I grew up in a house of women. And so, every summer during high school and college I worked construction in order to learn how to be a man. A traditional man. One who could use tools, fix cars and trucks and maybe even build his own house someday. I wanted to learn what I thought I’d missed. I picked house-painting because brushes were more my speed than a hammer. I liked pushing and dragging molecules across surfaces. A house painter’s job is, essentially, to beautify the world — one house at a time. Still, it’s not easy labor. There’s lots of heavy lifting, breathing in all the different headache-inducing fumes and burning up standing out there in the high noon sun.
Despite all that, I loved it. Construction sites are a proving ground for traditional masculinity. It’s all trucks and dogs, meat and sports and cocky brags, obvious lies and plenty of ball-busting (friendly or otherwise). It’s where the measure of a man is the sickening amount of processed meat and cheese he can stomach at lunch and still be able to do manual labor afterwards. Real guy shit.
Working construction, I often caught hell for acting feminine. I’d get called a bitch for doing things like caring about what or where I ate for lunch; or if I requested a specific juice by brand when a dude went to the store on a drink run. Why you gotta be a picky bitch, Burnett?!?!
’Cause like a smart woman, I want what I want.
I once spent half the workday listening to a middle-aged woman explain why the paint I was mixing wasn’t quite the right color as I made samples for 42 different shades of a custom yellow until she found the exact perfect one. None of the guys I worked with could believe she didn’t drive me batshit crazy. But, like I said, I grew up listening to women.
The common cultural stereotype, however, dictates that straight men don’t like to listen to women. That’s Western culture boiled down to a sitcom punchline. A soft-bodied dude sits there acting like he’s paying attention when we all know he isn’t. Because what guy wants to hear his wife prattle on? Cue: The laugh track.
If you watch a full day’s worth of our media, from morning shows to game shows, soap operas to mid-day news, sitcom reruns to daytime talk shows, the nighttime news to primetime sitcoms, medical dramas to police procedurals, and then the late-night talk shows, you see this same trope played with over and over again. Men don’t want to listen to women. Women talk too much. Men just want to be left alone, in a garage, man cave or whatever.
This is terrible cultural messaging.
One, it’s toxic to women and girls, men and boys and every non-binary person on the planet. Two, it’s not true. Case in point: Working construction, I found those super traditional men had a lot of interest in what women think, feel and believe. Often, they wanted me to explain women and what they were thinking. During countless lunch times and breaks, I helped them learn how to better listen to the women in their lives. And across the board, it improved their world. They thanked me for saving them from headaches and fights, confusions and dark moods — theirs and the women in their lives.
How sad is that? These dudes honestly valued women’s opinions, but they only found it acceptable to do so when a man said it to them.
Nonetheless, I acted as their female interpreter for a second language they’d never learn — and didn’t feel they had to.
But it’s not a second language.
A man who doesn’t know how to listen to women is only half as smart as he thinks he is. He has no idea what he’s missing. Which is half the world.
And yet, dudes like that are everywhere — not just on job sites. In fact, when I ask a few friends if they have trouble listening to women, not a single one claims to be good at it. (Though some feel like they’re better at it than other men they know.) “I think I had a problem with listening, for sure,” says Michael, a social media manager in New York. “It happened a lot in past relationships when I’d cut them off with my own opinion or POV because I wanted to set the record straight. Looking back on it, I could’ve waited for my turn to speak.”
When I follow up with a question about taking advice from women, he points out an important dynamic. “I take advice better from my female friends,” he explains. “I trust their advice more. Also, having a strong mother presence while growing up fostered that belief.” This is a common attitude among those of us who grew up with a strong mother, especially if she was a single mother. We had no other option. It was the only voice we heard so we had nothing but practice listening to women. And so, it becomes as natural as digestion. It also becomes a skill easily transferable to the other women in our lives.
Another friend, a designer from the Bay Area also named Michael, echoes a lot of the same sentiment as New York Michael. “I like to think I try to listen to women,” he says, “though the women in my life may disagree. I’m a hard-headed, silver-tongued wiseass, so I have a hard time listening to anyone. But I’m not so ignorant to think that as a man I’m not also culturally conditioned to speak over and disregard women in particular.”
When I ask if he has any difficulty taking advice from women, he adds, “Oddly, if I take advice from anyone, it’s probably a woman, albeit reluctantly. Something in me knows that if she felt it was worth telling my thick ass, I should probably consider it.”
A dude could be easily forgiven for thinking it’s difficult to listen to women. If you ever need an excuse for why it’s hard to listen to women, the internet has got your back. (And I don’t mean Reddit.) Over the last 15 years, or so, all sorts of news stories and headlines have claimed that men have natural difficulties hearing women. Basically: It’s not your fault, guys. It’s nature!
