying to understand, as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms. But I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, so, I want to know is this common and what can I do to be better at interacting with these folks?
posted by CollectiveMind to Human Relations (60 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why haven't you given a series of specific examples?
posted by bingo at 6:57 AM on May 23, 2009 [12 favorites]


It depends on what your asking. "How's the burger" isn't the same as "what do you think of abortion". Some people prefer to coalesce their thoughts, otherwise things will spew out as a big jumble and wind up being misinterpreted. (myself included).
posted by zerokey at 7:01 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're both right to some degree. Certainly nuanced communication, of the kind that allows both parties to ponder issues, is best in certain cases. Then again, some interactions require direct Q&A sessions.

You don't provide any examples, so it's impossible to say whether you're being unreasonable in your possibly robotic-like queries. However, if someone has straight-up told you that they don't like you putting them on the spot, well... perhaps you are putting them on the spot, and in doing so, you're creating a hostile, accusatory environment.

So why don't people like being "put on the spot?" Perhaps that question reveals more about you than the answer would about the person you're questioning. What I mean is that the consensus seems to be that no one likes this, so to be confused by this possibly points to the fact that you need to work on your own communication skills.
posted by wfrgms at 7:05 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


You sound like my father-in-law. He's an attorney and somehow manages to turn the most benign conversation into a Law & Order-style interrogation.

The problem with this style of communication is it tends to remove sympathy and empathy from the equation. Sometimes people don't need a problem solved, or don't want to help you learn something you don't know; they just want to feel like they are being heard.

Curious, why do you feel compelled to "parse the truth" from peoples' statements? And if people are telling you that you are making them feel defensive or uncomfortable, why turn it into a battle of whose communicaation style is best - why not acknowledge and respect the way you're making them feel and adjust accordingly?
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:16 AM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


"...but why? ...but why? ...but why? ...but why?"

Why do I feel like I'm talking to a three year old?

While I can learn something by the questions being asked, if all I am hit with are questions, I feel like the other person isn't interested in sharing, but only in taking.
posted by imbri at 7:16 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Some people do not feel comfortable opining on an issue, which is essentially what you're asking them to do. It doesn't really matter if the question at hand is something innocuous, like "Yankees or Mets" or something contentious like "What do you think of abortion?"

It is your job to intuit which people are comfortable giving you their opinions about the subject at hand and those who prefer a more structured, and less discursive, method of communication.

Else the two of you will just end up frustrated.
posted by dfriedman at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


As stated above, you haven't provided any examples, but my first inclination is to suspect that you are asking semi-inappropriate questions and/or may be unable read the social signals that indicate when people are uncomfortable with the intensity of the conversation. Just because you "want to understand" something doesn't mean that they're under any obligation to answer an endless stream of questions or that you're entitled to probe them endlessly. Think of toddlers -- they often go through a phrase when every statement made by an adult is met with "Why?" It can become infuriating for an adult, but the child simply wants to learn/understand.

as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms

This statement is really what raises red flags for me and indicates it is you who most likely needs to work on your communication skills. It may also simply be that you're too "intense" in everyday interactions, making people feel uncomfortable. I have had acquaintances in the past who wanted to turn every interaction into some ponderous discourse on the meaning of "deep questions" (their words, not mine). It can often be frustrating to talk to such people on a regular basis as their (I'm sure completely honest) desire to intellectualize every situation becomes tedious and seems like posturing. And I am in academia!

All of this is speculation, since you haven't provided any examples, but it's my impression. Apologies if I'm overreaching -- this is something I've encountered many times. The opposite may also be true, and you may have friends who are particularly bad at communicating.
posted by proj at 7:18 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Being put on the spot is not the same as being interrogated.

It sounds like you're interrogating people, but without more specifics it's impossible to know. Interrogation is very aggressive, and nobody likes being interrogated.

"put on the spot", to me, means that you've hit someone with a really unexpected question that requires a lot of thought to answer. That kind of thing shouldn't happen if you're asking someone to explain something they already understand. And if they don't understand it, they should admit so rather than becoming hostile.

So maybe you need to tune the style of your dialectic from an interrogation into a cooperative dialog. Go read the collected works of Richard Feynman and Socrates.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2009


I knew a guy who may very well have been a lot like you. His questions, while generally innocuous in themselves, were delivered with a certain intensity, back-to-back, that made the conversation seem like an interview. And then some of them were too personal, like "What's your ethnic background? I love to know about where people's families came from." Just something you'd never ask about; you'd wait until you knew the person well enough that the information came out organically.

It's actually kind of amazing, when you think about it, how subtle conversational cues can be, and how similarly almost everyone navigates them.

If you have been told by two separate people that you ask too many questions in conversation, you ask too many questions in conversation. You're just not having a conversation; you're conducting an interview.

I see that your friends have made a good effort to describe what's wrong and how conversation typically works, and that you are casting a skeptical eye on their explanation, suggesting that their way is no more logical as an information-gathering technique than yours. First, trying to apply logic to social interactions is not going to work. They are the way they are; there's a lot of dancing around, it's true. Second, conversations are not information-gathering sessions so much as social interactions for their own sake.

One thing you don't mention is whether you work or are still in school (or both). If you don't work yet, this is a good opportunity to work on this, because deviations from typical interaction styles are far more tolerated among peers in school than they would be in most workplaces. (In other words, that guy I used to know is now in academia.)
posted by palliser at 7:23 AM on May 23, 2009


Have you explored the concept of Ask V. Guess culture?

I sounds like you're an Ask and your friends are Guess.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:23 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm also in academia, and I also hate, hate the "on the spot" feeling. I think part of it is that my undergrad college put considerable emphasis on discussion rather than exams, and I grew very happy with that setup and ultimately feeling like the exploration and depth of knowledge found in conversation can not be matched by one sided education.

As a grad student, "on the spot" generally means a "gotcha question", as in trying to prove either my internal contradictions on an issue or the depths of my lack of knowledge. This experience happens to grad students so much, that even casual conversation with certain faculty (and even some fellow grad students) can sometimes feel like an oral exam meant to humiliate. I just got back from a conference and there is a clear divide in post-presentation questions between those who are generally interested in something ("What settings did you use on your analytical equipment?" "That's a really novel way of approaching that problem: where did you get the idea to do it that way?") and the gotcha questions ("Why did you use that method when my research shows this other method is much better?" "How do you think your results fit in with this theory I developed?") Like others said, you haven't given us examples, but think about if this is the feeling your conversational approach gives.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:27 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


But I don't see how an exchange of statements, and parcing truth from time spent "pondering" them improves or progresses communication or a relationship.

You're going to get different kinds of information from an organic, conversational exchange than you will from a question-and-answer style. When people are just talking, rather than answer questions, they often tell you more than you'd thought to ask - but you have to be open to hearing it.

I spent the last three days in voir dire for jury duty (I got picked as an alternate). Everyone whose name was called had to get up and answer some questions asked by the judge (and prosecutor and defense attorney). Some of the questions were about very personal, upsetting things that might have happened to people ("have you or anyone close to you been a victim or perpetrator of a violent crime?") and I can guarantee that the answers people gave, while accurate and truthful, were not as nuanced or informative as they would be if the subject had come up in the course of ordinary conversation.

