Principles for when to speak up in relationships and when to keep your mouth shut.
May 23, 2008 1:08 AM   Subscribe

What are some good principles and shorthand rules for when you should communicate what you're thinking/feeling to friends/friends-who-are-potential-lovers/lovers.

I often see on Ask MeFi an exasperated, "just tell her/him everything you posted in your question!" Because of the force with which people urge me and other people to "why don't you talk to her about it" I've tended to err on the side of doing just that.

Unfortunately, while I've had some great successes from communicating and being up front in relationships, I've also had some embarrassing, stupid, and pointless examples too.

It seems women are the ones urging the most to "just be up front and communicate!" and yet it seems women also use incredible discretion.

What's the deal? Is it all just case-by-case? There's got to be like some grumblebee-style principles on this issue of when to be up-front and when to be reserved.
posted by philosophistry to Human Relations (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I've had some embarrassing moments too, anyone who hasn't must be Wonderwoman/Superman. And you're right, women are raised to be more sensitive/aware of others' feelings. Not exactly a 100% great thing, it can lead to overthinking relationship issues, actually.

It would help if you could point out specific instances that went awry. There are no hard and fast rules, I still argue w/my husband over pointless stuff once in a while. I just try to be aware of things like timing, which can help avoid a lot of trouble. As in, not bringing up pet peeves when he's just gotten out of work and needs to chill, asking directly for help because he's not a mindreader (and has told me so), and delaying heavy talks when we are tired and more likely to be crabby.

One thing that also helps is stating your point of view instead of attacking the other person:

"I feel ____ when you do _____."

Compared to:

"You really annoy me when you _____!"

Obviously #1 is better for opening a dialogue, however embarrassing it might be, it will at least clear the air.

MeMail if you want, or post some examples?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:51 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is a pretty broad question... I'm inclined to say yes, it's case-by-case, but mostly you should be open about things. (I'm hard-pressed to come up with examples off the top of my head of things you shouldn't be open about, even. They exist, but they're the minority.) You should be tactful and try to imagine how the other person might feel if you act certain ways or phrase things poorly. I feel like I haven't said anything that isn't obvious, though, so I wonder if you're not asking something different.

I think it would help if you spelled out a few "embarrassing, stupid, and pointless examples" so people could say, "Okay, that didn't work out well because ____." I'm willing to bet at least a few of those times it wasn't a matter of talking about something versus not talking about it, but rather you phrased something poorly, or approached something the wrong way, or behaved in a way that wasn't conducive to what you were trying to achieve. Basically, chances are you probably should have talked about it, but maybe not in the specific way you did. Which is fine. But I really feel like there needs to be more information before you get much useful feedback.

Also, there's a chance you might have talked about something that just wasn't important. I'm hard-pressed to come up with an example of that either, but I'm grasping at straws here. I could imagine it being potentially embarrassing if you brought something up and your girlfriend laughed awkwardly and said, "Oookay... who cares?" But again, more details would be needed.
posted by Nattie at 2:51 AM on May 23, 2008

I don't know if this helps, but a lot of the time it comes down to choosing the right moment. You probably already know not to bring up issues when you're already having a disagreement. The thing is that it can be hard to bring up problems at a moment when everyone's feeling just fine, but that is usually the best way to do it: choose a neutral time when you're both calm, not celebrating anything (you don't want to be a downer!) and calmly spell out what's bothering you using "I" language ("When X happens, I feel Y", rather than "You make me feel so Y when you X!" (like Marie Mon Dieu wrote above).
posted by different at 3:22 AM on May 23, 2008

You're asking for rules of thumb...

For friends, how about the big three...

Is it true?
Is it helpful?
Is it necessary?

For maybe-be-lovers, augment with:

Can I continue to preserve some mystery?

For already lovers:

Is it kind?

Rules of thumb, of course, are only perfect for thumbs! I do tend to agree that any issue that is brought up that starts with "I feel ___ " is better than "You are ____" . One approach enlists assitance and sympathy, and the other often elicits withdrawal and antagonism.

Having a good center on the goals of your relationships is also worthwhile as a filter. Personalities have variable and unpredictable components. People make communication mistakes. Misunderstanding can happen on either side of a transaction. Inquisitiveness is superior to certainty when trying to sort through something. Ask questions of someone before jumping to conclusions.

