Two basic things we need to consider are that boys don’t always hear enough of what we say, and what they do hear is often at least partially inaccurate. Many attempts at talking to boys can be thwarted by selective hearing, poor listening skills, and distraction. Let’s take a closer look at these challenges to better understand what’s going on when we are trying to communicate. Then, we’ll strategize about how to get around these obstacles.
The brain differences of boys are a hot topic in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. It’s hard to quantify the extent of gender difference in communication and social behaviours. Like most scientists, I believe that the genders are much more alike than they are different. But this doesn’t invalidate the fact that there are differences, and that they do matter. It’s human nature to pay close attention to differences, perhaps for the very reason that we are so much more alike than different. If everyone on your street has a silver car, the small elements of a car’s trim become increasingly important to recognizability. The more similar the general characteristics of things are, the more attention we give to whatever small differences might exist. Simply put, differences interest us.
Functionally speaking, it’s small differences that change the way we act or perform a task. So, it’s no surprise that boys’ hearing is often perceived as being less effective than girls. By that I mean that boys don’t seem to hear information as well as girls, and tend to be more forgetful of what they do hear. One factor may be hormones. For example, it appears that oestrogen, a female hormone, is significantly more helpful in working memory ability than testosterone. This helps to explain why girls typically learn to read earlier and more efficiently than boys. When women experience a reduction in oestrogen during menopause, they too have problems with working memory.
Although there are some biologically-based reasons for hearing differences, the most important differences for us to focus on here are related to the psychology of boys, and how that psychology affects listening and comprehension. One particularly relevant psychological attribute for many males is a high degree of self-absorption. This assertion may be perceived as criticism, but I’ve been working with boys for long enough that I’ve long since let go of being irritated about the situation. If you’ve spent much time with boys, you may have experienced how difficult it can be to break into their mental orbit. Have you ever tried talking to your son at a time when he’s engaged in an activity that’s highly stimulating, and totally absorbing to him? If so, you’ve seen how things that are personally relevant and exciting to boys can cause them to lose the sense of balance and priority. Boys who might normally be polite and responsive can forget something as basic as making eye contact.
Sometimes when boys get deeply entangled in personal concerns, we tend to moralize about their behaviour, as though self-absorption were a character problem. We say things like, “he could respond if he wanted to,” or, “he’s not trying hard enough.” And we may think to ourselves that a lack of eye contact and responsiveness is an active decision on his part — that he’s using a lack of eye contact to “say” that we are unimportant. I think this is a big mistake. It leads us down a path toward hurt feelings and, eventually, anger. Neither parents nor kids benefit from this way of thinking. It’s better and more accurate at such moments to realize that stimulation rules the psychology of boys, and if we want their undivided attention we should find a way to break through — to be stimulating.
As a rule, more stimulation is better. Providing stimulation (through volume, pitch, eye contact, and animated communication) will help you to align your attention with a boy’s. In many cases, more stimulation can simply mean more volume. Of course, speaking more loudly doesn’t necessarily mean that we are speaking angrily. Please spend some time reflecting on this idea: Speaking louder doesn’t mean being angry. In fact, the challenge is learning how to speak in a way that conveys interest and engagement, more than it does irritation. Our own emotions can become “magnets” for boys. When we feel excited or enthusiastic, it naturally draws the attention of others. Boys will be drawn to our enthusiasm, and will want to be co-participants in whatever news or idea we are excited about. For sure, there must be a degree of authenticity to this approach. If we’re only faking excitement to get boys’ attention, they’ll see through us every time, and they will withhold participation.
Left and right hemispheres
If you observe boys casually interacting in a social situation, maybe in conversation, or working together in a classroom, you’ll probably notice they have distinct nonverbal communication tendencies. They often look forward with a kind of blank stare. It’s not that they aren’t thinking, because they are thinking about a lot. Still, it can be difficult to guess what many boys are thinking or feeling. Maybe you’ve noticed how little their facial expressions change, even as interesting and provocative content is presented. Why is this? Is it a deliberate attempt to hide emotion? No, but it is a significant issue with respect to how boys are processing different kinds of social information in their brains.
We shouldn’t oversimplify the functions of different regions of the brain like the left and right hemisphere. As noted by John Medina in Brain Rules, we can safely trust some established conclusions from neuroscience about the basic roles of the hemispheres. For example, human beings tend to make sense of social situations, and visual cues like facial expressions, with the right hemisphere of their brain. Conversely, they tend to process language and logic in the left hemisphere of the brain. I think it’s fair to say that, with respect to the communication challenges of boys, many boys are left hemisphere thinkers in a right hemisphere world.
Let me give you an example: if someone says to you “my dog died last week” your brain’s left hemisphere tends to hear just the facts: You had a dog / the dog died / It happened last week. Imagine a computer speaking these lines without any emotion, and you get the general feeling of how the left hemisphere “hears” content — even very emotional content.
It’s up to your brain’s right hemisphere to use contextual information so you have a more complete understanding of what was said. So instead of just hearing “My dog died last week,” your right hemisphere notices the facial expression, body language, and vocal nuances of the person who made the statement. For example, you could notice how a person’s eyes conveyed their feelings, and that this helped you to understand how to respond to their statement in an appropriate, helpful way. Are they very sad? Are they over it already? Is he or she looking for consolation and support, or do they want to be left alone? All the nonverbal cues that can help you to answer these questions are processed by the brain’s right hemisphere.