One of the most rewarding things about a friendship, to me, is putting together the puzzle of what makes someone the someone they are. The putting together of the puzzle isn't logical or chronological (or even entirely conscious) - it moves back and forth in time, it leaps out to a point but never returns to it. It's organic. It's subtle. Getting to know your friends more deeply happens in no small part at a subconscious level as all the information you glean, big stuff and little stuff, gradually comes together to make a whole.
posted by rtha at 7:41 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


couple people I know that say questions make them feel like they're being forced into an answer. They prefer statements of preference.... what can I do to be better at interacting with these folks?

After asking a question, and receiving an answer, work within that answer. They've told you to stop asking so many questions. To be better at interacting with them, stop asking so many questions.

I get frustrated because it feels like they're just dodging what I'm trying to understand, as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms.

I think you are finding that even though you can ask people questions, you are not entitled to know the answers just because you asked. Some things are not necessarily important, and yet they are private. I think we are losing that concept somewhat. Remember during a presidential campaign, a candidate was asked if he wore boxers or briefs? I wish his answer had been, "That's none of your business." You might be treading in the same area, with questions that probe into areas that aren't your business.
posted by Houstonian at 7:51 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


It is difficult to really answer this questions without examples, but the phrase "prefer statements of preference" leads me to believe you may skipping some of those conversation cues palliser referred to.

When people make a preferential statement, they normally don't expect to then have to answer a series of loaded questions.

Loved one: I like the color blue
You: Blue? Are you sure? How long have you thought about what your favorite color is? Have you considered how lovely yellow is? How do you feel about blue being Hitler's favorite color?

Instead, they expect for you to state your preference and talk about your feelings, instead of trying to get to the root of their blue-love.

You: Oh, I prefer yellow, I feel it is a very sunny color.
Loved One: That's true, but blue is just so relaxing and goes well with my eyes.

You get the same kind of information, but there is exchange, and so the converstation isn't one-sided where they do all the sharing.
posted by gagoumot at 7:53 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


To address your most specific introductory question, some people do not like to be put on the spot due to a combination, possibly non-linear, of the following factors:

1) A greater than average (or self-perceived greater than average) time to "compose" an answer — the individual suspects that they will take a great deal of time to answer in a way that communicates their thoughts properly, and they would not wish to be perceived as "slow." Subfactors: insecurity.

2) Lack of preparation given either in stance on a question or expression of the answer, which makes #1 of greater importance. Subfactors: introspection, perception versus judgment in the Myers-Briggs sense.

3) A perceived, real or not, lack of elegance in formulating replies. Some people are better at getting a point across in communication than others, and this varies by topic and the individuals with whom they wish to communicate. This again leads to the fear of being perceived as less than optimal: this variant would be called "incoherent" or "not particularly witty." subfactors: verbal fluency, social reputation

4) Fear of having to commit to a statement — some people will take a statement made by someone and hold it to them as if it were a written contract. If the person you are asking has yet to truly settle on a topic, or believes that they may change their mind later, they would be unwilling to be put into a "gotcha" situation by a previous statement made in response to your surprise questions. subfactors: previous history with "gotcha" people, willingness to confront, tolerance for ambiguity

5) Privacy. The "allowability" of a question varies like a function with a lot of inputs. Subfactors:

A) topic
B) the querent
C) the subject
D) the relationship of the subject and the querent
E) the length of time of the relationship and the querent
F) the perception that the querent will pass the data along to other parties
G) the perceived level of manipulativeness of the querent

6) I could go all day with this.

So, to answer that first question, the answer is that people are complicated, and that all of the factors and subfactors above, which are probably time-dependent, are busily churning about creating responses (or lack thereof) which you do not anticipate.

You just may want to turn down the robo-style "This android's purpose is to gather information; repeated queries have been frustrated by selected subjects; why?" tone as you begin to work on the rest of the issues:

First, examine your own statements, such as "If it's true that everyone has their own way of communicating, mine is to ask questions." A corollary of this might be "If it's true that everyone has their own way of communicating, it might be someone else's not to deliver instant answers." If it is okay for you to have your way, then do not be puzzled by someone else thinking it is okay for them to have their way.

This, combined with other statements, indicates that you are having difficulty properly reading social cues and also not doing so well at creating a working simulation of someone else's mind. These simulations nest.

A conversation, even a casual one, between two well-socialized adults features not merely Alice's mind and Bob's mind, but Alice approximating how Bob thinks at the same time Bob approximating how Alice thinks. For various reasons, it may be in Bob's best interests (maximization of some returns for Bob) to mislead Alice about how he thinks, as well as vice versa. Then, Bob is busy thinking about how Alice might relate information along to Cindy, so he has to then approximate all of that as well. This can be carried to many levels. It is partially empathy and partially game theory at work.

For a computer analogy, socialization is about virtualization of other minds. Not everyone is running the same OS at the same patch level, with the same software. Some people are good at virtualization and have the underlying hardware to run many, many simulations of other minds at once. Some cannot nest simulations so well, but are excellent in their accuracy of simulation. Some are fantastic at both. Please watch the "Iocane Powder" scene of The Princess Bride for an amusing fictional example of how this might work.

It will be to great benefit to your life if you first understand this, second realize that you deviate from the norm in this, and third, develop as many skills as you can manage to be able to perform with the norm. This does not mean you have to change; this means that the ability to "fit in" at will is highly valuable, and that, at this moment, you do not know this, think you're "okay," and have the situation entirely backwards.
posted by adipocere at 8:02 AM on May 23, 2009 [23 favorites]


OK, with the automatic proviso that relationshipfilter is always a shot in the dark:

I have an acquaintance who primarily interacts by asking questions. I have no idea whether you have similar drives or habits as my acquaintance, but what is irritating about it is that he never anchors himself down to any assertions about his own thoughts, perceptions, or wishes – he just asks endlessly about mine, and then gives no response that is indicative of any sort of continuum of understanding, or exchange. No "wow, I'm just the opposite" or "that's true, something totally similar happened to me once..." or "you would say that!", just various sounds acknowledging receipt of data such as "hmm" or "ok" or "uh-huh?", followed by another question shortly. I have the clear impression that it's an emotional-security-oriented habit: if he doesn't express anything fixed, no one can judge him, and as long as he is asking, no one is asking him. If you ask him about himself, you will get several variations on "what do you mean?/clarify please/that's an odd question to ask" until an opportunity comes up to revert back to the position of the questioner. For me it feels like spending time with a toddler, just with more personal questions than "do you like Baloo or Bagheera?", "Why do you like Bagheera?", "Why don't you marry Bagheera?", ad infinitum. I'm skeptical that he is building up his data set for application to a more compelling problem than the problem of how to have a nice chat when we're socializing.

If you have something similar going on (big if), and someone has gone so far as to tell you that they don't enjoy being put on the spot, they are engaged with you enough to want to see if it is possible to get a better outcome, and that should be seen as a positive thing.

The explanation that you should be able to parse meaning from inexact declarations can perhaps be interpreted as "by this time you should know me well enough to be able to deduce where I'm coming from, and when you ask instead of applying your existing understanding, you make me wonder whether your understanding of me has increased despite all the questions I've answered."
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:03 AM on May 23, 2009


Well, since it seems only an example will make what I'm trying to say clearer, I'll give one with a caveat. This is a public forum and the example I give has to be even more personal because I'm compelled to give it ... not exactly ideal for me, especially since I'm betting the help will be worth more than the risk. Besides, the rules for MF say try not to make the question too specific. I understand this because sometimes, detail only tends to make things more confusing rather than less. So, with that said, here is the example.

