Can it get any worse? Now what should be a sacred moment, a time for grieving over the deaths of soldiers in Africa has become the latest cause célèbre in our suffering nation’s ongoing political battles. The newspapers and airwaves are full of invective and insult, argument and anger over what Trump said to the widow of a fallen soldier. But everyone is missing a key point in this whole thing: the gender aspect.
Men and women have different speaking styles. Men like to be direct. John Kelly told us that the casualty officer who brought the news of his son’s death said: “Kell, He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into…and when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth—his friends.” Any man can see how this would be the right thing to say to a father who is also a soldier. Marines become a band of brothers. They look out for each other. They’re brave. When they sign up they know that we’re at war and a percentage of them are not coming back. General Kelly’s statement ends by saying “That’s what the president tried to say…”
But the thing is, what might make a father feel somewhat better, especially a father who is also a soldier, doesn’t necessarily strike a mother or widow the same way. They don’t want to hear that he knew what he was getting into, and I’m sure a lot of men wouldn’t either, especially when it just happened and the grief is raw.
As Deborah Tannen’s work has shown, men and women are constantly speaking at cross-purposes because they don’t understand each other’s styles. Men don’t like to apologize, they don’t like to ask directions, and they use speech to establish status. They’re wired to be competitive –you can’t show weakness, whereas women are cooperative. They talk in order to gain intimacy with friends, telling their troubles as a way of sharing and becoming closer. When men hear about troubles, they start looking for solutions—they think women are asking for advice and they readily give it. This has created a new word recently: “man-splaining.” Women hate it.
What Trump said may have sounded like man-splaining, but more than that it came off as just plain insensitive. What sounded good to Kelly and Trump was exactly what this grieving widow did not want to be reminded of.
There’s one further addition to the mix that made this case particularly bitter and that is the fact that our current president is terrible with language. Not having heard a tape of the conversation with the widow, we have to rely on her report and that of the congresswoman, but is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that Trump took Kelly’s advice and made a hash out of it? And even if he didn’t garble the words, he’s so aggressive-sounding in his speech, so blustery, so New York City, that anything he said was liable to come out wrong.
Melania seems like a nice person. Maybe she could get involved and help with these kinds of communications.