July 1, 2010


A Common Language

by Dallas Woodburn

“Why is it so hard for men and women to communicate with each other?”

This question was recently posed to my human studies class, and our assignment was to write a paper on the topic using our own personal knowledge and observation of relationships around us. I knew from the start what I would write about. My parents get along well enough, but my dad is from Mars and my mom is from Venus, and they have visibly different ways of communicating. My dad, while he will listen to others’ feelings, hardly ever talks about his own. The only time I remember seeing him cry was when my grandmother – his mother – died over a decade ago. Instead of relating to what you are saying, my dad usually responds by thinking of ways to solve your problem or make you feel better – often by pointing out that there are people worse off than you and that you should be grateful for your blessings.

My mom, on the other hand, connects to what others are saying by sharing similar experiences of her own and assuring you that she understands what you’re going through. Conversation is a way for her to bond and express agreement and support with other people. It isn’t as important to my mom to find an immediate solution to your problem as it is for you to let your feelings out and realize that you’re not alone.

My thesis was simple: men and women grow up in different social surroundings and have contrasting ideas about communication, and thus it is often hard for them to talk to each other. I left class with an outline for my paper already written in my mind. After all, it is easy in everyday life to see the dissimilarities between men and women – the different ways they deal with issues, the problems they have communicating, the contrasting ways they relate to one another.

But sometimes it takes a crisis to make you realize that for all our differences, we really are very much the same.

* * *

“We lost the baby.”

I looked at my parents’ tear-stained faces, at my mom’s just-starting-to-swell belly, at the book of baby names sitting on the kitchen counter, filled with post-it notes marking possibilities, and I was flooded with the overwhelming impossibility of speech. Yes, we had known there were risks – my mom was forty-five, and doctors warned her that there was an increased chance of something going wrong. But my mom was healthy, her check-ups were going great, she had gotten through the first trimester, which everyone said was the most precarious...

There I stood – a woman, just like her, who is supposed to be easier for her to communicate with, who is supposed to understand what she is experiencing, who is supposed to relate to her and make her feel better – and I had no idea what to say. How could I tell her I knew what she was going through? I had never experienced a miscarriage. I had never lost a child when I was just beginning to believe that I made it through the worst times and everything was going to be okay, when I had let myself imagine what it would be like to have another child in the house and had just started dreaming up names and planning how to share the news with my friends, when I had just bought my first pair of maternity pants two days ago because my jeans were beginning to get awfully tight and you were starting to see the growth of the baby inside me. How could I ever tell her I know what it feels like to lose all that? Because I don’t. And she knows I don’t.

My dad – a man, who is supposed to have trouble communicating with her, who is supposed to not listen to what she is saying, who is supposed to have difficulty understanding her emotions and making her feel better – he didn’t hesitate at all. He wrapped her up in a big hug and just let her cry.

My parents, a man and woman who are supposed to have trouble communicating, stood there in the kitchen holding each other. I realized that it doesn’t matter that my dad sometimes doesn’t connect to what she is saying, or that my mom sometimes jumps in and interrupts him. After twenty-two years of marriage, they understand each other. When words are hardest to come by, they know what to say (or what not say.)

They love each other. And, when you really get down to it, that’s the common language that matters.

Dallas Woodburn, 23, is the author of two collections of short stories (There's a Huge Pimple on My Nose and 3 a.m.) and a forthcoming novel. Her essays have appeared in numerous publications including Family Circle, The Los Angeles Times, Motherwords, and eight Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, a nonprofit organization that encourages youth to discover confidence, joy and connection through reading and writing. Dancing With The Pen, the first Write On! Books anthology of essays, poetry and short stories written entirely by kids and teens, will be released this fall. Read more of Dallas' work at her blog, Dallas Woodburn's Writing Life.