My girlfriend is not demonstrative but likes demonstration. No, from my POV and recollection, she was not this way when we met. I ask (and want and need and like) ocassional demonstration in kind (verbal, physical, etc) and am told, "You asking for this or that puts me on the spot (her words). You need to ponder (I paraphrased with parce) what I say when I say it rather than demand an answer to why you're not getting what you want.

Another example. I'm trying to understand, so I make a comparison. "Is your girlfriend easy to be with?" A quick "yes." I ask, "Why?" "Because we can just be heard." I ask, "So you know each other that well.? "Yes." "Am I easy to be with?" She walks out of the room without answering, and will not answer. Now, I know the cliche' is "If you have to ask, you aren't paying attention." But this is real life for me, not a sitcom. I want the relationship to survive and thrive because I like her and love her but I'm feeling clueless.

I'm here for help, not to be in anybody's snarky crosshairs. So please try not to be mean.
posted by CollectiveMind at 8:07 AM on May 23, 2009


Is it possible you give off the perception that even while persistently questioning them, you're not really listening to their answers? Because, uh, the answer for they don't like to be questioned is written right in your question. See, look:

questions make them feel like they're being forced into an answer
make them feel anything from disrespected to attacked


It seems like you're rejecting their personal comfort as a valid reason for disliking your conversational style, but that's the reason. They don't like it, and it makes them uncomfortable and that's all the reason you should need or want. Relating to your family is not about finding the most efficient possible method of communication, but one that works and leaves everyone comfortable. You asking questions and them answering them is not a conversation, it's an interrogation, and while it might be suitable for a court of law or a small, smelly room in a police station, it's not great for Thanksgiving Dinner, you know?

I think a big factor here, though, especially if you're talking about issues of any importance, is that if you're always asking the questions, then you're never the one putting yourself and your feelings out there on the line first. If you point blank ask me, to borrow a question from above "How do you feel about abortion?", I'm going to hem and haw a little and hedge my answer, not because I don't have a pretty good idea of how I feel about abortion, but because I don't have a pretty clear idea of how *you* feel about abortion, and I may not be spoiling for a fight at that particular moment.

If I have a sense of how the other person feels about the issue, it won't change my views on the subject, but it will change how I frame my answer. If I'm talking to someone who has just had an abortion, it might be "I'm so sorry that had to happen, it can't have been an easy thing to do but I'm glad the option was available to you in your time of need." If I'm talking to an anti-choice zealot, I'm going to frame it as "I do think it's necessary for it to be legal for a wide variety of reasons, though I can only hope we can find ways to reduce the numbers by offering better preventatives." If I'm talking to a pro-choice zealot, I'm going to frame it as "I wish there was much better education and availability on birth control so that people could make the choice before they got the point of needing an abortion, but obviously abortion needs to be readily available -- it's a woman's body, her life, her health." If all I've got from you is "What do you think about abortion?" I don't know if we're having this conversation because you just had one (though I suspect you're a guy) and want some support, because you just read about a protest or court case and want to discuss the constitutionality of it, or because you could never ever date a girl who was pro-choice and you're thinking of asking me out.

If you have to ask people questions, try giving your answer, at least briefly, first. That makes you the one who is hanging themselves out there, with no clear picture of how others are going to feel about your answer, instead of other people trying to answer into a void of information all the time. "I was just reading about this abortion case that got tried in Texas, and they're requiring parental consent, even if it might have been the father who raped the girl, and it just makes me so mad! What do you think?" or "It's outrageous that 10 gazilliion babies are aborted in America every year. It ought to be illegal, and if not totally illegal, then really hard to get! What do you think?"

When they answer, do the same thing. Demonstrate that you've heard and understood what they've said, add your own take on it, and return to a question only after you've actually contributed something to the conversation. "It's interesting that you say that we need to teach kids about abstinence so there isn't a need for abortions. I know we had abstinence education in my school, but that didn't stop kids from having sex. I can't help but feel safer sex education might have done a better job of helping them, since they were going to have sex anyway. Do you think it's possible to educate hormonal teenagers out of having sex? What would it take?"
posted by jacquilynne at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


That's a completely different question. For the latter example, she's probably getting upset because she doesn't no how to tell you "no."

It sounds more like her communication skills suck than yours do, tbh - which is very much not what I got from your original, highly generalized question.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:17 AM on May 23, 2009


And as I read more responses, I need to say I am a person, not a robot and I don't treat people like robots, especially not this person I love. I think it's unfair to make an assumption about me and encapsulate it in "robo" anything. In that respect, I could say these responses were within a range of predictability on the order of some kind of "Turing Test," but I'm not saying that becuase my belief is this is a community of empathetic human beings who want to give helpful answers. I mean, c'mon.
posted by CollectiveMind at 8:17 AM on May 23, 2009


Your girlfriend wants to feel that you understand some things about her intuitively. That is part of what she wants in a boyfriend. When you ask her to give you specific feedback, she feels like you are a dolt who isn't bothering to use context clues and think stuff through.

p.s. You are a dolt who isn't bothering to use context clues and think stuff through.
posted by bingo at 8:19 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Your follow-up actually changes the situation considerably. It sounds like you have explained that you need/want demonstrations of affection, and she's refusing to answer the question of why she can't and won't offer those things. That's an entirely different scenario from general conversations about current events or what to have for dinner, since it's very much about your relationship, and you need an answer.

What I can't tell is if she's objecting to:

"You never say I love you. Can you tell me now that you do?"

or

"You used to say I love you all the time, but now you don't. Since it's quiet, and we're home alone and not stressed out about other things, can we sit down and have a conversation about why that is?"

Or possibly both?

In the latter case, it might help if you read about using "I language" and work on framing that conversation in a less confrontational way. "I feel like I don't hear I love you as much as I used to. I would like to see us being more affectionate every day." Then, see how she responds to that.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:30 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


OK, that sounds a little different. So, you seem very literal in your communication, and your girlfriend if you've accurately described her here sounds a little put-out about something or prickly, and like she is omitting things that would be better expressed – a big mismatch at the moment.

I think that if you love someone and you want more demonstrative displays of affection from them, it is completely correct to just come right out and ask about it as you did, and not that cool for her to give an evasive answer. It sounds like she is stewing about something, which is kind of a tricky thing if you aren't a very intuitive communicator and she is being non-communicative! The walking out of the room is an awful response but sometimes people can do some high-drama stuff when communication is bad.

If it was important to me to find a way through that situation, I guess I would want to say something along the lines of "I can see that you're upset, and as you probably know, I'm a pretty literal person in a conversation – intuiting isn't my strong suit. But I like you and I love you and I want to know what is on your mind, so please tell me if something is wrong so we can talk about it."
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:34 AM on May 23, 2009


bingo, did you read the followup? It isn't doltish at all, the GF sounds like she has a more difficult communication style than the OP.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:37 AM on May 23, 2009


This is a hard question to answer, because we don't know you or how you come across, so some of these answers might be off base, but no one is trying to be mean. One question I have is, does this happen with people other than your girlfriend, or is this problem specific to your relationship dynamic?

Also

I ask (and want and need and like) ocassional demonstration in kind (verbal, physical, etc) and am told, "You asking for this or that puts me on the spot (her words).

