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Meta-Messages

I have been reading a book lately about the problems inherent in the way people communicate with one another. The author describes how, in many conversations, there are often two meanings to what has been said. The meaning of the actual words and the sentences is how men communicate. Yes or No are perfectly good answers to most questions when one man asks another man.

Then, the author says, there is the meta-message. Women talked in meta-messages. The meta-message is the message that is not actually stated – at least from the words actually spoken – but taken from the secret, private, shrouded, hidden meaning of the statement. Put another way, the words may mean one thing, but the context or who is saying it or how it is said (or where) gives the statement a whole different meaning.

For example: lets us say that you are sitting at a restaurant with your spouse or a date and your date has just finished a great, tasty, but somewhat small steak, and your date is still slightly hungry. Let us also say that you are also finished eating but still sitting on your plate is a nice portion of steak in which you show no sign of eating. Your date leans over a bit closer, nods to the piece of steak, and asks: “ Are you going to eat that?” Now a perfectly good answer to a man is no, or yes. But to a woman, it means, “I am still hungry. May I eat that?” That is the meta-message, and men, you better not miss it.

Even dogs can be trained to pick up on the real meaning or the meta-message that is meant but unstated in the actual words. When I see my dogs start to pace or look around a bit nervously, I will ask: “Do you want to go outside?” and they will immediately start racing for the door. They know that I am not really interested in whether they want to bask in the sun or chase a squirrel. Though the message asks whether they want to be outdoors, the meta-message from me is “Please poop on the outside, not on the carpets.” They are only dogs, but they understand this, even with a brain roughly the size of a walnut.

But alas, most men are not as gifted as the walnut-brained dogs. We are at a very distinct disadvantage in the meta-message arena compared to women. (Or dogs.) Men are pretty clueless and give everything the literal meaning that the words themselves convey. Oh sure, we can be trained to respond to a few easy meta-message commands. For example, let us assume that a man, before going out for an evening, has showered, shaved, cleaned up, and dressed himself and now stands there proudly before the critical eyes of his Y-chromosome-deficient partner. Let us also assume that after the woman has looked closely at him, she says: “Are you going to wear that?”

This is not an inquiry. “Yes,” would be considered by the female as a smart-alecky and mutinous answer. Even a thick-headed male would recognize that the meta-message here is something like: “You look like a balloon salesman at a children’s circus, and I would never consider attending the same event with you dressed like that, even if it were held at a NASCAR track.” Or perhaps, “What? Am I dating the Maytag repairman?”

However, since we are burdened with a “Y” chromosome, we cannot understand the nuances that females so often use to communicate (and communicate, and communicate). We are constantly getting into and trying to get out of the proverbial doghouse for our lack of sensitivity. We do not fully understand many of the meta-messages inherent in our conversations.

A couple traveling in a car for a long-distance may find the female asking: “Are you getting hungry, Dear?” Now let me clue you in. If Mr. Male treats this as a request for information about whether or not HE is hungry and simply answers “Nope” and keeps driving – he is definitely in trouble. Because the words may have asked whether the guy was hungry, but the meta-message is: “I am hungry!” And you men had best not miss it.

Because we are not as perceptive as women (and dogs) in these areas, we can also get into a great deal of trouble when we inadvertently send a message or say something that the woman interprets with a meta-message even if we are too dense to intend one. Example:

Man: “Wow! I didn’t realize there was that much chopped onion in your meatloaf, Honey.”

Woman: “Why are you constantly criticizing the way I cook? I cannot stand that! Get out of the kitchen!

Well, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. But the point is that the man may LOVE the onion flavor but is just ignorant about the amount of onions to bring about that good onion flavor. He may have thought that you could glean a wonderful flavor from a single molecule of onion.

The lesson here is that men are not perceptive enough to be on a level playing field when it comes to the nuances of our language. Men should limit our communication to those with whom we are more equal – other men and dogs.

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