"My boss really doesn't respect my work," Elaine complained to her friend Beth. "Whenever I get snowed under, he always treats me as if it's really nothing. As if I'm making it up!"
"I know," Beth said. "My husband is just the same. If I've had a rough day, he's like `What's the big deal?' "These men may indeed be scornful of "women's work," but it's also possible that they are just telling their women partners what they themselves would like to hear.
According to Deborah Tannen, author of "You Just Don't Understand," a study of women and men's conversation styles, women and men take a different approach to sharing troubles.
When women comfort each other, it often goes this way: A women tells her friend her trouble. The friend nods, "I know how you feel. The same thing has happened to me," and tells her own matching story. They then finish discussing the first woman's problem. The woman has gotten what she wanted: a validation that she and her feelings are normal, and a sense of closeness and understanding with her friend.
When a man tells his friend his trouble, however, the friend is likely to laugh it off. "Oh, that's no big deal." The man feels comforted: His problem's not so bad after all. His friend will then offer a comparable but different problem, which the first man will in turn laugh off. The message is: "The world is tough on both of us, and we're both about equally competent to deal with it." Their problems are equivalent but not shared. They both maintain their independence. Very reassuring.
The trouble sets in when you cross the gender lines. If a woman tells a man that she knows just how he feels because the same thing has happened to her, it may make him more anxious. Far from helping him laugh it off, she is "dwelling on it."
On the other hand, if a man tells a woman her problem is really nothing, she feels belittled and may well redouble her efforts to make him understand just how bad this problem is.
She wants understanding. He wants to laugh it off.
If Tannen is right, then these men may not be intending to put down the woman or her work at all. Their intention is to make her feel better about it.
Neither approach is "better." They are simply different mind-sets. But this kind of difference can be a real source of frustration.
As Tannen says, "When those closest to us respond to events differently than we do, when they seem to see the same scene as part of a different play; when they say things we cannot imagine saying in the same circumstances, the ground on which we stand seems to tremble and our footing is suddenly unsure."
The way out?
First, understanding. Do a reality check with your partners. Find out what they think they mean by what they say, even if it's perfectly obvious to you that the words mean something else!
Second, choice. When is it better to laugh off a problem? When is it better to commiserate? Think about how these two styles work, and practice using them both. Then choose, not by sex, but by what will work best.