Humans might be able to communicate better than other species, but we sometimes don’t do the best possible job at it. All too often, we say one thing when we actually intended the complete opposite. Men, in particular, can be terrible at communicating their true feelings. How can we interpret things guys say and what they really mean?
Why men don’t always say what they mean
When it comes to expressing our feelings, men have a tougher time at it than women do because of how they’re raised, according to Dr. Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist in the Detroit area with 35 years of experience. He explained that we teach boys to not express their emotions, but the result is grown up men without the vocabulary to express themselves.
“He’s been taught if you focus on the inside it’s feminine and it’s not masculine,” Kort said. “So he’s lost, he doesn’t handle it.”
Kort was careful to say all men don’t have difficulty expressing themselves, but in his therapy he’s found that many do, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“When I work with lesbian couples it’s very complex, it’s very intricate. They both have deep inner lives that need to be talked about,” he said. “When I get gay male couples, it’s more simple. It’s more of a struggle, but the struggle is simpler than with lesbian couples. It’s very gender based.”
In general, Kort said, men are less complex than women think. “What she thinks is there’s a bigger light going on inside, and it’s not.”
But since many phrases guys say can still be confusing, Kort offered to interpret some of them.
What guys may mean when they say things
What he could mean: “He doesn’t want to get emotional,” Kort said. This stems back to the skewed way men are raised. “Not to get emotional is [considered being] less of a man, it’s emasculating and feminine. It’s vulnerable.”
Kort added that women can sometimes subconsciously influence men to not express themselves by losing interest in him when he does.
“When he does get emotional in front of a woman, even though she wants it, when it happens she’s turned off, and so then he can’t win.”
“OK, I’m sorry”
What he could mean: He’s trying to avoid a fight, and would prefer to do so without acknowledging any underlying problems.
“[Men] are conflict avoidant,” Kort said. “They don’t want to be asked something that’s going to create a conversation that they don’t want to have or don’t know how to have.”
“I need space” / “I need time to think”
What he could mean: Kort said you should ask for clarification if he says something like this and definitely don’t make up a story in your head without evidence.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have to correct that in my office. ‘Well I think he means—’stop it. No one should do that with a partner. Now you’re making up a whole thing and you’re putting words in his head that may not be true.”
For men who say they need time or space, Kort said they shouldn’t take too long to think about it.
“When I work with couples I would say if you need space don’t give more than 24 hours of space. It’s not fair,” he said. “The other person needs for you to come back more quickly.”
“I’ve just been really busy with work lately” / “I’m just really tired”
What he could mean: It could mean he’s not interested, but it depends on the context. Before reading too much into this, consider the facts and look for patterns.
For example, if he works in a busy field like law or medicine and is often held up at work, that may just be reality for him right now. But if the facts don’t line up, he may be trying to avoid you without causing conflict.
“Men just aren’t going to be that direct,” Kort said.
“I’m not a relationship guy”
What he could mean: “I would think that women should take their word for it,” Kort said. He added that he’s seen far too many women try to change men who say this, but it’s not worth wasting their time.
He may mean it in absolute terms, or he may be trying to say that he’s not interested in a relationship with you. Either way, he’s likely not worth your emotional effort.
Nothing for a week
What he could mean: This means he’s ghosting you “in most cases,” according to Kort.
“You’re overreacting” / “You’re being too dramatic”
What he could mean: “I think a man is saying ‘this is too emotional for me and I need the emotion to go away’,” Kort said.
Since men don’t like conflict, they’ll try their best to stop a fight, but they should consider how their partner feels. “It’s too emotional for him, but it might not be too emotional for her. So he needs to step back and let her be emotional.”
This is also a key component of gaslighting, so be sure to learn the other signs as well.
“Why are you single?” and other awkward compliments
What he could mean: Men like to compliment women, they just suck at it sometimes. Sure, it’s partly the fault of their upbringing, but as adults men have no excuse. Kort said men should talk to their partner about how they like to be talked to.
“I think that men should go to women and say, ‘I would like to compliment you sometimes, how do you like to be complimented?’”
“Let me give you a massage”
What he could mean: He’s probably trying to initiate intimacy, but that shouldn’t be the only way he expresses his feelings.
“[Men] have four ways of [expressing] emotions: work, violence, sports and sex. And so that’s one of the ways to tell you,” Kort said.