Again, I don't know you or your relationship, but is it possible she feels like you are asking for a tit for tat? IE you say you love her in front of your co-workers, so now she must do the equivalent (without you taking into account that you feel more comfortable with your co-workers). Relationships are never 100% equal (though they should average out to equality) and she may be comfortable receiving certain signs of affection without feeling comfortable giving them. She might feel like you are only showing affection because you want something directly in return, or she simply shows her affection in different ways than you do.
posted by fermezporte at 9:13 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I rarely see my family in part because they feel entitled to any information they might think of to ask, and this includes extended family, the kind that don't send so much as a birthday card. Sharing DNA doesn't entitle them or anyone else to information about me, especially of the "well, why don't you visit your mother more?" persuasion. Of course I have a reason - and that reason is nobody's business but mine, and arguably my mother's.

Work on your empathy. You're probably asking questions that bring up an emotional minefield, and that means that by asking all those questions you're evoking negative feelings in people when it's absolutely not necessary to do so. Seriously, practice a)reading emotional signals and b)thinking about how someone might feel in response to your question before asking the question.
posted by medea42 at 9:19 AM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


YTMS, I did read the first follow-up (the second didn't appear til my second comment did), and I think it cements the fact that the OP is being obtuse.

Come on, now. This is a cliche. The guy is upset that the girl won't say exactly what she means, and the girl is upset because the guy's endless blunt questions show that he isn't trying hard enough to understand her.

"Am I easy to be with?" She walks out of the room without answering, and will not answer.

What this means is that she wants you to spend some thinking about why you're not easy to be with. She doesn't want to have to spell everything out for you, because that makes her feel like you're not paying attention to her, that you don't care enough about making a connection with her at a non-verbal, emotional level. The fact that you end your sentence with "...and will not answer" implies that you probably asked the question more than once, even though she had implied that she wasn't going to answer. Just doing this shows that you are not making an effort to take her non-verbal communication seriously. If you made more of an effort in this regard, she would probably feel better about answering all your questions.

On another note. Every answer carries with it an entire context, and sometimes that context is too cumbersome to make it worthwhile to answer the question. You're not comfortable giving a lot more information about the situation you're asking for help with, and it's possible your concerns are well-grounded, but without knowing them, they may appear to some of us as non-existent or implicitly silly.

Similarly, if the answer to "Am I easy to be with?" is obviously going to lead to a long series of confrontational questions, each of which are definitely going to spawn more of the same, and the answer to the question is "No, because you insist on asking me questions like that," then of course she isn't going to answer.

This is just part of what it's like to have a girlfriend. You have to spend time thinking about what she wants but isn't saying.
posted by bingo at 9:20 AM on May 23, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm trying to understand, so I make a comparison. "Is your girlfriend easy to be with?" A quick "yes." I ask, "Why?" "Because we can just be heard." I ask, "So you know each other that well.? "Yes." "Am I easy to be with?" She walks out of the room without answering, and will not answer.

Christ, I would walk out on this. This is not snark; I'm being honest. People just don't go at each other with blunt tools like this. You sound like you're trying to extract something or demand proof. And you're using shooting questions: yes/no answers.

People (usually) reveal themselves in the course of apparently meaningless conversation. It is the medium through which people draw out what they feel and believe. You seem to think this is because people are evasive or maddeningly indirect. No. I believe the distinction I'm about to make is very important and might help:

I do not know what I am inside. I do not know what I feel. I don't have answers formed into hard pellets ready to be handed over. If you ask me exactly what I am feeling and thinking, I can either find nothing or falsehoods. I don't want to hand these things over to you.

The philosopher David Hume said that when we look inward we see a stage with a procession of actors and scenes, constantly leaving and joining the stage. We do not see a series of hard-edged propositions, ready-formed. There's a kind of music within, a hum and an indirect set of patterns and belongings. When you demand of someone that they pull out what they believe and set it into concrete terms, the music and hum disappears.

You put a river in a box, it isn't a river. Most people like the river within, which flows outward through humor, anecdotes, silence, chit-chat, seemingly disconnected statements. Over time the self emerges but never has to set itself into stone.

You keep demanding that people yield themselves up to you, when perhaps they want to relax and let themselves out in (the horror!) their own terms. You may be a bit tone-deaf to the music of daily life and conversation, which feels more natural and true — because it is more natural and true. It's the question-response self, the one you seem to think gets to the "deep" self, that is false.

Try to enjoy people more on their own terms. They're on to something.
posted by argybarg at 9:21 AM on May 23, 2009 [26 favorites]


I got a little windy there. Let me try to boil this down. There are two contradictory propositions:

A) People are being the most authentic and revealing when they say exactly what they're thinking; or

B) People are being the most authentic and revealing when they're talking aimlessly and indirectly.

You believe A is correct. I argue for B.
posted by argybarg at 9:26 AM on May 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


In all seriousness, you have to consider that the first half of this thread is people trying to guess at exactly what you were asking, and I'm lost even after your follow-up on it. So you might want to consider that maybe you're not so great at asking questions. Part of communication--particularly when you are trying to get information--is trying to get yourself on level with the person you are asking; when someone does not answer or simply walks away, you're likely not succeeding at that.
posted by troybob at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


This is a public forum and the example I give has to be even more personal because I'm compelled to give it ... not exactly ideal for me, especially since I'm betting the help will be worth more than the risk.

There's a lesson here: you don't like being put on the spot and required to give more specific information publically, and you give many cogent reasons why you feel that way.

This should help you answer your own question. Extrapolating from your own response, people don't like being put on the spot because:
- sometimes, the specificity is too revealing;
- sometimes, the risk of exposure or confidential sharing is not worth the reward;
- sometimes, detailed responses only cloud the larger question;
and so on.
posted by Elsa at 9:28 AM on May 23, 2009 [9 favorites]


Occasionally, an uncomfortable answer is uncomfortable not only because it means that your original assumptions were incorrect, but because it can break through the fog we have when filtering how we receive the world. And when it comes to people, the most helpful answer is not necessarily the answer with which you may be most comfortable. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do involves some short-term unpleasant realities, rather than giving you what you'd like to hear. Search for "DTMFA" on AskMe sometime; you'll hear far worse.

If you're uncomfortable, consider the discomfort of others, which you have apparently not picked up on. Empathy starts with pain and the ability to recognize it in others. If two people have told you that they're uncomfortable, ask yourself the question, "Are they the only two, or are they the only two who have mentioned it?"

Now, supplied with actual details, this has started to turn more into a difficult relationship question between Cryptic Girl and Literal Boy than a general communication question. Which is fine. But, really, just the fact that you asked one thing while meaning another suggests that you do have a communication issue that you could really benefit from working on, separate from the relationship itself. Similarly, you've just revealed that you are conflating asking questions and asking for affection, the latter being not a question, but a request.

Maybe "But I don't see how an exchange of statements, and parcing truth from time spent 'pondering' them improves or progresses communication or a relationship." is entirely tied to the Difficult Relationship in question, but you seem to be phrasing it as if this is a concern you have with all interpersonal interactions. If you genuinely believe this, then you are having some trouble picking up "the rules." In the near-term, communication between the two of you sounds strained; you can help by learning to meet her halfway.

If you are as old as I think you are, and this particular issue is just now surfacing for you, being blunt is not hostile, it's hitting an airhorn because nudges, winks, and wild waving of arms has yet to attract your attention. Dismissing it because the topic may be painful to you may not be of great help in the long run. Concern can be seeing what clothing your roommate has laid out for an important job interview tomorrow and saying, "You're not going to a movie tonight, bucko, we're going to get you some clothes, now" because, after twenty-five years, nobody has managed to wake him up to the idea of work-appropriate attire. I'm concerned, and the concern of others may not always be a pleasant thing if you're in an actual "situation."

