I just want to talk to you
November 10, 2012 12:21 PM   Subscribe

How do you learn to communicate with your partner when your communication styles don't match?

I'm having a lot of trouble just having a simple conversation with my romantic partner. Talking in online chat exacerbates the problem, but it's there in person too. It came up today because I'm traveling in a new city right now and my partner is at home, so we chat online to catch up. Here's a sample conversation:

Me: "I went to see such-and-such place today."
Partner: "What a place!"
Me: "Maybe tomorrow I'll see such-and-such other places."
Partner: "See all the places!"
Me: "You know, this city is all right, but I was kind of hoping for something more exciting."
Partner: (silence)

This kind of conversation, where I try to start a topic and my partner just repeats my words back to me in nonsense form, feels really alienating and distancing to me, like my partner doesn't care in the slightest about my experience in this new city. So I talked to them about it, and here's my best recount of what's going on.

From my perspective, I am giving an opening line and trying to gauge my partner's interest in the topic (and if they show interest I'll continue, and if they don't I'll stop). From their perspective, they feel like they're being prompted for an obvious and trivial response, almost like a robot. This feels manipulative to them, so they give a minimal response or say nothing at all. They suggested that I should "just say everything that I want to say" all in one go and then they can comment on that. They said they *are* interested in hearing what I have to say, but they don't want to be a conversation robot, because that "feels shitty."

But for me, "just saying everything" feels rude and even impossible. I would feel strange and awkward just pouring forth an entire narrative about my day, without any response to indicate interest or at least presence. And sometimes, I don't even know what I want to say yet -- having some questions would help me process my experience and come up with something coherent, rather than a jumble of half-formed thoughts.

I have absolutely no idea where to go from here. I can't just do what my partner suggested because it feels so wrong, I can't go on the way it is now, and I don't know of any alternatives. I've read one of Deborah Tannen's books on conversations, and while enlightening, it didn't really offer any solutions. My partner and I have also been to couples counseling together, but it didn't really touch on this. And while a temporary solution might be to just not chat online and leave it all for when I come back home, the same thing happens in person (although to a smaller degree -- at least there is eye contact and maybe an "uh-huh" or two, which helps, but they still won't ask questions or provide any of their own perspective unless asked directly).

How can I have a conversation with my partner and *feel* like they're actually interested in hearing about my experiences?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In your example, are you traveling for work or pleasure?

I can really relate to your partner in this situation. It seems like you want your partner to have thoughts and/or observations about the place you are currently visiting because you have thoughts and observations. But the fact is you are there and they are not and they aren't remotely on the same page as you when it comes to this fact.

It's normal to want to be on the same page with your partner when you are apart. It makes you feel closer. Perhaps this is just the wrong topic to connect with them on. When apart, it might make you and them feel better to discuss topics that you *both* have an opinion on and/or interest in.

I realize that my dissection relates to just one example.

Why is it important to you that your partner is interested in hearing about your experiences?
posted by dgeiser13 at 12:42 PM on November 10, 2012

In this specific situation (long-distance) it might actually work if you organized your thoughts in an email or blog post, let your partner read it, and then partner can relay his/her comments in a discussion later in the day. That way, partner doesn't feel like they are a "uh huh" "I see" "really" commenting machine, and you don't have to worry as much about whether your partner is interested or not, because the response is delayed and partner has some time to mull over their thoughts and respond in a loving fashion.

Face to face, this may or may not work well for you, but I'd suggest talking while doing something else together, like exercising or cooking. That might reduce pressure on your partner to respond quickly (because the silences are inherently filled with the other task).
posted by agress at 12:54 PM on November 10, 2012

Some people just hate and fear small talk. I have a friend who's like this - she can fake it, but she kind of loathes the sort of casual conversation where one person is supposed to make interested noises or, worse, formulaic responses. She is great at conversation where she has something to contribute, though, and our conversations generally go really well because I try to ask questions with concrete answers, and she knows that when I ask how she's been I actually do want to hear a precis of what her life has been like since I saw her last, not "Fine, how are you?"

