Friday, November 15, 2013

Solutions, Tools, Sympathy, and Experience

Imagine for a moment that you are a mechanic, with an old, lovingly-maintained but still quirky car.  Periodically, some part on this car fails on you, and replacement parts are harder to get, but to you it's still worth it.  One day, this car won't start.

You investigate, and because you're pretty familiar with this car you quickly determine that the problem is a bad part in your ignition system.  You call around with no luck, but finally find one at a junkyard in another state; they tell you they're pretty sure they can have it to you early next week.  You're a little bummed out about this, because you'd planned a road trip for the weekend to see a friend and show him your car, but there's really no help for it.

One of your buddies, who is not a mechanic, drops by, and you invite him in for a beer because you've had a frustrating day and you could use some company.  You're telling him about having to reschedule your trip, and he interrupts you.

Him:  Why don't you just rent a car and go anyway?  I'll even lend you my car.
You:  That's really nice of you to offer.  But I wanted to show my other friend my car.  He's thinking of buying one, and wanted to get a feel for how working on it would be if he did.
Him:  Well, can't he come here then?
You:  No, that's not an option for him.  Next weekend will work.  I'm just bummed because we were gonna get awesome barbecue.
Him:  Are you sure the battery's not dead?  Did you try jump-starting it?
You:  Yeah, it's just a part in the ignition.  I've got another one coming, it's just inconveniently scheduled and frustrating.
Him:  Did you put gas in it?  Maybe it's out of gas.
You:  Uh, no, I'm pretty sure I learned to read a gas gauge at a pretty early age.
Him:  Well, you don't have to get defensive.  Hey, it is blue.  I read somewhere that blue cars break down more often.  I've got some time this afternoon.  Let's paint it green.  I'll help you!
You: ...
Him:  Oh!  Maybe it's out of oil.  You have to put oil in cars, you know, between oil changes.  I used to have this old Chevy, burned a quart of oil a week...let's go put some oil in your car and see if that fixes it.
You:  No, it's fine on oil, and by the way, if you've got a car losing a quart of oil a week, that's really long did you drive it like that?  Your current car isn't leaking like that, is it?
Him:  Well, it was running fine.  Anyway, why don't you just go to the part store and get the part?  I'm sure they've got whatever you need at the AutoZone.  I got headlight lamps there last week!
You:  This is a forty-year-old car.  It hasn't been made since the mid-70s.  There wasn't one at the local junkyard, but I found a guy who specializes in this model and he's getting me the part.
Him:  Well, but let's just go to the AutoZone and check.
You:  No, the AutoZone won't have it...who are you calling?
Him:  The AutoZone.  I'll just check for you, because you never know.  Hello, AutoZone, I need a...what's the part called?
You:  (specify part, plus make and model and year of the car)
Him:  (gives info)  You don't?  Since when?  Well, there's no need to be RUDE!  (*hangs up*)  The clerk laughed at me.
You:  No real surprise there.
Him:  Why don't you just let me take a look at it?  I might be able to rewire it for you.
You:  You know I do this for a living, right?  I know what I'm doing, and it's just a part I'll get replaced, OK?
Him:  Well, I'm just trying to help.  I do have a knack for mechanical things.
You:  Last year you set your workshop on fire 'fixing the toaster'.  Can't you just sit here and enjoy a beer and hang out with me?
Him:  That's your problem.  You always want to TALK about your problems, you never want to actually hear how to FIX them.

This conversation is how I feel when the men in my life talk about how "women just want sympathy instead of solutions because they're not invested in fixing their problems.  Men are solution-driven, so we have to just learn to listen tolerantly and not try to give any real help."

Generally, the 'problems' I am talking about are well beyond the three-minute understanding of anyone who's not me, and the last thing I need are simplistic, uninformed and unhelpful solutions from someone who doesn't have any idea of the full scope of what's going on, who then gets angry at me for the fact that his suggestions don't solve my problem, and accuses me of either 'not telling the whole story first' or 'just throwing up roadblocks' when I try to explain the complexities.  I don't 'just want sympathy' because I don't want solutions.  I 'just want sympathy' because you probably don't have the skills, experience, and tools to solve the problem right now, or because your goals and needs and expectations are different than mine and what would work for you in the same situation won't get me where I want to be.  Or because I've already set the solution in motion, but some part of that solution frustrates, upsets, or irritates me and I want to vent to a friend I trust to offer empathy.

If the solutions are that 'glaringly obvious' do you really believe I can't see them myself?  Or is it a more likely explanation that the glaringly obvious solution has a hidden cost, anything from incurring a social debt I don't want, to a hit to self-esteem I can't afford right now, to abandoning a larger goal that doesn't appear connected from your perspective, but is?

I'm not saying, guys, that I don't want your help or your perspectives.  But unless I've started the conversation with "I could use some advice..." or ended it with " what do you think I should do?" then accusing me of 'not wanting to fix' a problem I'm having just because what's readily apparent and obvious to you isn't a reasonable solution to me is pretty insulting.  And writing off the entire female gender as 'not really interested in SOLVING problems as much as talking about them' is a pretty good way to keep me from trusting you enough to talk to you about problems you can help solve.

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