In a very funny duologue by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a man and a woman are carrying on an intellectually rarefied (they hope!) conversation, with Bach in the background. She is stammering to say how exalted she felt when she first read Nietzsche.
"Do you know what I mean?" she asks breathlessly.
"I know ex-actlym what you mean," he replies in kind.
"Oh," she cries in ecstasy, "did that happen to youm too?"
In the 20 years since Nichols and May did their roundelay the social sciences have invented something they have called "conversational politics." Studying tapes of conversation between men and women, both psychologists and sociologists are now busily spreading the word that men, in fact, do not know ex-actlym what women mean.
Jane Austen could have told them as much. But where are Austen's statistics?
The new analysts are full of statistics. For instance, in conversation between men and women, men are reported to do 96 percent of the interrupting, a statistic which suggests that men not only don't know what women mean, they don't especially want to find out.
The dominating monologue, the interruption, and the disconcerting silence -- these, it must be admitted, are all too often men's style in conversation with women, as every good dialogue writer has known since Homer composed those scenes between nearly speechless Penelope and her noisy suitors.
Why do men have to win at conversation, like everything else? And why do they have to say, "I know ex- actlym what you mean," when so frequently they don't?
In a brilliant essay titled "He Said, She Said," Leslie Farber argued convincingly that men's monologues, interruptions, and silences are defensive tactics originating in fear, if not panic. "Forthright talk with women," he wrote, "is perhaps the most perilous venture known to men."
The "primary experience of man before woman," Dr. Farber maintained, "is awe." The man "comes to dread that in his life with woman he will be found wanting."
An odd way to show "awe" and "dread" -- by monologue, interruptions, and indifferent silences. But as Mike Nichols observes in that skit, speaking for all glib and panicked men: "A relationship is so difficult. You trym and fail. Trym and fail." And keep talking, keep interrupting, keep escaping into silences in order not to be found out -- not to be "found wanting."
If Dr. Farber is correct, Freud's famous cry, "What does woman want?" may express not only petulance and condescension but genuine anguish: the bewilderment of the rationalist before the inexplainable in others, and in himself.
And how about women? Do they know ex-actlym what men mean?
Maybe this is just what men, with their habitual jokes about "feminine intuition," fear -- that they the unknowing are known, seen right through.
And while the subject is jokes, what about all the other jokes men tell under the guise of conversation, often with the assumption that humor is an exclusively male province? Perhaps the students of "conversational politics" will give us the pertinent statistics here too. Are women, for instance, required to play straight person 96 percent of the time?
In any case, the psychologists and sociologists will doubtless have further unflattering news for men as would-be comedians. But nothing they say can be as devastating as what Jane Austen said almost 200 years before them. In "Pride and Prejudice" she had Elizabeth remark: "One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty."
There truly is a woman to hold in "awe" and "dread."