Instant messenger is hard even for people who do small talk, because doing the "expression of polite interest" thing is a little unnatural and it's hard to gauge when to reply when someone is essentially telling you an ongoing story. In that specific case, what I'd do is stick to interactions via chat - ask him about his day, maybe mention something that he might have a response to, discuss scheduling or mutual tasks or whatever - and save the narrative for when you get home, or possibly just put it in a longer email that he can read at his leisure without feeling put on the spot for responses. If he's not good at managing conversational flow in general, it's just going to be worse via IM and you're going to have to pull more of the weight, at least in the short term.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:55 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

How do things work in a phone call for you two? Seems like there's an imprison other than IMs or waiting til you get home. I also think this is much easier to do in a conversation-those natural "um huhs" that we insert in conversation to indicate interest and encourage the other to go on are hard on IM-I never know what I should say. "yes?" "wow-tell me more!". That works but it isn't really how spoken conversations go.

I agree your partner's responses shut down the conversation. It also doesn't go well if you need a prompt after every sentence. Can you tell your partner what you need? For instance, what if you said "I'm excited about my trip to the museum! Can I tell you more?".
posted by purenitrous at 12:57 PM on November 10, 2012

Me: "I went to see such-and-such place today."
Partner: "What a place!"
Me: "Maybe tomorrow I'll see such-and-such other places."
Partner: "See all the places!"
Me: "You know, this city is all right, but I was kind of hoping for something more exciting."
Partner: (silence)

Here's a more ominous pattern I noticed in your snippet of conversation, and it may explain why your partner is disengaging and seems disinterested in you.

Me: "Something about me."
Partner: "Wow!"
Me: "Something else about me."
Partner: "More wow!"
Me: "Something else about me."
Partner: (silence)

Maybe I'm misinterpreting this - after all, you've only given us a very small fragment of your chat - but I've found that in general, the best way to get somebody more interested in you is for you to get more interested in them. What I took from reading this is that your partner would like a turn to talk about their own life and you're not letting this happen because it hasn't crossed your mind that this could also be a valid conversation topic. When you encounter a conversational lull like this, try taking a moment to ask about your partner instead of making everything about you and I think you'll find that the dialogue flows less awkwardly.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:02 PM on November 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

OP, you only give us this one example, but this is pretty trivial small talk. I would being giving responses pretty much the same as your partner. You want to feel that he is interested, which I hope means you actually wish he were interested, but how interested can he be in the places you might visit in the city where he isn't?

Like restless_nomad's friend, I do not see much use for small talk. How does your partner do in conversations that are a bit more substantial? I would find that more telling. Your day plans are nice, but they are not about you and thus I do not think his interest in where you had lunch today bears any relation to his interest in you.

And, I second was wolfdream said. I often must travel for work and whenever I call home, the conversation I initiate is to ask my wife how she and the kids are doing. To the extent I talk about what I am doing, it usually somehow relates to them. For example, when I took at business trip to Lancaster, I discussed my trip to the central market in the context of what I had bought to bring home to them. Maybe you might try conversing in a similar matter. Ask about what is going on at home and that will elicit questions about what you have been up to.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:42 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, I had the same reaction to your sample conversation as wolfdreams01. A conversation that's all one-sided becomes boring really fast. You feel like you are giving conversation prompts, but they are all about you. Your partner feels like they are responding to the prompts but has run out of stuff to say about your travels.

How about when you get to one of these pauses, you start asking your partner questions instead? "Are you still working on (whatever) with that jerk (whomever) over at (wherever)?"

If you think that sounds boring, honestly, that may be how your partner feels now. Concentrate on listening as much as talking when the two of you chat over everyday stuff.

Alternately, talk to each other less often, and make the conversations about stuff that really matters, like how much you are missing each other right now.
posted by misha at 1:50 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my immediate family this was resolved by one partner, my step-mother, learning to tell stories while my ever-stoic father nodded and smiled. It carried them thru over 30 years of marriage, Might I suggest that you create a monologue about what is happening in your circle of perception and just dump it on your partner. After you've given up all the information that you've accumulated ask a very specific question about what you would like some more information on and see if the stoic half was even paying attention.

This works particularly well in face to face conversation, in eMail, by the looks of your partner's responses, she/he was in the middle of a FPS and stopping to insert throwaway lines while really paying attention to gathering weapons/ammo/health.
posted by ptm at 2:01 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why is it important to you that your partner is interested in hearing about your experiences?

Could be that sharing experiences is part of being in a relationship.
posted by the noob at 2:28 PM on November 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

From my perspective, I am giving an opening line and trying to gauge my partner's interest in the topic (and if they show interest I'll continue, and if they don't I'll stop).