There was one study that even reported: Male and female voices affect the brain differently. The University of Sheffield study determined, “When a man hears a female voice the auditory section of his brain is activated.” This is different than how men process other men’s voices. “When men hear a male voice, the part of the brain that processes the information is towards the back of the brain and is colloquially known as the ‘mind’s eye’. This is the part of the brain where people compare their experiences to themselves, so the man is comparing his own voice to the new voice to determine gender.”
One could easily surmise that men identify with other men, while they have to decode the voices of women — processing it more like music — which makes it feel more like work than listening to a man. This makes sense since women’s voices are demonstrably more complex than men’s. Research has shown they’re far more tonally and textually varied than men’s voices. (Research has also found that women’s voices make men’s skin tingle. Not joking.)
Conversely, when a man listens to another man — an easier voice to listen to and decode — his visual cortex is stimulated more. This also makes sense. That’s where we have a density of mirror neurons. These specialized cells are a key factor in how humans learn. (They may even increase our empathy.) When we watch someone doing something, we mentally identify with what we’re seeing — or in the case of listening, we imagine it in our mind’s eye. When men listen to other men speak, thanks to mirror neurons, we easily imagine ourselves as that other guy.
On the flip side, when women speak to men, a dude must work harder to identify with her, and to decode her more complex voice. (Which, by the way, we do with different levels of consciousness. Like, sometimes, you may be able to subconsciously hear in her voice if she’s currently fertile. Seriously. You can detect a woman’s menstrual cycle in her voice. Or, maybe not.)
However, despite all the recent confusions pop science has created, men are perfectly physically capable of, and like, listening to women’s words. This is why so many digital assistants have female voices. (Well, that and sexism.)
It’s not difficult, though, to flip this dynamic — no matter what the science says. Listening to women is pretty straight-forward actually. It’s important you know how. Let’s break it down into about 15 steps — or better put, a combination of steps and reminders. Namely…
1. Listen actively, not passively.
2. Ignore any desire to solve or fix what you hear as her problem.
3. If you do identify a problem of hers, lament that it exists, empathize with her.
4. What if you or another dude are the problem? Don’t try to change her mind, listen.
5. If you’re not the problem, don’t make what she’s saying about you.
6. Don’t expect a coherent expression of an idea or demand an opportunity to refute her claims — not every interaction will follow Robert’s Rules of Order, so stop expecting/demanding women be rule-following conversationalists. Some will, some won’t. Just like men.
7. Feelings are as important as thoughts. Don’t dismiss her feelings because they don’t make sense to you. Imagine if something similar happened to you. If you can’t understand how she feels, admit that — to yourself and to her. This will definitely make her feel more comfortable with you.
8. If there’s a problem, and no one immediately knows how to fix it, that’s chill. That’s life. That’s real. Women get this. Men often bluster past confusion to feel like they’re in control. They lie to themselves to feel competent. Admit confusion, and be okay with it in conversation.
9. Whenever you try to fix a problem a woman mentions to you, it sends the message you don’t think she can handle the problem without your help. She didn’t come to you to fix it. She came to you to listen. Do that. You may think you’re helping, but you’re not. Often women communicate to vent. They’re not seeking a savior. Instead, they’re seeking a companion. One to bitch to.
10. Bitching is healthy. Ask any psychologist or psychiatrist. It’s part of how we get negative emotions out. They shrink when you speak them out loud. Women, generally speaking, understand that. They shrink problems by discussing them.
11. If a woman says something you disagree with, and you don’t verbally disagree in that instance, it doesn’t mean that you agree. You’re good. You can continue to listen. It’s important that you listen. Especially, if say, she’s telling you about behavior of a friend or co-worker of yours, behavior you’ve never seen firsthand. Don’t dismiss what she says because you’ve never seen it for yourself. Just listen to what she says.
12. More generally, listen with the aim to understand. Listen like you have to explain to someone else what you just heard. Don’t try to listen for inconsistencies to prove her wrong. Life ain’t a TV courtroom. Listen to comprehend what a woman says. It helps if your questions outnumber your statements.
13. Compassion depends on how well you identify with someone else. Even if your biological sex or gender (or both) are different than a woman’s, you can still identify with her as a person. Women are different than men, but they’re not.
14. The way to empathize with a person when they speak is to focus on the emotions of what they say. How would you feel if you were them? Mention that. Let a woman hear that. Even if you’re not good at it, you’re trying to imagine how it felt for her. You can do that by saying things like, “Man, that sucks, I’m sorry to hear that.” Or: “I bet you felt terrible when that happened.”
15. Women often are more verbal than men, which means, as a man, you may have to work a little harder to be an active listener. But it’s not like manual labor. Guys don’t seem to have a problem listening to the back-and-forth of sports commentators, the chatter from a video game in their headset or the clash of opinions on a podcast.
If all else fails, fall back on what you know best: Listen to her like you would another man.