Or, hey, you could have had a bad day for phrasing things and accidentally combined it with a lack of details which makes your original question read completely different from reality. Who knows? These are assumptions because, from here, assumptions are all we can make.
posted by adipocere at 9:37 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, but the point and the difference is I am willing to take the risk.
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:37 AM on May 23, 2009


"Am I easy to be with?" She walks out of the room without answering, and will not answer.

How can you need any more of an answer than that? What is the point in pressing her?


I'm here for help, not to be in anybody's snarky crosshairs. So please try not to be mean.

Look, with all possible kindness and not snark: you're really asking for it. Your question-asking style here, on MetaFilter, in this thread, is confrontational and reads as condescending. If that's how you ask questions in real life, I am not surprised people are put off by it.

Your girlfriend is not answering because she does not want to hurt your feelings. From what little we can parse out from your information, she sounds patient and kind to me.

I'm also pretty sure that she is not the one with communication problems, here. Try listening more deeply instead of asking more sharply.
posted by rokusan at 9:38 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoops. Sorry.

"Yes, but the point and the difference is I am willing to take the risk" And maybe I'm wrong, but I think you risk with people you believe are willing to risk with you.

That was for Elsa. Sometimes MeFi is faster than I think.
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:40 AM on May 23, 2009


Yeah, I also agree with those who say that you are not great at formulating questions or being forthcoming with information yourself. For example, this:

My girlfriend is not demonstrative but likes demonstration. No, from my POV and recollection, she was not this way when we met. I ask (and want and need and like) ocassional demonstration in kind (verbal, physical, etc) and am told, "You asking for this or that puts me on the spot (her words). You need to ponder (I paraphrased with parce) what I say when I say it rather than demand an answer to why you're not getting what you want.

...means basically nothing. We could play mad libs all night coming up with interpretations of that paragraph. Are you talking about what she likes in bed? Do you wish she moved her arms more when she's talking? Do you want her to give specific examples when making a point about generalities? It's completely unclear.
posted by bingo at 9:40 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The questions you used as examples are exceptionally loaded. They each have a "right" answer, i.e. one that allows life to proceed safely, and another answer that throws safety out the window and opens the door for scary stuff. If one of the potential answers to your question is unsafe, then honesty is extremely challenging. Nobody likes to answer hard, scary questions every day.

Do you really expect the answer to "am I easy to be with?" to come easily and with a smile? This absolutely comes off as an application of pressure, not at all like information gathering.

Also:

I could say these responses were within a range of predictability on the order of some kind of "Turing Test," but I'm not saying that becuase...

But you are saying it, and then following it with a false claim that you're not saying it, to deny others the chance to disagree with you. Is this typical?
posted by jon1270 at 9:42 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


And this could be a bad day for me. I mean, we did just have a fight. Without trying to be condescending, I don't feel like I'm being so. I'm not talking down to anybody. But you're right rokusan about these being the kind of questions I should expect from MeFi since these are the range of answers I should expect from the range of people in the world. I'll read them and see if I can apply them.
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2009


Sometimes, I get frustrated because it feels like they're just dodging what I'm trying to understand, as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms.

This stuck out a little bit. Unless compelled by some hierarchical situation, such as military chain of command or judicial process, people indeed have the right to answer (or not answer) questions entirely on their own terms.
posted by troybob at 9:47 AM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Jon, I was comparing the answers from the collective to the way some in this collective say I seem to ask questions; robotic, mechanical, withou feeling, etc. It was a metaphor.
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:51 AM on May 23, 2009


"Yes, but the point and the difference is I am willing to take the risk" And maybe I'm wrong, but I think you risk with people you believe are willing to risk with you.

That was for Elsa. Sometimes MeFi is faster than I think.


Yup, that was clear, but thanks for making sure.

My point was not to snark at your (understandable) reluctance to disclose, but only to point out that your own reluctance is similar to the reluctance of other, that you have common ground with people who are reticent in the face of your questions, and to suggest that you might find their behavior more understandable if you examined your own wish for privacy and reluctance to disclose.

I know you overcame that reluctance to give us a detailed example; I'm just pointing out that you felt it to begin with, and that the feeling itself is instructive and directly relates to your question.

Further: yes, people do take risks of self-disclosure and openness in their close relationships. Most of us are more likely to do so when we're confident that this openness will be met with empathy and kindness. When they are met instead with more probing questions and challenges for clarity or motivation, it's far easier for the person being questioned to shut down or deflect further questions than to trust that they're being met with a spirit of kindness and goodwill.
posted by Elsa at 9:52 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sometimes, I get frustrated because it feels like they're just dodging what I'm trying to understand, as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms.

This stuck out a little bit. Unless compelled by some hierarchical situation, such as military chain of command or judicial process, people indeed have the right to answer (or not answer) questions entirely on their own terms.


No kidding. I wonder if the OP would be willing to explain what, exactly, is wrong with other people's expectation that in conversations they should feel free to express themselves on their own terms.
posted by argybarg at 9:54 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, it seems that multiple users here are attempting to understand what you're trying to communicate and that many of us are still having a hard time grasping it following your explanations. Your initial clarification muddied the waters quite a bit for me. For instance, this passage . .

My girlfriend is not demonstrative but likes demonstration. No, from my POV and recollection, she was not this way when we met. I ask (and want and need and like) ocassional demonstration in kind (verbal, physical, etc) and am told, "You asking for this or that puts me on the spot (her words). You need to ponder (I paraphrased with parce) what I say when I say it rather than demand an answer to why you're not getting what you want.

. . . does not really clear thinks up for me at all. It is apparent that your communication style is presenting some difficulties for some people. No one was actually accusing you of being a robot, yet you felt the need to respond that you are a human and that this is not some sort of Turing test. I don't believe anyone thought that it was, but your literal communication style and interpretation of people's remarks certainly didn't help your case.

The fact that multiple well-meaning people are having a very hard time understanding what you're saying should be enough to give you pause, your original question aside. I do not say this to attack you.
posted by proj at 10:05 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is there a language or culture barrier at all? Your questions and comments come across a little bit as English as a second language. I ask because when I was operating in a foreign language and culture I was blunt just because I didn't know the language well enough to be otherwise, and I definitely missed social cues. My language skills were far far below yours, but I'm getting the feeling that missing subtleties and social cues might still be playing a part.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:21 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't speak emotionally, completely without defensiveness and defiance. I can't say things that are impervious to dissection. Emotions muddle. When I'm getting opinion, I can't be honest without sometimes not being PC. Is this so alien? From Montaigne to Matthew, the message is there is nothing none of us has done that all of us either have, will or have the capacity to do. So I seek empathy for my humanity. And if I show my flaws in the course, my hope is it makes understanding, counsel and compassion from others easier to get. I can't say these comments are because I don't have good command of the language for expression. I am told daily how I should be in theatre, or teach or whatever because others say I do communicate well. But you are all intelligent people and you all can't be that far off base with this MeFi's brand of semantic triangulation. It's a lot to think about; should you try to take another look at an assumption about yourself. Anyway, thank you all.
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:37 AM on May 23, 2009


Look, you're an odd communicator. I am sometimes too. I'd encourage you to think of this:

You probably do a fair amount of hoping that people will adjust to your communication style. Return the favor, as generously as you can. Your life will improve.
posted by argybarg at 10:49 AM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Honestly, your extremely literal interpretation of these answers (imagining that when people say "robotic," they mean everything that is true of a robot is true of you, such as that you have no feelings), along with your insistence on efficient information-sharing as the main purpose of communication, strike me as clinical-level misreading of social cues. Is there something you're not telling us here?
posted by palliser at 10:53 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am told daily how I should be in theatre, or teach or whatever because others say I do communicate well

Not to be snarky but are you sure they weren't being sarcastic? Your literal interpretations of people's comments here make me think that maybe you wouldn't pick up on it if they were. Or maybe your verbal communication is very different than your written communication (or perhaps you're just flustered from your fight and are not normally so bad at expressing yourself)

The thing that really leaped out at me from your original question was this: as if they're giving what they want but only on their own terms. Yes they are, that's how it should be, unless, as someone else mentioned up-thread you are their superior in the military or similar. You have no right to demand people answer your questions on your terms unless you are in a position of power over them. This is not how equals (ie. friends, partners, co-workers) communicate.
posted by missmagenta at 11:34 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


A thought experiment.