Instead of tossing out opening lines in the hope of maximizing response from the other party (which is manipulative, your partner is right), you might have better luck if you just say what is on your mind, share what excited/annoyed you that day or what you learned about newcity that you didn't know before, express interest in your partner's day/how his meeting went/what his dinner plans are. Be genuine, and you'll get more genuine responses.
posted by headnsouth at 3:45 PM on November 10, 2012

Does your partner have similar challenges communicating with other people, or is it just with you?

I dated a guy who had an autism spectrum disorder who had a hard time navigating the kinds of casual conversations you're describing, both with me in private and in other social settings. His main method of talking to me was either telling (very funny) jokes or giving me a monologue about things he had done that day, plots in books he was reading, etc. I had to explain to him that it was important to me that he ask how my day was and actually listen to the answer. Our conversations got smoother over the course of our relationship and I came to see his style as one of the quirks about him that I loved. So if you can adjust your expectations and get in the habit of telling him things instead of waiting to be asked, that could help.

Ultimately, though, I broke up with that guy in part because his communication style hurt my feelings. I had just come home from an emotionally fraught and very draining visit with my biological family. He picked me up at the train station and brought me home and never even asked how I was doing, how the trip was, etc. I experienced it as heartless and unkind. Later he claimed he was respecting my privacy, but that... just didn't work for me. There were other reasons behind the breakup, but communication was a part of it. Maybe if I had a thicker skin it wouldn't have been such a big deal.
posted by southern_sky at 4:02 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're not really giving your partner an "in". You're just stating facts; you're not asking them a question that's going to make them engage in the conversation. If you just want to talk at them about your day or process your thoughts about your day, write them an email. Don't use them as a way to tease out your thoughts about your singular experience, that can be pretty alienating.

I guess your partner could make "I am listening" noises more often, but they obviously feel as if their participation in this conversation is completely arbitrary because you could be talking to anybody and don't really care about their insight in this situation. This isn't an awful thing! You're not an awful person! It's just awkward to be on the receiving end.

I've found it helpful to include more detail in my statements, such as "I went to X today and I saw Y and it made me think Z. (Ask them a question related to their experiences with X, Y, or Z.)" For example, "I went to the museum and I saw the dinosaur exhibit and it made me think... man wouldn't it be awesome if we could ride sauropods? Which dinosaur would you ride if you could?" Don't use them as a journal - engage in a give-and-take conversation.
posted by buteo at 4:10 PM on November 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

Buteo for the win. You're simply making declarative statements (I know it's one discussion....). Consider this:

Me: "I went to see such-and-such place today. It made me think of you because of X,Y,Z."
Me: "Maybe tomorrow I'll see such-and-such other places. I wish you were here."
Me: "You know, this city is all right, but I was kind of hoping for something more exciting. You always know how to liven things up."

Don't lie, obviously. But you're just giving a travelogue. Have you ever read a travel book? There's not much to respond to.
posted by nevercalm at 5:30 PM on November 10, 2012

I have a completely different take on this, which probably means I am projecting my ex onto your partner. But, if I were in your conversational position, I would hope to hear back from my partner:

Me: I went to thus and such place today
Partner: What did you think of it? Did you enjoy yourself? Was it as good as you were expecting?

Me: Answer whatever question s/he asked. Which s/he asked because s/he is interested in learning about my inner life and how my daily experiences affect it (because s/he is my partner and partners are supposed to care about that sort of thing!).

And especially since you are away from home. You are having a unique experience, and shouldn't your partner care about that just because they love you? Wouldn't you be full of questions to ask your partner if s/he were the one on the business trip? I mean, sure, if you aren't asking questions of your partner, either, then I guess it's all blah blah blah Ginger, but if you ask questions of your partner about his/her experiences throughout the day, then not ever getting that back must feel pretty bad.

I'm wondering if your partner just doesn't know that much about basic communication dynamics. If s/he had an example like that of ptm's family, then this might just seem normal to him/her. To me, though, s/he just sounds selfish. I want all the information but I don't want to participate in the process.
posted by Brody's chum at 5:31 PM on November 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

They suggested that I should "just say everything that I want to say" all in one go

But for me, "just saying everything" feels rude and even impossible.

Have you tried?

Communication when two people have naturally different starting places can be hard. It sometimes requires experimentation.

They suggested something, you haven't tried it. That's bad communication.

So give pouring it all out a shot, let them know that you'll be doing that.
If it doesn't work try something else... like them preparing a list of nightly questions.

