Suit A is deep in conversation with the man opposite. Suit B sits back, arms folded with that smug "I'm so interesting someone is bound to ask me a question about myself" expression. Men in denial will call this sort of attitude inner confidence. Women, meanwhile, will recognise it as a rather alarming feature of the male maturing process. One glance at Suit B and you know the nearest you'll get to a meaningful verbal exchange will be either "Pass the salt" or a lecture on the merits of inner-city pedestrianisation schemes. Do you: 1) Request to be seated at the "less draughty" end of the table? 2) After brief introductions, lean further back in your chair than suit B, stare vacantly and wait for him to ask you about your extremely important career? Or 3) Bow under the weight of a century of female conditioning and inquire politely about his work in conveyancing, following it with a, "Really, that sounds so interesting." Honest respondents will admit that although they may bravely plump for number 2, invariably a frosty five minutes silence will force them to fall back weakly on number 3.
"It was like wading through porridge" moans Sally, a 35-year-old publisher, recalling a chance meeting at a dinner party last week with a man she's dubbed the Verbal Sponge. "Every time I asked him something he would answer really briefly and then just look down into his soup and wait for me to ask the next question. It was such hard work. By the end of the first course I knew what school he went to, the names of his children, where he'd worked for the past ten years and how he met his wife. He didn't even ask me my name."
It would be churlish to say men are boring - it's just that sometimes their conversational approach can give that impression. Sally says, "It seems to happen with age; men who are married or are in long-term relationships begin to feel they don't have to make the effort."
Helen, 34 and a lecturer, dreads the older male whose conversational raison d'etre is to educate and illuminate their female listener. According to Helen, there's an awful lot of them about. "Even at work, they will quite happily tell you obvious facts about a subject, even if you've got a degree in it. Or they'll churn out irrelevant statistics - perhaps it's to prove how much they know. They also talk very slowly, confident that you're riveted by their every word." As Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand - Women And Men In Conversation, says, "What is strange is that there are so many situations in which men have factual information requiring lengthy explanations to impart to women, and so few in which women have comparable information to impart to men."
Sadly, the woman's role in these exchanges is to convince him that such a delusion is true. But why on earth does any intelligent female collude with this sorry verbal transaction? Katy, 32, and a copywriter, falls back on the "I can't help it, it's my social conditioning" explanation. She says, "I think women are trained early on to find consensus in conversation. My instinct is to smooth things over. Men just aren't as good at the art of conversation." Or perhaps they just enjoy being verbally massaged on a regular basis - who wouldn't?
Matthew, a 33-year-old barrister, is cheerfully frank about his role on the dinner-party circuit. "I find women will let me talk about myself for hours," he chuckles. "That approach does keep us happy. We can carry on like that till we're blue in the face. I know I run out of interesting questions to ask after ten seconds." He also admits that as time goes by he relies on a certain routine in social situations. "I've got my own set pieces - it's terribly formulaic - and usually tell the same jokes. God forbid that I should meet the same people twice."
Men recognise the syndrome - though usually in other men. Rob, 32 and a musician, says, "A lot of men are obsessed with collecting things - whether it's what countries they've been to or how many books they've got - and then talking about it. I was out last week and some bloke started telling me how he ordered his record collection by genre and then alphabetically. Then he asked me how I did mine. I had to say, 'Sorry mate, I'm not that anal' and change the subject." His friend Tim, also in the music business, prefers talking to women for most of the reasons other women seem to. "They understand the notion of two-way conversation. And they're certainly more honest - their ego doesn't get in the way when they are telling you what they do. Men tend to talk at you, especially if you haven't met them before. They also latch onto really obvious subjects, like football, which I'm not interested in anyway."
Maybe its an age thing. For someone still in their twenties, such prescribed roles between the sexes might seem unthinkable. Lizzie, 27, and a researcher, says, "My friends are mainly single and when we meet up there's lots of banter and argument. We're always interested in each other's point of view - regardless of whether we're male or female. And I can't see how that's going to change."
Somehow it does though, and the long-term relationship is one of the defining reasons. Sparkling dialogue between the sexes is invariably a by-product of sexual chemistry; a tentative verbal foreplay to see where things could lead. When it's the road to nowhere, no wonder the sparkle dissolves. Sally says, "In your early twenties you're always trying to get off with men; it's any opportunity to speak to them. In your early thirties, when you meet up more as couples, everything shifts. There's less incentive to shine with the men and I'm sure they feel the same way about us."
Psychologist Elizabeth Mapstone, who has done research into the way men and women argue, says: "As women get older they enjoy speaking to other women more than they enjoy speaking to men. This is partly because if you're not interested in playing the flirtation game a man tends to lose interest."
But women lost interest, too. Katy, for one, confesses that men are barely a consideration at her dinner parties these days. "I've tended to eliminate them altogether - I prefer female- dominated gatherings. I like to talk about people's private lives whereas my husband and his cronies prefer to discuss work." She welcomes a return to the sort of parties where women withdraw to another rom and let the men ruminate over port and cigars. "It's an excellent idea," she enthuses. "It means we can all let our hair down."
Until there are compulsory classes in the art of interesting conversation for all married men over 35, it's probably the only sensible solution.Reuse content