When people answer your questions, or share any information with you, think of that as a gift. Even if you don't like the answer, the person just shared something with you that they didn't have to share.

See, you're not entitled to any information just because you ask a question. In fact, sometimes asking something, especially discourteously, can put you further from the answer than you started out. This is how relationships work, because people -- all people -- are very complex balls of their own special anxieties.

When someone gives you information, try to appreciate it, respect it, and reciprocate... and do that before asking for more more more.
posted by rokusan at 11:47 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


My first thought, upon reading your question, was that the contents of people's minds are not yours to plunder freely for your edification and amusement. You're not entitled to question people and get the answers you desire. It is strange that you would object to people being less than forthcoming in the face of your questioning.

People are often insecure about their opinions and what they know and what they believe. What, to you, may be innocent curiosity about, say, someone's relationship with his girlfriend, may come across to that person as a skeptical cross-examination (thus a form of disrespect) or nosiness (thus a lack of respect for personal boundaries) or an immature prying (thus an annoying waste of time).

I have been around people who, in my view, asked too many questions, and their approach wasn't tactful --- they presented themselves as being entitled to quiz and interrogate on any topic whatsoever concerning the other person, thus putting themselves forth almost as a prosecutor or judge. It is just plain weird.

I sense, from your question, that you have a high self-regard and when people "dodge" your questions you are offended that your admirable, wide-ranging curiosity and questioning isn't welcomed. In all candor, you ought to work on being more understanding of how you are perceived by your peers, and asking this question on AskMe is certainly a good first step.
posted by jayder at 12:18 PM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm speaking about this from my own experience, and what I've experienced from the receiving end as well. A generalized question, as you've posed originally, and a question about relationship dynamics are really two different areas.

I think what you're trying to articulate is a question about trust. You're asking questions that have a hint of passive-aggressiveness to them -- "Don't you love me?" "Can you say you love me?" "Why don't you ever .. etc."

This isn't a way to determine someone else's feelings or judge the depth of trust, it's a way to encourage aggressive behavior. It's a way to pull answers out, or to push the conversation to your needs. If she were to say "Yes, I love you" then you have the opening to say "Then why don't you..." If she responds that she does not or is not sure, then you again have the supposed upper hand in that you can ask other leading questions.

If someone is feeling disagreeable, then asking them flat-out whether they have a positive emotion about you is virtually worthless, in my experience. A generalized need on her part for demonstrative behavior -- which I take it to mean is verbal acknowledgement of your feelings, token gestures of affection, and physical intimacy -- isn't an ultimatum. Directly asking for something in conversation, such as a leading question, is. It's direct and lacks nuance, and as you mentioned, you're probably emotional and abrupt. Are you asking for empathy for your general feelings, or for your lack of understanding of why she is placing these general expectations on your behavior?
posted by mikeh at 12:22 PM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The old chestnut is that whenever you ask "Why do some people [do annoying thing]?" the answer is: "Why are you being so annoying?"
CollectiveMind's profile:
...
Ask MeFi: 24 questions by CollectiveMind, 35 answers
So why don't youlike answering questions? (A more typical ratio is 1:20 or 1:100 questions-to-answers. Or maybe we're all know-it-alls.) To add to the introspection, look at how defensive you're being.

The communication skills you've shown in this thread have given a lot of people the impression you're a conversation bully who feels like they own the conversation and demands satisfaction from those who participate.*

That's not a conversation. A conversation is the free flow of thoughts and ideas from the people involved. If I don't want to answer a question, or don't want to talk about religion, or don't want to talk about work, or some other subject large or small--It's not your call to make. Asking questions might make you feel more informed, but it makes the conversation all about you. That's really tiring for anyone to be around. Good conversational questions are more open than the ones you ask, and give the other person a chance to shine. Asking someone "Why don't you like coconut?" is annoying as hell. They don't care why they don't like it, they just don't. They've never examined it, they never will and they never want to. There's no point, nothing to be gained (for them) from knowing the answer. On the other hand "Where is your favorite place in the whole world?" is a decent conversation question because it's open ended and lets them talk about something they care about. And you'll learn a lot more about the person than you will from your tiny, focused questions.

Personal relationships aren't based on information, they're based on feelings. So next time you want to ask a question, don't. Stop and listen to them and listen to yourself. What do you feel the answer is? Were you really clueless about the "Am I easy to be with?" question?

No, you knew exactly what the answer was. That is why you asked it. Questions like that aren't random. It's the same kind of stupid question as "Does this make me look fat?"

And for the record, the best possible answer to "Am I easy to be with?" is walking out of the room. Other acceptable options would be rolling of eyes, laughing in your face, and "Are you fucking kidding me?!?" followed by storming out of the room.

*Including me, but I'll try to give you the benefit of the doubt. Remind me to tell you about the time I posted a similar question while full of cold medicine.
posted by Ookseer at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Other posters aside: I've been there. I've had the conversations that you have with your girlfriend. The reasons are different, though, and I'm not sure my advice will be entirely applicable. I hope this helps.

I also have to say that this is hard for me to talk about without getting angry. These kinds of conversations, where communication fails and both parties resort to cliches (male: typical interrogative approach; female: cold-shoulder/you should know without me telling you) are infuriating. For both my wife and I.

First things first: this kind of conversation is a vicious cycle. Do. Not. Go. There. Break this cycle like the plague. This is one of the most damaging, brutal, inhumane communication failures that can happen in a relationship, where one party incessantly questions the other, who then shuts down and refuses to answer. Understand this for what it is: an abnormal communicative state that must be terminated before feelings are hurt. Install a kill switch in your head. Now. When you sense yourself, or her, jumping into one of these loops, shut it down. "Do you remember the last time we talked about whether I was easy to be with, and you turned and walked away from me? I'm sorry, I'm about to ask you a lot of unfair, loaded questions, and I don't want to do that. Really, babe, I'm sorry, but I don't want to have another fight like this, and I refuse to say hurtful things to you. I need 30 minutes to take a walk. I'll come back when I'm calmer." Think nuclear safety, dude.