Your two "natural" states are not compatible, so you are going to have to try some stuff that will feel a little weird or forced at first.
posted by French Fry at 5:44 PM on November 10, 2012

Your communication desires sound totally natural to me. I'm going on the assumption that your partner's communication desires aren't disordered or dysfunctional in some way. That means this is somewhat of a cross-cultural relationship, and that you are suffering from culture clash. You're looking for a tennis game; your partner sounds like they're looking for a 10k relay race. IME conversation dynamics like this are such deep-seated differences that it may be impossible for you to ever take what your partner says as meaning anything other than "I'm not really interested in your day or your inner life, so why don't you just get with the executive summary already because these pompoms are heavy."

One thing you could try to make "just saying everything" feel less weird is for you and your partner to agree that it's okay to ask for reassurance when you feel insecure about doing something new and different. That would free you up to ask for backchannel responses during what you perceive to be monologue - things like "you're still interested, right?" or "beep beep! more input required" (to make light of the 'robot' thing). I think you can both train each other to produce something that is *more like* what you want from a conversation partner. It's never going to be perfect, but hell, you've been to couples' counseling with this person so it must be worth at least some work, yeah?
posted by katya.lysander at 7:23 PM on November 10, 2012

When I want something out of my husband and I don't get it, I ask for it in clear and specific terms. When I want to talk about something, I talk about it and don't require him to work to draw it out. I think you should either tell him about your day and be OK with the fact that he's a quiet, slow conversationalist, or you should help him learn how to talk to you by telling him in clear, specific terms what you are looking for.

In my experience, the best way to get my partner talking is to be quiet and sit with him for a while. If I talk a lot, he will support my stream of conversation but mostly leave it to me. When I ask him about his life or his day, I often make him feel pressured to talk about things that are low priorities to him when there are other things he'd rather talk about. If I sit with him quietly for a while, though, he has amazing things to say, and I become the supporting partner in this portion of the conversation. Before we lived together, I would practice being quiet with him over the phone, and he would eventually talk there, too.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:01 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Whenever I respond to my husband like your husband is responding to you, it's because I am distracted, probably by the internet or a book. A solution that works 100% of the time is going outside. We aren't long distance, so we sit or walk outside together. For you, I would suggest you both getting on the phone and walking around your own neighborhoods.

I don't have many suggestions for chat. It's amazing how much the internet can affect your conversations. I guess try you both having JUST the chat window open, nothing else.
posted by that's how you get ants at 8:10 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bueto's got an excellent point - I know it's online chat & all, but you're really not giving your partner much of an opening, much to hang a conversation on. They're really flat declarative sentences. Even adding a second sentence about some kind of detail could really help loosen things up:

"I went to see such-and-such place today. I thought the blah-de-blah sculpture by so-&-so in the foyer was really cool."

Now your partner's got something a little more concrete to respond to - they can ask why you thought the sculpture was cool, how it compares to other stuff you've seen in your travels, they can talk about the artist, or public art, or corporate art, all sorts of things.

I'm more in line with your partner or restless_nomad's friend, and it took me a loooooooooong time to get even a little comfortable with interjecting "unh-huh" or "oh yeah" or whatever little "I'm interested & paying attention" noises people use into conversations, and it feels even weirder in chat versus real life or phone conversations. Even now I'm far more comfortable making "small talk" by asking fairly direct questions. But again, I had to actually teach myself to do this, and it was not a quick process.

So you can ask your partner to provide you more in the way of immediate feedback, and let him know that you like questions, and you can also move a little farther towards giving your partner something to engage with, that they can respond to with something other than "mmh-hmh."

And I know that it feels weird to you, but you should really believe your partner when they say it's OK to "pour forth an entire narrative about your day." Us "quiet & slow conversationalists" like listening, a lot.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:31 AM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

One more thing I just thought of, too. You may have a tendency to think that since you are out working and your partner is at home, she/he is not as busy as you are and should be able to chat whereas you have to scurry to find a free moment. Meanwhile, your partner may be juggling some minor emergencies at home and the responses are brief for that reason; it's just not possible to have an involved conversation with other stuff demanding your attention.

You might want to ask if it is a good time when you first connect. If not, try to schedule a set time when you are both free to spend a little longer to connect with each other.