Now if I could only reliably take all my own advice!
posted by FauxScot at 3:52 AM on May 23, 2008 [15 favorites]

I wish I knew the rules but I think it's case by case.

I, too, err on the side of spilling everything, but especially on the rosemantic side of things, I'm learning that making an out-of-the-blue confession transfers pretty much all control of a situation out of your hands and into theirs, and that's got a 25/25/50 chance of resulting in the desired outcome/big big hurt/kindness but stinging disappointment with an edge of resentment.

Also, in close friendships or with lovers, I think that you can only communicate a certain way-you're-feeling so many times or for a certain period without taking responsibility to change it, if it's a bad feeling.
posted by carbide at 4:07 AM on May 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

If it's something nasty or mean about another person, don't say it.

If it's something negative about their appearance, don't say anything unless it's something that they can fix immediately. "You have a seed in your tooth" is ok, "Your haircut is uneven" is probably not ok. People often ask about stuff like this, generally you want to follow the same rule.

If it's about their family, tread very very lightly or don't say anything.

If it's about their genitals/body, compliments only, please.
posted by sondrialiac at 6:01 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's helpful to ask yourself what you really want from the interaction.

The classic example of what not to ask/talk about it is your partner's 'number' of past lovers. I think the reason it's a no go is because of the motivations for asking it. If what you really want to know is whether your lover's values about sexuality match up with yours, whether they find you truly satisfying as a lover, whether you're really special for them, etc, those are all all right discussions. If what you want to know is whether your partner is too slutty for you, well, don't expect the question to go anywhere good. Part of telling the difference is figuring out what the question/issue is really about - is it about you, or is it about them?

The stuff that's about them, you have to discuss it with them, but if it's about you, think long and hard about its appropriateness to the relationship. For example, if you tend to be insecure in relationships and need a lot of reassurance and affirmation, that's about you. When you're just getting to know someone and the relationship is in an earlier stage, it's really not their problem. You should realize that you're looking for something it's not really fair to ask for or even possible for them to give. You might feel compelled to talk about it anyway, but at least recognize that it's about you. On the other hand, in a serious committed relationship, it is the other person's problem (it's both of your problem) to figure out how to make you feel secure and loved, and if a lack of it is threatening your happiness, then you kind of owe it to the relationship and to the other person to share the issue with them.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2008

I commend you on your lack of interest in dissembling and manipulating.

In addition to the good advice above, I just want to underline the fact that if you're not being unecessarily cruel or sharing just to create drama, then what you say is all right to say. It's not up to you to manage another person's feelings. It can be very odd when a person who communicates clearly and directly runs up against someone who is unaccustomed to honest communication. It's not your fault that some people are quite used to keeping their cards close to their chest, reserving information, staying distant, or interested in more scene-playing than you want to create. I come from a family in which people really didn't talk about emotions, and it has been very hard to unlearn that enough to have a direct conversation with someone without feeling like the sky was going to fall. It wasn't those people's fault that I felt awkward and confused - but those people were invaluable in providing for me a model of what it's like to be a plain dealer, comfortable with telling the truth. People like that have helped me learn a lot, even though I'm sure at times they wondered if it was good policy, because my reaction may have been stressful for them. But in the final analysis, it's just not your job to worry about how your information, delivered gently and with consideration, is received.

I think the key is to be gentle in your communications. I don't need to know everything about lovers right off the bat - there are some things I honestly never want to know. A good policy is to let people lead the way by asking you what they'd like to know more about, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like relationship history or body image or what-have-you.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on May 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

People are pretty good, in general, at sussing out speaker motivation, regardless of what is being said (this is because we're all pretty darn good at reading the contextual cues; this is also what makes perceiving the correct interpretation in internet writing so difficult, and why being more direct is much more effective). Salamandrous aludes to this with his great example above. When sharing something, ask yourself what your motivation/intent is in sharing the information and starting the discussion, because unless you use some crafty strategies or game playing tactics to hide your motives, the person you're talking to will most likely get a subtext read, and it will probably be whatever your intent is. Think about the following examples:

"We need to talk..."
"Hey, can I ask you something..." (said slowly and cautiously)
"You know I love you, but when you do this, I feel..." (about to express disapproval and ask the hearer to change his behavior—the first bite of a compliment sandwich)

In these examples, even with the limited contextual cues I've given, you can tell what is about to happen, or what is going on underneath. Spend a day walking around, listening to what people say, but also focus on what they hear and what they want. You'll learn a lot.