“It’s like the brain has been accustomed to non-stop stimulation; when the stimulation stops, the brain continues to demand more, and expresses its unhappiness with irritability and impatience”
Unfortunately, many boys have right hemispheres that have partially gone to sleep. In part because of not noticing important information, and because of that nagging problem with working memory that I mentioned earlier. Consequently, they struggle to comprehend complete messages. When the right hemisphere is asleep, only the factual part of a message or idea is taken in. And when boys only get part of the message, they’re often confused about how to react. Whenever I’m studying boys in social situations, I must remember that their faces don’t always tell me the full extent of what they’re thinking or feeling. Even those boys who do perceive nonverbal cues with their right hemisphere may not be translating that understanding into a facial expression we can interpret.
Because I’ve spent quite a few years working with boys who have autism spectrum disorders, I have become particularly sensitive to communication challenges. Sometimes when I’m trying to get through to boys who are affected by higher functioning autism, they often stare back blankly, or with a somewhat quizzical look. There may be very little movement in their eyes, or sometimes they avert their eyes, making almost no eye contact. Usually, these boys’ voices have a monotone quality, concealing any hint of emotion. If, in those circumstances, I assume that boys are not listening to me, or don’t understand what I’m saying, I will often be mistaken — and worse, less helpful to them than I can be. That’s why we should have frequent check-ins with boys as we are talking to them. We want to know if they are hearing us accurately. You also want to be able to gauge boys’ interest in what you are saying.
Silence creates tension
If you’ve ever gotten stuck while conversing with a quiet boy at home or in school, you are probably familiar with how long and awkward silences can slow or block conversation. Silence has a way of undoing the flow of conversation. It tends to increase anxiety and self-consciousness, and establishes an awkward precedent for the rhythm of conversation. One of the simplest approaches is to avoid open-ended questions, at least at the beginning of a conversation. You may have been taught that to be a good conversationalist, it’s wise to ask open-ended questions. Questions like “what do you like about your school?” spark less momentum than simple, forced-choice questions, requiring a “yes” or “no” answer: “Do you like school?” “Is the food in your cafeteria good?” “Will you be going to the concert?”
As if communicating with boys weren’t difficult enough, we are now challenged to communicate with boys whose minds have been shaped by a steady stream of electronica: games, video, television, internet, and other forms of electronic media. There are serious short and long-term effects of this electronic invasion. Some studies find that games can quicken some cognitive processes, while others have noted that young people have more problems with sustained attention.Basically, young people can’t pay attention for very long, especially if the primary focal point is low stimulation, like someone talking about a topic that is of minimal personal interest. Without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges that teachers face is a generation of kids who aren’t particularly good at listening. This phenomenon has changed the tempo and atmosphere of school, and we can be certain that reaching minds that have been overstimulated by electronics will continue to be a challenge.
In addition, continuous electronics make kids irritable. You can’t play a video game for four hours and not be affected by some degree of grouchiness. I know that kids might be thrilled to begin a game session, but eventually the endless animations, sounds, and graphics are debilitating. The brain gets so supercharged with the onslaught of visual and auditory stimulation that it has trouble de-escalating when the game turns off. This also has the effect of creating a high degree of impatience, especially among younger boys. It’s like the brain has been accustomed to non-stop stimulation; when the stimulation stops, the brain continues to demand more, and expresses its unhappiness with irritability and impatience.
There are also those boys who become so infatuated with games and other media that they decide it’s the only type of activity they need in their life. They gradually withdraw from face-to-face interaction; they become content with relative isolation as long as they can talk to their friends online or through game playing. Are you stunned by all the rationalizations our society generates for allowing kids to have unlimited access to electronics? Collectively, we love technology, but I’m skeptical of claims that games teach social skills. In my view, these claims are rationalizations meant to make us feel better about a growing addiction to electronics.
The bottom line is that kids are allowed access to electronics because they are everywhere, and because many adults don’t have enough time to do things with kids that would take the place of electronics. Games may be fun and sometimes informative, but the degree to which young people play these games, to the exclusion of social interaction, is a lop-sided way to approach the transition to adulthood. Yet I meet many boys and young men between 15 and 20, for whom games are their primary recreation. It’s not surprising that their social communication skills are usually lacking, or at least awkward.
Boredom and civility
I realize we are worried about young people losing momentum and productivity because of electronics. In my view, there is an even more significant problem with electronics, and it has to do with how we get along with each other. Boredom itself is not necessarily something we value or praise, but the capacity to tolerate boredom signifies a mind able to slow itself down long enough to reflect, and consider options. A civil society relies on citizens’ ability to reflect and consider. Civility implies the capacity for empathy, which is a whole lot more complex than manners. Everyone can learn manners, which are basically matters of habit. Boys learn to say thank you, hold a door open, and how to greet someone. These are good and important manners, but are a long way from being empathic.
To be truly civil means that you must be more considered — able to see the world through the eyes of another person. Civility requires a willingness to slow your mind down long enough to think about what people are feeling, or what they just said. Electronics threaten this capability because they nudge young minds toward speed and impatience. These effects aren’t counterbalanced by positive messages embedded within a few games. Adults in general ignore the problem because it’s hard to challenge lucrative industries, regardless of how the products affect young people.
But with awareness we can challenge these threats to commmunication with our boys and young men and open up a rich and deep connection for years to come.
READ: Cracking the Boy Code by Adam J Cox
EXPLORE: Find a toolbox for helping to raise caring compassionate young men at mentoringboys.com
POINTS TO REMEMBER
- Boys’ hearing is less effective than girls.
- Boys’ self-absorption undermines their working memory, and can be mistaken for rudeness or poor effort.
- The most important communication is nonverbal.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
- Is he missing, or misinterpreting, nonverbal signals?
- Is he a “literal thinker” — i.e. just getting the facts, without the emotional nuance of information?
- How can you mirror his nonverbal communication to increase his comfort?
- Have you tried a sequence of rapid, easy questions to break the ice?