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Saturday, 5 June 2010

Man/Woman Wisecrack Difficulty (A Stereotypical Account)

Woman: "You've always got some answer to anything I say to you, haven't you?"
Man: "Well, yes, it's called having a conversation."
Not the most tactful response.
Whilst this is one humdinger of a wise-cracking ‘funny’, there is a deeper lesson about the arcane mysteries of male-female relations concealed within that we may unpack. Woman wishes to express her frustrations over Man’s constant smart-arse responses. They are annoying in themselves, in their infuriating pedantry. They miss her point and derail the flow of her thoughts, and worse, he thinks he is being clever. She thinks he is being a pedantic ass and not taking her seriously.
The fact that he has just done exactly what she was complaining about – “always” having “some answer” – may or may not be clear to Man. But it probably is, and the irony of that just makes it funnier and his answer cleverer. Woman will see this as exasperating confirmation of her point – he has “always got some answer to anything” she says, and the fact that it is actually sharp and witty (especially if she finds herself impotent to match it at this immediate moment) will rankle her further, though she would be loathe to admit it. Either that or she simply doesn’t care for the sharpness of wit at all – and sees his efforts as pathetic and unwarrantedly smug, which is just as infuriating.
Her ‘mistake’ here, of course, was not quite saying what she meant – she meant to say “some smart-arse response” not just “some response”. His picking up on this, though, appears to be being clever for the sake of a laugh at her expense – he knows full well what she meant and is avoiding the point. Man often thinks he is being ‘logical’ by only paying attention to the surface detail of a conversation, as if the underlying implied reasoning can be ignored if not made explicit. What Man fundamentally fails to understand is the fact people in general very rarely say what they mean in a precise way. Language functions in a much more complex way than just what is apparent in the dry, explicit, surface detail. It is most often not used precisely and ‘logically’ in everyday life, it more often acts as a sign-post to unspoken vistas of shared meaning – communication relies on tacit knowledge.
But, before we write Man off altogether as a narrow-minded, insensitive pedant, incapable of properly engaging with the full range of meaning in human communication, we should take a moment to analyse what is tacit and implied in his response: Because there is more here than meets the eye too. Whilst the main thrust behind the utterance was certainly a delicious, irresistible opportunity for a wise-crack, Man also has a serious point to make that will probably be completely missed by Woman: “…it’s called having a conversation.” What’s implied here, the well that this ‘funny’ is dredged from, is the view that witty sarcastic responses are just part of a normal conversation for him. They are not meant to be taken to heart, and it exasperates him that she sometimes gets annoyed and upset about them. He can’t understand why she can’t understand that his teasing is an expression of his familiarity and fondness for her, rather than just an array of arrogant put-downs. He does it because he thinks she will get it, and be amused. If she doesn’t, he has failed and feels distanced from her. He understands his quips can sometimes sail a little close to the edge of cruelty, or be annoying in their irrelevant silliness, but they are not meant to be taken seriously – or not in that way at least. This very quip demonstrates that rarely is a ‘funny’ just a ‘funny’ – there will often be a sober background relief to it. When Man quips at Woman it does not necessarily mean he is not taking her or what she says seriously.
In actuality, this is not automatically a male-female thing at all, though there is a common trend for such a relationship scenario to be arranged in that way. It could easily take place between any two people – Woman quipping at Man, Man quipping at Man or Woman quipping at Woman. Whatever the configuration, though, the resulting argument will not be fueled by simple annoyance at silly quips – it is about the frustration of communication, not feeling understood or valued and all the insecurities related to that element of relationships. So next time you get caught up in the surface detail of an argument, think about what is implicit rather than explicit – and what underlying misunderstanding is really levering open the rift and stomping on those touchy feelings. I won’t promise it will solve anything, or make it any simpler – now I think about it, it rarely has for me – but at least you will get some clarity and awareness and the possibility of a proper, honest dialogue.
And you thought it was just a tactless wisecrack.


  1. Throw in language games, coz "that's what Man does", when Woman is non-native English speaker. Try that petrol on the barby...

  2. I empathise. It's so ingrained in me to speak in obscure idioms and metaphors, select silly and obscure words for comic effect, and generally pun about that I forget when speaking to non-native English speakers that this is confusing as hell and the humour will simply fail to come across at all. I still try. Worse though is catching yourself laughing at something someone's said because it sounds silly, and then realising they weren't trying to be funny, they just don't realise how silly what they've said sounds in English and they have no idea why you are smirking at their serious point... A minefield in a reltionship, I'd imagine...