You know, when I get in that zone, it's usually when I feel pricked, or disrespected. The last time I wasn't sweeping fast enough (I was moving furniture out of the way instead of just sweeping around it; she had just woken up and was in a horrible mood and already angry at me for making too much noise). I snapped (what the christ I am sweeping up your trash that you were too lazy to throw away the least you can do is shut up when you ask me to go out of my way) and escalated hardcore. It ended 8 hours later in a screaming match. Another time she said that she didn't like a mutual friend's behavior toward his girlfriend. Me: whywhywhywhy. The truth of it is, I disagreed, and was asking gotcha questions. I do this with my wife and I hate that I do. Sometimes I forget or lose control of myself, but it's a horrible, horrible thing to do. I do it because I feel hurt by her actions, or too insecure to challenge her directly.

One particularly odious trigger for me is anything resembling "drama", and I expect you're the same. I believe in, and take pride in, being an honest, straightforward person who doesn't make unfair demands in conversation. I fuck up when I take offense that others don't communicate in the same way. I may see myself doing that, but not everybody sees relationships that way. Most don't! Ooooooh do loaded statements/questions and cold shoulders set me off! My first, immediate, and visceral reaction is "UR DOIN' IT WRONG LET ME SHOW YOU HOW IT'S DONE" and then if my lecture isn't received well (it never is) I think to myself "OK LET ME SHOW YOU WHY THIS IS BAD HERE HAVE SOME OF YOUR MEDICINE". I miss the message COMPLETELY when I'm in that headspace! Communicatron Lecturebot 3000 is not a good husband. In hindsight, I slap myself for not getting it.

What I'm not getting, pretty simply, is that forcing others to communicate the way I do is just about the most selfish fucking thing there is, especially when my partner is in emotional duress and coming to ME for security.

Your example 1: My girlfriend is not demonstrative but likes demonstration. No, from my POV and recollection, she was not this way when we met. I ask (and want and need and like) ocassional demonstration in kind (verbal, physical, etc) and am told, "You asking for this or that puts me on the spot (her words). You need to ponder (I paraphrased with parce) what I say when I say it rather than demand an answer to why you're not getting what you want.

Compare to my wife's, "Sometimes I just need some things, and you have to give them to me. It's that simple. Sometimes I need you to put my needs before anything you have going on. And it should be obvious to you when that is."

????? Wha? What...needs? I thought this was supposed to be mutual? I'm just supposed to sweep the floor badly because you're in a shitty mood when you wake up? You call me down here to sweep up your mess, then insist that I do it badly?! You need this?

Yes she does. It's that simple. Yes she does. It's...it's ridiculous on the face of it, but she needs this. She was in a terrible mood, I had already done something to piss her off, she'd been sleeping badly for days, and she was in no condition to be respectful or mindful of what I needed at that moment. To err is to be human, no? I dug my heels in and so did she. She needed validation that I cared for her, and she needed it from me, this way, right now. That set off my drama detector (because I need drama to not happen period), I wasn't in a good mood either, and kablooey. Most of the time she's on the same page as I am about that, and there are plenty of times she tells me to tone down the drama too. And god help the poor person who comes to us both at the same time for relationship advice! We tag-team the same no-drama/effective communication/silly-but-valid-demands line, and give no quarter.

In your relationship, you need demonstrative affection. She needs...well, if I had to proffer a guess, I'd say she needs more demonstrative affection than she will give, because somehow, it will help her feel safe. As she's an adult in a relationship, this is an entirely fair thing to expect. She needs this validation from you, period. There is a reason why, but she will never tell you until she sees you can do it. When she feels safe talking about why, she'll tell you organically, likely not all at once, in fact likely over the course of months/years you'll come to understand why. You'll never badger it out of her. Stop trying, and apologize profusely for the times you have, if you want to save this.

Again, you're "putting her on the spot" because you're asking her to explain something she can't right now, and won't be able to until you make her feel safe. She's told you how to make her feel safe, demonstrate affection for her. This should be enough. She does not parse in words why she needs this, and she can much less be expected to explain it to you, especially at her most vulnerable. Maybe she can tell her friends or something, but in a relationship, you are her emotional safety/validation provider. To her this feels like running up to a policeman and saying "someone's trying to kill me!" only to hear "explain to me why I should do anything about that, and provide the relevant legal references."

Your example 2: I'm trying to understand, so I make a comparison. "Is your girlfriend easy to be with?" A quick "yes." I ask, "Why?" "Because we can just be heard." I ask, "So you know each other that well.? "Yes." "Am I easy to be with?" She walks out of the room without answering, and will not answer. Now, I know the cliche' is "If you have to ask, you aren't paying attention." But this is real life for me, not a sitcom. I want the relationship to survive and thrive because I like her and love her but I'm feeling clueless.

I bolded that, because, heh, welcome to my life, pal.

But this is love. This is what you accept and do for the person you love. Not until it breaks you, no. But you will do some of it, and if you go in with a brook-no-dissent rejection of the surreality and frustration of it, every relationship you have will fly off the tracks and die a fiery death.

What gets me through is the realization that she feels the same way sometimes. My wife, do you know, is not of my culture, doesn't speak my native tongue, and doesn't understand a lot about me, my attitudes, where I come from, and why I do what I do. But she accepts me. She sacrifices for me. She allows that I'm different and steps back and lets me be who I am despite some of the things she wants, for no better reason than I want to be this way. It's 3am, and I'm not in bed; she is. I love Doritos and drink Rogue Dead Guy Ale, and ingest a lot of both; she's an anti-intoxicant/junkfood health freak. I love me some internet; she thinks it's all vapid and pointless and doesn't understand 90% of the websites I visit, since they're in English. Me and my expat friends and our hatred of loud clubs/preference for sitting and drinking to a stupor is incomprehensible. She'd rather go dance. Sometimes I go with her, but most of the time she allows me my North American People Time, and occasionally even comes along to show my friends she doesn't hate them.

She sacrifices/puts up with a lot from me. And she expects that the fact that she's with me, cooks me dinner sometimes, and comes upstairs to talk to me or points at something funny on TV is enough for me to get it. And sometimes it's not for me...and that's called taking her for granted. That's what she thinks when I start asking her questions like this. And she has cold-shouldered me about it. She thinks, "I'm HERE, I'm WITH YOU, I'm your WIFE, I signed the piece of paper, what about that isn't enough for you?" That's what she's saying when she gets up and walks away. That and, "How DARE you set up yes/no questions that call my love for you into question?" She'd rather walk away than say, "No, you're not easy to be with, and I'm not going to be baited into saying I don't love you, because it's not true!"

It is not fair, at all, that I should have to realign my emotional sensors to understand her cryptic-ass cues. But guess what - she's thinking the same thing, and given the way she communicates, she's obviously less verbal than you, so it's gotta be you who recalibrates first, dude! You have to understand that she's sending you validation by just being with you. I know the type, 'cause I'm married to one. From her perspective, it's a "duh" proposition. She could be with any schmuck out there, but she picked you.

That's not a fair situation, but love isn't fair. It's not fair that my wife goes to bed without me half the time. It's not fair that I can't get a god-damn straightforward answer sometimes. But this is not a court of law, where redress for injustices is impartially handed down from on high. Relationships are a mutual arrangement of trust and security that is achieved through the careful revelation of personal vulnerabilities and the acceptance and forgiveness of such.

I don't think you're a difficult communicator at all (at least when you're not feeling defensive - I sound a lot like you right now when I have a fight). Other than that I'm real freakin' long-winded, I don't think I am either. But where I screw up, and I think you too, is that you feel you're owed that straightforward answer, because we feel we owe others a straightforward answer, and that's why we ask. In most situations, that's a fantastic habit. We get the whole situation and we brook no screwups. But we, friend, are not owed that in love. We are owed nothing, and everything we get from our partners we have earned by making them feel safe enough to share with us.