Also, ask your partner to initiate the conversation sometimes, so that he/she doesn't feel as if a particular response is expected.
posted by misha at 11:03 AM on November 11, 2012

It's manipulative to want to talk to a partner? Please.

Five Love Languages. It's not right or wrong to want to connect to someone at an intellectual or emotional level. That's what talking IS.

If you were trying to hug or touch your partner, and they repeatedly brushed you off, people would be up in arms...

Plus lack of conversation makes a long distance relationship IMPOSSIBLE. There is literally nothing else to the relationship but willingness to talk and share.

Nothing is more hateful:

Me: "I went to see such-and-such place today."
Partner: "What a place!"
Me: "Maybe tomorrow I'll see such-and-such other places."
Partner: "See all the places!"
Me: "You know, this city is all right, but I was kind of hoping for something more exciting."
Partner: (silence)

Yes. Yes, you were hoping for something more exciting. He thinks he's supposed to be like a ROBOT? That's not very respectful. Did he say that?

Here is a difficult lesson in life. Many people find conversation difficult at times... but it often becomes a lot less awkward, and spares the feelings of the other person to try. This is basic Pride and Prej. The way it goes, ideally, small talk leads to big talk and this big talk becomes the meat of togetherness.

Your partner may not have a lot to say because they may only care for discussing very practical matters, or only certain topics, or may be naturally less comfortable bonding through speaking.

In the above conversation (city conversation) it may also be that your partner is missing contextual cues or not able to infer things to talk about.

But this, on a regular basis is difficult: they still won't ask questions or provide any of their own perspective is difficult.

I will share how I get around this with someone I know who is an engineer type. He typically speaks very little. I would say that in practical intelligence he is strong. He also basically is social at heart. However, he does not use conversations to learn about other people. He would be classed as hard to talk to. If this is your BF, PM me and I will give you some tips....

The only clear thing is you're not doing anything wrong. IF there is some kind of breakthrough with this (surprise surprise, the kind of thing you would learn through talking) then it might get better.

Maybe TALK to your boyfriend about this!!!! The answer is not less talk, it is MORE talk. What would he say about this question?
posted by kettleoffish at 6:52 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is your partner jealous that you're traveling and he's at home? If my partner responded to me the way you've described ((silence)) I'd assume he was feeling jealous (and this has often been the case).

It's true that your current conversations styles aren't compatible. For some reason it seems on Metafilter that people think it's a good idea to attempt to change your conversation style (or love language) to reflect that of the less expressive/probing/small talk-y person, but I think this is terrible advice. As long as you want a lively and probing back-and-forth, you'll have to work for it or feel empty that you're not getting it. It's the same as not getting any sex. It makes sense to adapt your conversational style to better meet your partner's needs, but not to change it to less meet your own. Your partner should be asking you how he can make you feel more listened to or heard (and if he's not, you can just tell him, and if he's really defensive/overly philosophical about it you might want to consider whether you're very compatible at all).

Right now he's telling you how to change, which doesn't make sense, since you're the one who knows when your need is being fulfilled.

I don't see anything self-centered in the tiny snippet of conversation you sampled-- I'm used to carrying on conversations the same way, and my compatible partners are the same. I do ask them about their day, of course, and when they answer, I ask them questions based on what they're telling me, which I assume is the way you operate too, and which is a courtesy your boyfriend isn't giving you.

Here is a difficult lesson in life. Many people find conversation difficult at times... but it often becomes a lot less awkward, and spares the feelings of the other person to try. This is basic Pride and Prej. The way it goes, ideally, small talk leads to big talk and this big talk becomes the meat of togetherness.

Exactly. And if I were in a new city and telling my boyfriend about the places I'd seen and my feelings about it and he were just thinking "yawn, this is so boring I'm not even going to try at this conversation," he would not be a long-term prospect. (While it's usually more fun to talk about your own daily life than listen to someone else's, I can't imagine really ignoring the fact that my partner was in a new city having new experiences and wanting to talk to me about them.)

Finally, I've worked a bit with autism-spectrum young adults and other non-neurotypical students, and teaching these kinds of social skills (how to respond to someone, how to ask questions, &c.) was a big part of that work. These are social skills that help you make other people feel warm and included and allow people (as you say) to have a conversational framework to develop their thoughts and I think the sample of the conversation you've posted makes him look far more self-centered than you do. He may also just have poor social skills and no need to develop them thanks to other talents or advantages.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:53 PM on November 13, 2012

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