In a recent trending Reddit thread titled “What are some ‘guy’ secrets women don’t know about?,” more than 80,000 men took to their keyboards to blow the lid off some of their species’ most confidential habits and thoughts. As expected, most of these “secrets” were toilet and dick-related. However, as I scrolled down the page, a much more interesting and unexpected male admission began to pop up over and over again: men’s self-professed inability to understand women’s hints and non-verbal cues.
There are hundreds of comments about this within the thread, each written with varying degrees of gravity. “Subtle hints do not work, obvious hints do not work,” writes Reddit user Bobertishere. “Anything short of spelling it out ABC-style at us will not work. When I try to pick up on hints, I get it wrong almost every time.” K2000kidd agrees: “We don’t get the hint. Saying ‘I almost broke my neck in the driveway’ is not the same as asking us to shovel it.”
“I fucking hate the little hints to do shit,” says The Heaviest Matter, somewhat more passionately.
Look, I’m not a dude, but men’s collective declaration that they they don’t understand women’s hints seems suspect. For one, it’s self-infantilizing. Why insist, at the risk of being called “dumb” or “clueless,” that you don’t understand conversational subtlety? Second, it’s unnecessarily gendered. Everybody misreads body language and misses obvious cues from time to time — it’s not solely a “guy thing.” Third, and most importantly, it’s objectively false. Men pick up on hints all the time — I literally just ended a conversation with a male friend by looking anxiously at a clock.
And if that weren’t confusing enough, a small, but warring faction of men on the thread claim that guys understand hints just fine, they simply choose not to act on them.
So what the hell is going on here? Why do some men insist that conversational subtleties elude them like a balanced meal at Fyre Festival, while others purport to be above their influence? More importantly, will we ever be able to put to rest the tired cliché that men can’t understand women?
Before we dive in, let’s all get on the same page about what a “hint” is so we’re clear on what it is men supposedly can’t pick up on. According to gender and communication expert Audrey Nelson, a hint is an “indirect means of communication designed to get the listener to get the message through their own internal process.” Most often, they’re delivered through body language, facial expressions, changes in vocal pitch or tone or verbiage that suggests something without revealing it.
Much to the pleasure of men like The Heaviest Matter, there’s a fair amount of research that confirms men are actually pretty bad at picking up on these things. This is particularly true when they’re delivered non-verbally — one recent fMRI study from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany found that men have twice as much difficulty deciphering emotion from women’s eyes than they do from men’s. Another study found that men’s brains work nearly twice as hard as women’s do to interpret the meanings of facial expressions, but that the extra effort doesn’t make them any better at reading emotion.
“These findings suggest that some women might not realize the extent to which their male companions aren’t getting their hints,” says Tammy Hughes, president of the gender consulting firm the Heim Group. “At the same time, it would be inaccurate to suggest that all men’s brains work this way. These are just readings from the bulk of the bell curve.”
Brains are just part of the story, though. According to Nelson, a person’s environment and how they’re raised often has an even greater effect on their ability to interpret ladylike hints and communicative cues. “The stereotype that men don’t pick up on hints isn’t entirely bogus,” she says. “But it’s not because men are programmed that way — biology isn’t destiny. Rather, men are socialized not to recognize hints. Their linguistic pattern toward directness — and women’s toward indirectness — are learned behaviors. We enforce them in order to maintain the gender roles that say women are polite while men are aggressive.”
One way to impose these rules is to label certain ways of speaking as “masculine” or “feminine.” Indirect communication styles like hints, gentle suggestions and nonverbal cues are stereotypically “feminine,” while more direct modes of speech like straightforwardness and bluntness are labeled as “masculine.” Thus, in order to come off as “manly,” a person might reject more feminine speech patterns and all the conventions that come with it, consciously or unconsciously glazing over the nuances of their female counterparts in order to perform the gender role of “guy.” Put more directly, men’s aversion to hints may be a way to internally scream,“I. AM. A. MAN!”
“Men diminish their own interpersonal skills because they’re socialized not to understand them as well as aggressive communication and power dynamics,” says Nelson. This may at least partially explain why the men of Reddit were so adamant about getting this “secret” off their chest — just a bunch of guys talking about guy stuff!
However, whether it’s neurons or norms that are at play here, the general consensus seems to be that hints are uniquely hard for many men. Maybe they’re onto something with that, though — no one except for Mel Gibson in What Women Want is a mind reader, so wouldn’t we all benefit from the more direct, less obscure conversations that Reddit’s hint-hating hombres so desire?
“Overall, yes; unequivocally, no,” says Nelson. “How direct your speech should be is entirely dependent on the situation and who you’re talking to. Are you pitching something to a CEO? Directness is a better route for any gender. Are you attempting to lead someone down a path to self-discovery, such as in therapy? A more indirect approach that draws more emotion and information out of them would be more appropriate.”
Romantic relationships seem to be the exception to the “depends who’s talking” rule, though. “Significant-other relationships are [theoretically] equal partnerships, so the people in them should be communicating at similar, if not equal, levels of directness,” she says. “In intimate situations where miscommunication and missed hints can be especially irritating or costly, people really need to tell each other exactly what they want.”
There’s just one problem — straight-talking, no-nonsense women who demand Italian food for dinner instead of merely suggesting it aren’t always as in-demand as the people of Reddit make them seem. “Women who match the conversational directness of men are often seen as abrasive, aggressive, domineering or bossy,” says Nelson. “These qualities are exalted in men, but guys don’t tend to like it so much when [women] talk like they do.” It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation — be too polite and suggestive and you’re annoyingly indirect; be too direct and you’re a bitch.
According to Nelson, that may be another reason why many women speak in hints and cues in the first place. Not only is it a way to perform the feminine traits of politeness and diplomacy; it’s also a way to avoid negative labels or backlash.
Her best advice for navigating these conversational conundrums? Get yourself a communication style that can do both. She recommends that every man, woman and child adopt a more “androgynous” communication style, meaning both direct and indirect styles are used and less attention is placed on whether a particular facet of the interaction seemed like a girl or guy thing. “It’s important to be able to oscillate between the two,” she says. “Good communicators and emotionally intelligent people are always monitoring themselves and the people they’re speaking to in order to make sure their tone and level of directness is appropriate to the situation.”
Just like women have a lot to gain by speaking more directly, men have a lot to gain by learning the ins and outs of indirect communication. Men who can understand hints, nuance and body language tend to be more successful both in the workplace and in relationships.
Maybe then, the real “secret” isn’t that men can’t pick up hints, but that many of them don’t know it’s an option. After all, conversation is a muscle to be developed like any other, and that’s a secret everyone could gain something from.
Although, “I use the same towel to dry my face and balls” is a pretty good one, too.