“And it’s unfortunate because it would be better if he could say, ‘Hey, I just want to touch you and hold you and show affection.’ That’s what he really wants, but it moves to sex because that’s the only way he knows how to do it.”
“Who’s that guy in the photo?” / “You shouldn’t wear that”
What he could mean: “Men fear that when women are getting hit on, they’re going to eventually act on it because men would,” Kort said.
But that’s not usually the case. Men who say this sort of thing are being insecure and probably need to trust their partner more, according to Kort.
“If you trust your girlfriend 100 percent, you’re not going to worry.”
Sending a physically-charged message or picture
What he could mean: “A lot of men doing it think that women would enjoy it just like they would enjoy getting a [similar] pic,” Kort said.
Instead, Kort suggested men would be better served taking time to think about how their partner might prefer to communicate, even with intimacy. However, vulnerability fears often get in the way, he added.
“I don’t post who I date on social media” / “You wouldn’t like my friends”
What he could mean: “I am not ready to go public with you or about you yet.”
Don’t count on meeting his friends any time soon if he drops this on you. The legitimacy of the statement could depend on several factors. For instance, his family may adhere to strict cultural guidelines that he’s still trying to navigate, and he’d rather not have to address the topic until he’s figured out how.
On the other hand, if his social media presence seems to include everyone but you, that’s a sign he likely has no intention of making you a bigger part of his life.
“ I still want you in my life”
What he could mean: “I only want to be friends or friends with benefits,” Kort said, likely with an emphasis on the latter.
It’s essentially a confession that he’s willing to exploit your lingering feelings in whatever way best suits his needs.
“You look fine”
What he could mean: “You don’t look great (hair, outfit), but I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” Kort said.
It’s also worth noting that men aren’t always as knowledgeable of or concerned with the intricacies of women’s fashion—as far as he’s concerned you’re dressed appropriately, and that’s where his understanding ends. He may also just be in a rush to get you out of the house.
“She’s just a friend”
What he could mean: “She might be, she might not be,” Kort said. Regardless, he’s trying to change the subject.
It’s probably best to take this at face value until he gives you a reason not to. It’s also fine to ask questions about the nature of the friendship if it makes you uneasy.
“It’s a guy thing”
What he could mean: “I am going to do this and don’t want to explain it to you. I don’t think you would understand. Or give me slack,” Kort said.
He may be trying to hand-wave any objections you might have to whatever he’s doing as being intrinsic to the male existence. Whether you believe this is up to you, but keep in mind, it’s almost never used to excuse behavior to which you’d typically react positively.
“We should start exercising”
What he could mean: “You are gaining weight and I am becoming less attracted to you” is one interpretation, according to Kort. Conversely, he could be concerned about his own appearance and wants some support and/or accountability.
It’s not unusual for people to want to share their hobbies with their partners, especially if it’s something they believe is vital to their health and wellbeing. Similarly, taking up (and sticking with) a new activity is always easier with a companion.
To get at his true intentions, you’ll need to rely on other clues, such as comments about your appearance. It should go without saying, but anyone who demands you change your appearance for their approval is not worth your time, and anything you accomplish may never be enough.
What men really mean
While humans might have been blessed with the ability to communicate, unfortunately they don’t have the power to read minds. Sometimes guys are bad at communicating their feelings, while other times they’re saying whatever they can to get what they want.
Kort admitted he doesn’t always know how to decipher what guys really mean, but he thinks women should sometimes cut guys some slack.
“I think women need to give men a little bit of a delayed response leeway,” he said. “[Men] are delayed because we don’t have access to our inner inner selves, whereas women more often do.”
Instead of trying to figure out what the guy is thinking, women should just ask him what he means. “I think women need to say, ‘I need to know what you mean and if you can’t tell me now, we’re going to have to come back to this conversation,’” Kort said.
But the onus is on men, too. Kort encourages men to read self-help books and go to men’s groups to learn how to communicate their feelings.
“I feel like men don’t take enough accountability to learn how to step up,” he said.
One of the best things men can do to become better communicators is to talk to their partners, according to Kort. And if they do, they could end up earning themselves some serious brownie points.
“I don’t think men understand that they would win points from a woman to say, ‘I’m going to love you the way you want to be loved.’ I’ve been watching you and trying to make sure I’m getting it, but I would like to also hear you.’ Oh my God, a woman would just die and go to heaven to hear that.”