WHEN A WOMAN tells about a problem, instead of saying he understands and offering a similar problem, a man is likely to offer a solution. Such an instrumental approach is like a wrench thrown into the conversational works. If matching troubles frames two people as similar and equal, offering a solution frames the problem solver as one-up. The hierarchical distinction is distancing, just the opposite of the sought-for rapport. Furthermore, a man who thinks telling problems is a request for advice expects his solution to be adopted, or at least considered, but solutions are irrelevant to women looking for understanding. The man ends up frustrated: She complains but doesn't want to do anything to solve her problems. He also sees her as more dissatisfied than she is. One woman frequently complained to her boyfriend about her job, her coworkers and her boss. When he suggested, "If you're so unhappy with your job, why don't you quit?" she was incredulous: "I like my job; why should I quit?" He had taken her ritual complaining for real.
Men's attempts to solve problems can sound to women like independent complaints. A woman who had a lump removed from her breast talked about her experience to those closest to her, telling them how upsetting the operation had been and that the incision had changed the contour of her breast. Her friend said, "I know. You feel like your body has been violated." Her sister said, "I felt the same way when I had my gall bladder operation." But her husband said, "You can have plastic surgery to restore the shape of your breast." The woman had been comforted by her friend and her sister, but her husband only upset her more. She told him she found surgery upsetting, and he told her to have another operation. She also heard his recommendation as evidence that he didn't like the idea of a change in her breast, though he insisted he was only reacting to her concern. Moreover, if her problem was so easily fixed, she had no business feeling bad about it. Her husband was focusing on what could be done, whereas she just wanted reassurance that her feelings were understood.