Also keep in mind that women aren't inherently great communicators. Women have to learn too, and are at the same disadvantage in communicating with men as men are in communicating with women—that is to say, individuals from each group have had generally the same amount of experience in communicating with the other group, as well as within their own group. Just because groups of women have had a lot of experience in communicating with other women doesn't mean that they've become experts in communication in general.

On a personal anecdote, I grew up communicating with men quite a bit. As a result of the crowd I was influenced by (the men), I enjoy competitive one-upmanship and verbal teasing every once in a while. I had to learn when, if ever, it is appropriate to do this with women. Within the particular social circle of women I am friends with now, I have figured out by some trial and error that the verbal teasing type stuff only flies when I chose to joke about topics that are clearly not deficits in their world. Ex. I can tease about my friend's gorgeous thick hair that she doesn't like because it gets in her way, but not about her big booty that she feels self-conscious about but many guys love. The big booty thing is something she's acutely self-conscious about, so picking to tease about that would come off as mean-spirited because she would read my intent as drawing attention to a reminder of something she spends time worrying about. She knows I know this, so bringing it would be read by her as an unnecessary putdown (she would assume that my intent was to put her down, and would therefore get offended and confused as to why I would be doing this). I use this example because I think some women may assume that a guy is aware of these sensitivities, but would go charge ahead with the words anyway. This will lead her to incorrectly interpret the intent of what the guy is saying. You follow?

What's great about becoming more aware of your intent when you say things is that when misinterpretations or misunderstandings arise about things you've said, you can switch gears and directly point to your intent as an explanation for why you said something. If you are an honest person, and the hearer isn't completely daft at picking up all the cues, they will take your explanation as honest truth, and go back to reassess what you've said to try to get the proper read this time around.

All that said, if your intent is offensive or hurtful, a correct read won't matter, and no explanation will help. Ex. "But honey, I was trying to hurt your feelings when I said you looked fat in those jeans, because I think you are a cow, and I want you to diet!"
posted by iamkimiam at 8:11 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I'm doing this well, I am first honest with myself; only then can I be honest with the other person. If I can't be honest, there's no point in saying anything. I have to feel the truth in my gut, otherwise I shut up and think about it some more until I understand what really needs to be said.

For example, my fiance and I had an argument last night. Superficially, it was about him promising to clean up the kitchen and not following through. Since he hadn't done it I thought he was just leaving it for me to do. I went from "can't he see that the kitchen needs cleaning, he's so lazy" to "he expects me to do all the housework when I work full time just like him!" I could have said something like that, but it would have been a downward spiral.

So I went off by myself and calmed down, and thought about what my honest feelings were. I tried on different things: I'm jealous of the time he spends doing activity X instead of cleaning. I'm being selfish and obsessive-compulsive about the housecleaning. I'm hurt that he doesn't do his part of housecleaning when he knows how much it matters to me.

All of these have a grain of truth, but the one that hit me in the gut was "I'm afraid that I won't be able to trust him to keep his word." And that's when I came back to him, and that's exactly what I said. That made for an honest conversation, without blaming or focusing on superficial issues.
posted by desjardins at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Look, I don't think there are hard-and-fast rules. You have to listen to people, care about what they care about, and treat them like you would want to be treated. If you're not sure then reverse the situation, putting yourself in their shoes.
posted by loiseau at 10:04 AM on May 23, 2008

"You know I love you, but when you do this, I feel..." (about to express disapproval and ask the hearer to change his behavior—the first bite of a compliment sandwich)

I would add that using "but" as a preface in any statement is a negative. Try using "and" in place of "but."

"This is a great meal, but..."

"I love your outfit, but..."

"I really care about you, but..."

Now replace it with "and," it's not as negative, because you really do care and you want to make yourself heard. Don't be afraid of discussion, you can always say "oops, we're gettin' overheated, let's take a break!" I honestly like it when people tell me how they feel instead of being passive aggressive and making me guess. I am about 45% perfect in reality and 95% perfect in my head, so getting to 65% via honest feedback is okay with me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 12:35 PM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

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