Please allow me to start with a story from Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, which really bit deep into my memory, especially as a dad.
A friend of his, Terry Dobson, was studying aikido (martial arts) in Japan and found himself on the same train as a physically big, drunk man, who was being violent towards the passengers on the train. With the confidence he had in his ability and skill as a martial artist he was about to take control of the situation when a small, elderly man did something that will surprise you – I must warn you, it’s going to get a bit emotional 🙂
“Terry stood up slowly and with deliberation. Seeing him, the drunk roared, ‘Aha! A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!’ and began gathering himself to take on Terry. But just as the drunk was on the verge of making his move, someone gave an earsplitting, oddly joyous shout: ‘Hey!’ The shout had the cheery tone of someone who has suddenly come upon a fond friend. The drunk, surprised, spin around to see a tiny Japanese man, probably in his seventies, sitting there in a kimono. The old man beamed with delight at the drunk, and beckoned him over with a light wave of his hand and a lilting C’mere.’ The drunk strode over with a belligerent, ‘Why the hell should I talk to you?’ ‘What’cha been drinking?’ the old man asked, his eyes beaming at the drunken labourer. ‘I’ve been drinking sake, and it’s none of your business,’ the drunk bellowed.’ ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,’ the old man replied in a warm tone. ‘You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench…’ He continued on about the persimmon tree in his backyard, the fortunes of his garden, enjoying sake in the evening. The drunk’s face began to soften as he listened to the old man; his fists unclenched. ‘Yeah… I love persimmons, too…’ he said, his voice trailing off. ‘Yes,’ the old man replied in a sprightly voice, ‘and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.’ ‘No,’ said the labourer. ‘My wife died…’ Sobbing, he launched into a sad tale of losing his wife, his home, his job, of being *ashamed* of himself. Just then the train came to Terry’s stop, and as he was getting off he turned to hear the old man invite the drunk to join him and tell him all about it, and to see the drunk sprawl along the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. That is emotional brilliance.”
This will come as a shock to most of my female readers but boys – and subsequently men – don’t like to talk about their feelings. I’m going to be honest with you, I personally struggle to ‘talk about my feelings’ because I find it deeply personal and yes, it makes me feel a little vulnerable – this conversation is already drifting in an uncomfortable direction. There is, in my opinion and experience, a misconception about men and their “feeeeelings”, we are constantly told that we must talk about it, but here’s the problem, how can we [men] talk about feelings if most of us lack an adequate lexicon to clearly express these strange and uncomfortable sensations? Most men don’t talk about their emotions because, well, they don’t possess the words to do so – it’s literally like asking your 6 year old to explain to grandma, over the phone, why mummy can’t come to the phone when mummy is sitting right next to her, it won’t end well – there’ll be a lot of handwaving and face pulling.
So how do we change this deficiency in men’s emotional vocabulary? I suggest we start by expanding our young boys’ word stock to allow them to construct more defined and complex concepts of emotions. If, like me that sentence left a “wut?!” expression on your face, then let me try and explaining a bit better: If I asked you to explain to me what the levels adjustment layer does to a raster image – barring that you’re not literate in Photoshop – you’d be unable to accurately and clearly explain the process and how to achieve a satisfactory outcome. You would have to label it (internally) under “that frustrating computer stuff” alongside FTP addresses and the poltergeist that possesses the printer; it is, if we’re honest, a very wide blanket. <! – – Just realised how much of a geek I am – – >
“…you know huffing and puffing, being a real cuss.”
Now, for most men, the same goes for ’feels’, if a man doesn’t possess a wide and diversified vocabulary to express – understand – his feelings he will have to label it under a broad and very blunted blanket such as “stuff that make me angry” and “stuff that make me happy” — caveman speak — and with such a low resolution of something so insanely complex as feelings the result will be blunt and, well caveman like; you know huffing and puffing, being a real cuss.
Women, in general, possess a far more complex vocabulary for emotions. It makes a great deal of sense if you think about it, most girls grew up with dolls, playing house – well where I’m from anyway – and it’s rich in emotional vocabulary such as “the baby is crying Olivia, she must be sad or do you think she’s hungry?” A crying infant can mean a variety of things to a girl who will have the tools to problem solve and understand the situation, but to most boys crying babies are just plain scary and confusing and they want to get as far away from the stimulus (crying baby) as possible (this anxiety seems to carry through into adulthood for some ‘deadbeat’ fathers.)
“…it’s part of what makes being a boy fun – and hysterical”
Whilst the girls are building their emotional word stock the boys are running around chucking sticks and mud at walls and each other with the predominant vocabulary being “pew-pew-pew”, “aaaaawh” and “Ha! In the face!” Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that, some of my favourite memories involve mud flinging and many, many sticks and stones; boys are physical [#notall] and enjoy taking part in boisterous activities, it’s part of what makes being a boy fun – and hysterical – but recent studies in neuroscience has shown that we must – along with [much] more physical movement and exercise – build the emotional vocabulary of our little ‘stick and mud flingers’. They need the tools to have a more refined and higher definition of their emotions, if a boy knows the difference between rage and rancour he can better determine a more precise and proportional reaction to a situation as well as mental dialogue and ability to problem solve difficult situations. Confusion and frustration will reduce as a boy understands his inner world better just like more colours in a painting offers more potential for a better, richer artwork. What’s more is that a complex emotional vocabulary allows our boys to also have a better ability to have [cognitive] empathy with others which allows them to better understand the feelings of others and go from ‘kick his a**’ to ‘maybe he’s having a bad day because, well his wife died, he lost his job and his home(!)’.
I know it’s a cliche to say that boys will be boys, they are rough and silly – ask any girl of any age – but alongside the fun loving rough and tumble we need to teach our boys the language of emotions from a very early age, we need to build their vocabulary — get them to read more — and challenge them to think about what they are feeling – this is an important part – without expecting or demanding an answer from them, plant the seed and watch it grow.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
P.S. I highly recommend reading the award winning psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence or watch his TED Talk as well as a fantastic book by the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made.