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The Absolute Folly of Asking Your Boyfriend What He’s Thinking

It’s not quite nothing — but it’s not quite something, either

Men say a hell of a lot of stupid things. Sometimes they write those stupid things down, or post them on the internet. Truly, so much garbage gets through the filter of a dude’s brain and into the world one way or another that you have to wonder what, if anything, he keeps to himself. Is there the seed of an idea rattling around in that skull, unready for articulation? He does seem to get quiet and pensive now and then — staring out a window, or at the ground. If this is a man you care about, a man you love and live with, you will be tempted to ask what he’s thinking.

This is a common mistake.

Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about this. “I bet you women would like to know what men are really thinking,” he says to the audience. “The truth, the honest truth of what men are really thinking.” He offers to dispel the mystery, and the crowd urges him on. “All right, I’ll tell ya,” he agrees, pauses briefly, then says, “Nothing,” and shrugs. “We’re not thinking anything. We’re just walking around, looking around.”

It’s funny because the observation feels right — men are champions of the blissfully unbothered, No Thoughts, Head Empty lifestyle — although Seinfeld oversimplifies for comedy’s sake. Men aren’t actually thinking nothing, but what they’re thinking is so like nothing, so insubstantial and irrelevant, that it may as well be nothing. That’s not quite the same. And we’ve never figured out what’s up with this weird substratum of consciousness.

As best I can figure — being a slow-witted man myself — the stuff that your boyfriend or husband is “thinking” when you ask him to vocalize his inner monologue is a concept in process. A sort of blueprint, if you will. Half-finished at best. Perhaps it is only a single fact, in search of another fact with which to create a more complex opinion or interpretation. Now and then it is a gut conviction, such as “fish look stupid,” that has yet to gain its purchase in the real world. This is merely a gesture toward what may later be a spoken comment, or social media post.

You can rest assured, however, that we were not ready to debut this incomplete work if pressed for it. We are silent because we’re still shaping it, testing it out, and we struggle to explain what we had been ruminating on when tugged back from the shallows of our minds by the question. Recently, sitting by the ocean with my girlfriend, I had to candidly answer that I was thinking of Point Break, having rewatched it the week before. I was studying the waves, and recalled Keanu Reeves learning to surf in Kathryn Bigelow’s classic 1990s action film. It was soothing.

But was I genuinely thinking about Point Break, or Keanu’s hotshot FBI agent character, the improbably named Johnny Utah? In a way that rises to the level of critical analysis, or could ever lead me to some realization? Doubtful. I was purely remembering, basking in the aura of a cinematic impression. You might argue that’s the opposite of thinking, and I might even agree. The trouble is that your girlfriend, or wife, or whoever it is, hopes for insight and affection when they probe for the subject that occupies your soul in a given moment.

The corny though practical reply is, “I’m thinking of how much I love you,” and kudos if you can make that sound convincing after being startled from a reverie on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ varying regional accents. It sucks to disappoint your partner with the total frivolity of your inner life, so we are tempted to reach for a deeper emotion. But isn’t it better to admit the silly reality?

Maybe the bafflement around what men are pondering (and the regret that comes with inquiring) is a case of mismanaged expectations. We can appear so seriously reflective when lost in our mental clutter that a companion decides there must be something important percolating under the surface. Then, when they succumb to curiosity, we are too literal in the confession, naming the random piece of junk drifting through the cerebrum, one of hundreds each waking hour. We are trying to be precise as to the fuzzy texture of cognition, the sprawl and the jumble and associative leaps from one concern to the next. But it doesn’t make sense in words, and that’s why we don’t open our mouths until prompted.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t ask for a readout of the psychic transcript — to the contrary, it’s nice to know our private musings are valued — only that you have to appreciate the oddities revealed as a beachcomber does the objects found by metal detector in the sand. While these trinkets amount to little, they nonetheless have their place.

So yeah, that’s what I was thinking about. Thanks for your interest.