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Couple Speak for the Modern Partner There's no way around the conversation gap; men and women still -- and may always -- communicate differently

Most longtime couples can recognize this conversation:

It's been a busy day at the office, and at home. Somehow, the evening discussion slides into truncated sentences - shorthand developed over a long relationship.

"Hi, honey. I'm home."

There's a buzz in the house as dinner is prepared. Children are talking. There are things to do. Still, the discussion between the couple is sparse.

"How was your day?"

"Pretty good. My meeting went well. How was your day?"

"Fine. I took Brian for his appointment, and it's teacher conference night. I want to ask about Brea's language arts grade."

Dinner happens with the casualness of habit, and the talk between spouses remains minimal. Then the phone rings. It's Mom's good friend. Suddenly a torrent of words pours out of her - about her meeting at work (in detail that includes nuanced politics) and a call from Brea's English teacher. All about concerns and feelings, comparisons and human dynamics. The conversation veers off to goals, more feelings, and, if Mom leaves the room, it means the discussion turned to men and marriage.

Dad got the condensed version and, depending on who Dad is, he's either relieved or slightly miffed. Were the roles reversed, the same might have been true, but Dad might talk about life with his friends between downs while watching a football game, or while ordering a hamburger.

How many times does a wife ask her husband if he's listening, because while she talks, he quietly, infuriatingly and innocently starts reading the paper or channel-surfing? And how many times does a husband wonder what topic deserves a two-hour discussion?

Let's face it: Conversation between the sexes and among their own kind is just different. Understanding the conflicting modes helps us take it less personally. And mastering the nuances and learning to accept each other as we are helps in our marriages, at work and when we're raising our children.

In high school, I was bewildered to find that girls largely talked about boys, and boys largely talked about the world. But when I was in college, I discovered the camaraderie of women friends, and this has never waned. Wherever I've lived, I have found like-minded women with whom I can discuss nearly everything. With my tribe of girlfriends, most sprinkled liberally around the nation, I find my words quickly and easily. I get to the heart of the matter. Our daily lives differ, but we struggle with similar dilemmas and our own instinctive behavior at roughly the same time. We can compare notes. We help each other. And we talk and talk and talk.

Perhaps this is because our generation of women is doing very different things than our mothers did. Many of our moms didn't blaze a trail like ours, even though they wanted us to have opportunities they didn't. So my girlfriends and I have a lot to discuss. And maybe this community-building bonding behavior speaks to evolution. I can easily imagine us in early incarnations, sitting around a fire, nursing babies, sewing mammoth pelts together and wondering why those men ignored our advice about which hunting ground might be great this winter.

Men seem to re-create their own cave-dwelling hunting trips with, well, hunting trips. Or fishing trips. Or hockey games, Ping-Pong, basketball, joint home-improvement projects, kicking tires or just sitting around watching a game.

Deborah Tannen, author of the New York Times best-seller "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," says the sexes learned different habits for using talk in relationships when they were growing up.

"The assumption that intimacy is created through talk is far more common among girls," Tannen wrote. "A best friend is the one you tell everything to. Among boys, a best friend is the one you do everything with - or, among men, the one you can count on to remain loyal whether or not you have recently talked."

Yet having raised children of both genders, I've noticed the difference: Give a small boy a new toy and he manipulates it, sees if it has moving parts, or throws it. Give it to a tiny girl, and she'll talk to it, develop a relationship, ask its name or give it one. I'm a devout and homemaking feminist, and I still believe we have different skill sets. We arrive here that way. Environment is not all that shapes who we are.

Growing up I was told men and women are the same, same, same. Equal in every way. I believed it wholeheartedly, because we believe what we are told.

I was bewildered at stereotyped gender differences. Old TV reruns surprised me, as did families with older-generation parents where I perceived the genders spoke differently to each other. Go in the living room, the men were talking politics. Go in the kitchen, and women were talking about family.

I suppose I thought this would all change once the genders were considered equal. There was once an assumption that typical topics of men's discussion were more valuable than typical women's discussion. If I posed that as an idea to my tribe of women friends, they'd probably burst out laughing. As the first generation of women who accepted wholeheartedly that equality was a given, would they think that talking about politics was more important than family dynamics? Are you kidding? These are both crucial, despite being completely different spheres of interest, one interior, one exterior. They both affect our daily lives, and they both deserve attention.

And now men can, when they want to, talk in-depth about relationships and feelings, and women have strong, articulate opinions on politics. There's no longer a barrier, which is a momentous step forward. That doesn't mean, however, that we are the same.

Men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. Ask a bunch of women if they are happy with this arrangement, and you'll get different answers. Some are fine with it. Some want more of this discussion with their men. Some men want more of this comfortable, automatic discussion with their women, and some are really glad not to have it.

My husband always gives me a funny look when he knows I'm talking to my best friends. It looks like a mixture, depending on the day, of jealousy, resignation, annoyance, sadness and relief. It's not that I don't want to tell him all about everything. In fact, he's the one I most want to know about my day, my life and my dreams. But his response is different. He doesn't hash things out. He doesn't feel better describing the edges and crevices of issues like my women friends and I do. He likes to, in the parlance of our president, be a decider. He's happiest with conclusions. It's not the verbal journey he seems to like, it's the destination.

His cues to me, therefore, are all about getting to the upshot, which I can't do well without the hashing-out period. I've therefore concluded (and he'd like that) that this has to be a communal endeavor, modern life as in the old days.

If there's something to discuss, I allow myself the round table of my good friends, out of earshot of my partner. We laugh, we compare, we filter our experiences through other women's experiences. Then we come carefully to conclusions we can comfortably present to our husbands, like a proud cat bringing home a dead mouse.

For his part, my husband needs time with his friends. Some of the guys from work watch specific movies every couple of weeks. "The Big Lebowski," "The Princess Bride." I love those movies, but I wouldn't make plans to watch them with my friends. My husband - a musician - gets together to practice with different people in our attic. Sometimes I feel left out, but those sessions make him a happier man. I might bring coffee, or remind them it's been four hours, but if I'm honest with myself, I know I don't belong there.

My friends and I would rather talk and maybe do something while we're at it, and he and his friends would rather do something, and maybe talk while they're at it.

Our different modes of communication can create distance if we let them. Genuine acceptance of them could be the most pragmatic method to keep our relationships strong and everyone happy. Equality of the sexes will always rule. But within that equality, we can imagine the power of recognizing and celebrating our differences.

Natalie Green Tessier lives in the Elmwood Village and is writing a book of short stories.

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