When she does that sighing thing and looks slightly away, or is silent when you come in the room, or calls her friend from in bed before she gets up and says good morning, and then she'll say good morning in that distracted I'm-in-another-world voice...that makes you feel less safe, doesn't it? It makes you wonder how much of yourself you can really share with this person, how much she'll get. So you...ASK. You're testing. You're impatient to know, to get to the bottom of the mystery and fix it. That doesn't work with intuitive communicators like my wife and your girlfriend, because the sigh, the silence, the call, and the distracted voice are telling you "I'm disappointed at what you're implying", "I'm engrossed in something, don't bother me", and "I have plans today." She's testing you too.

You don't have to guess right every time, but you do have to try to guess. Those examples are straight out of my marriage, and here's how I handle them. For the sigh, I say, "No, look, I wasn't saying you waste money, I'm just saying I don't think you get that buying this used TV gives you a higher marginal utility than a new one with a warranty. Really, here, let me show you the CRT vs. LCD failure rate numbers and some calculations, I pulled them off Google today." The silence? "Hey, working on that time machine again? Can I help?" The answer is usually no and a don't bother me, but with a smile, and it lets her know I care. The call & distracted voice? I talk nonsensically into my cell phone and narrate her morning routine until she notices. "She's wearing that gray Nirvana t-shirt again. Oh, see, there she goes, getting toast, she's blowing her nose now...yeah, no, she knows you're not real." That or I start mewling like a cat until she pays attention to me.

The walking away? The answer is to start guessing and stop asking. She wants you to intuit, so make the sacrifice and intuit. Engage her the way she wants to communicate. "You want to be heard. Hon, you're the most important person in the world to me, and I've been driving you insane. I hear that. And you feel like I don't get you, I hear that. I love you, and that's why I ask, and I also ask because I'm a selfish prick sometimes. I'm sorry for that. So no more questions, just I love you, and I desperately, really, truly want to hear everything about you. And that's all I'll say. I'll be here if you want to talk."

In your second example, she got angry because she thought you were baiting her to say she didn't love you...and you were. She was right to walk away instead of take the bait. No more of that. You're owed no straight answer, you're owed no validation, and you're owed no fairness. Your position is to give as best you can. That isn't fair, but you wouldn't be with her if her returns to you were not enough to make that sacrifice worthwhile, right? And that's her role too. Pride, frustration, fear, anger, insecurity...all these and more clog the communication channels, on either side. Your role is to eliminate them from your mind and forgive them in her. It doesn't matter who is right! It matters that you give in the way she's asking right now. You're not perfect, neither is she. Let her be imperfect for now. It'll get better with time, or you'll just get used to it. Either way, once you accept that she's entitled to communicate this way, and that she's coming to you to ask you for YOUR love and acceptance, because she wants it, it won't hurt so much.

Things with my wife are much, much better since things peaked about a year ago. We have a blowup every 4-5 months now, and they're not the screamfests they were. They're a sudden bang, and then a long, drawn-out process of asking each other "what just happened?". The point is, she knows I love her, and there's a lot less testing now. There is an end, but you will never see it until you surrender. Do it fast, before one of you decides it's not worth it anymore.
posted by saysthis at 3:13 PM on May 23, 2009 [13 favorites]


Wow, sooo many words in this thread. I sure hope some of them have helped you, but I'm not sure.

The main issue I see is that communication is mostly non-verbal conveyed mostly by body language, then less so by tone, and least of all by words. It is clear that you have a communications challenge in a relationship you care about, and you took the initiative to do something about it. Great! Except I think none of us are in a position to do any more than speculate with you and hope that
a) someone stumbles on a good interpretation and
b) you recognize it when that happens

Given the personal nature of many of the interpretations this seems very unlikely to me.

Do you have any friends, family, associates or other trusted individuals you could talk with about this in person? If you genuinely open to the possibility that there is a way of understanding communication that you had not seen you might find a good coach to help you through this. I've also heard of the concept of a conversation club, although know little about them personally. An environment like that may be what you are asking for here.

As long as you are trying to figure out which of you is 'right' in the conversation you are on the wrong path, but I think you are beginning to see that now.

Best of luck.
posted by meinvt at 6:42 PM on May 23, 2009


The conversational style you are using (blunt questions) is more appropriate to interrogations by police, military, and attorneys in courtrooms, where answers are expected or coerced.

If I met you at a party and we were conversing and you asked me a pointed question or two (just because you want to know!) I would tell you to go f*ck yourself and walk away. That's because I require, at a minimum, tact in a conversation, and prefer respect, understanding, compassion, and caring.

If you love this woman, it will pay to treat her with more tact, respect, understanding, compassion, and caring.

Alternatively, you might look for a relationship with a woman who is not repulsed by your questions, and will answer them with direct, brutally honesty. You will get answers to your questions, but you may not like them.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:04 PM on May 23, 2009


When I'm getting opinion, I can't be honest without sometimes not being PC. Is this so alien? From Montaigne to Matthew, the message is there is nothing none of us has done that all of us either have, will or have the capacity to do. So I seek empathy for my humanity. And if I show my flaws in the course, my hope is it makes understanding, counsel and compassion from others easier to get....

Okaaaaay...with all due respect, the way you tend to phrase things is very curious. I almost thought you were a troll, because phrases like "from Montaigne to Matthew" make me think of a guy who, uh, really likes giving commencement speeches. Or expressing things in terms of very broad generalizations, like when you're writing an essay or something.

Hey, that's great for commencement speaking or essay writing, but I can tell you right now there's at least a dozen of us scratching our heads at this kind of communication style. Here on mefi, at least.

On the other hand, I do feel you are sincere in your attempts to improve your social relationships.

Your difficulties with your lady friend sounds like there is some misinterpretation of social cues occurring.

Forgive me if I am overstepping my bounds, but I'm wondering if you have some form of Asperger's and whether or not it would be in your benefit to get tested.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:36 AM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


phrases like "from Montaigne to Matthew" make me think of a guy who, uh, really likes giving commencement speeches.

Yeah, I winced a little when I read that. It dredged up painful memories of me-at-nineteen.
posted by jayder at 7:27 AM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was in a relationship where my partner would ask blunt, personal, pointed questions and demand an answer immediately. I can tell you exactly how it made me feel: naked, vulnerable and a little scared.

It stemmed from his insecurities, I think. He didn't want to have to guess at my thoughts, nor was he secure enough to trust my thoughts and feelings unless he totally dissected them through these interrogation sessions.

When my answers about my feelings weren't logical, he'd debate my responses, which would result in me totally shutting down and being unable to respond.

It ruined the relationship and I eventually left him.

Be careful this isn't the path you're on.
posted by burntflowers at 1:39 PM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Forgive me if I am overstepping my bounds, but I'm wondering if you have some form of Asperger's and whether or not it would be in your benefit to get tested.

I couldn't think of a way to phrase this kindly enough, and I'm glad someone else did. It's what I meant by "something you're not mentioning here." I have some layman's experience with Asperger's (close family member), and the hyper-literalness, question-asking, and lack of insight into other people's moods and motivations pressed the same red button in my head.
posted by palliser at 2:13 PM on May 24, 2009


OP, what is your native language?

I think there may be a communication and culture barrier based on your language and culture of origin.
posted by mynameismandab at 11:29 PM on May 28, 2009


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