An Emotional Idol

photo by Joshua Earle

photo by Joshua Earle

Each person’s life is lived as a series of conversations…seemingly senseless misunderstandings can haunt our relationships and all show that men and women can interpret a conversation differently…sincere attempts to communicate are often so confounded…
— Deborah Tannen

The quote is taken from the opening sentence of a book I recently finished, a work on communication styles between men and women.  The book, You Just Don’t Understand, is written by a woman named Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. 

Much of the book’s content was familiar to me.  I’m involved in Christian ministry – a field that values communication and psychology.  Even if I couldn’t put to words myself before reading what Tannen was communicating, her words and ideas were familiar enough.

Tannen’s principle she carries throughout the book, however, is what has impacted me the most:

Intimacy is key in a world of connection where individuals negotiate complex networks of friendship, minimize differences, try to reach consensus, and avoid the appearance of superiority…In a world of status, independence is key, because a primary means of establishing status is to tell others what to do, and taking orders is a marker of low status.

Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first and men on the second. It is as if their lifeblood ran in different directions.
— Deborah Tannen

The quote falls on the twenty-sixth page and frames the rest of the book’s arguments.

I have to admit – I struggled when I initially read the sentence.  My mind immediately became defensive: “You’re telling me I don’t desire intimacy as a man?” 

Yet I committed to finishing the book over the next several weeks.  While I read, I was hyperaware of emotional responses and personal behavior in conversation.  Tannen’s premise – something I initially found unexpected and unbelievable – was proven to be a reality.

My male desire for “independence” really has control over my emotions.  Independence is a fierce emotional idol in my life.

I noticed the small things at first.  I valued choices.  I valued organization.  I valued a schedule.

Yet as time went on, I noticed bigger things.  Like the way I felt threatened when I saw actions that seemingly took away my independence. 

I wanted to make my own decisions.  I didn’t want to be told what to do, how to do it, or when to do it.  Sure, I wanted to be guided, but I didn’t want anybody to hold my hand.

By no means am I saying that I’m this fiercely defensive independence-devourer.  I’m not.  But reading Tannen’s book has helped me take a few steps back towards emotional-awareness and health. 

Tannen has helped me stop in the moments I feel threatened and simply ask, “Why do I feel this way?”  Or – even better – stop in scary moments and be able to identify false threats to my independence. 

I share this experience because I want to encourage you to begin observing the way you behave in conversation with other people.  Make steps towards metacognition

In doing so, you will learn much about yourself and others.  Emotions are our greatest blessing and curse.  May we turn them into thermometers that show our hearts’ condition that enable us to put down our idols.