“He’s Just Not That Into You”:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Women in modern society are beginning to “wear the pants” in relationships. Authors Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo argue in their book, He’s Just Not That Into You that if a man cares, he will be the one to pursue the female. They point out excuses that women use to justify men’s behavior, consequently tricking themselves into thinking the relationship is going somewhere it is not. By applying Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson’s five axioms of communication we can see systematically why Behrendt and Tuccillo’s hypothesis carries societal truth.
Explanation of Theory
Cybernetics is a tradition of communication theory that focuses, simply stated, on information processing. The interactional view of the cybernetic theory was created in the 1950’s when Gregory Bateson studied animal and human interaction through the lens of cybernetics. After examining Bateson’s theory, Watzlawick et al. expanded it to include couple and family communication as well as therapy. Their main focus was to look at relationships as cybernetic systems with an emphasis on feedback cycles and control. They looked very closely at the idea of homeostasis, the concept that “interaction patterns keep the system in balance and maintain the status quo” (Craig, lecture, 10/8/09). To explore how human communication systems function Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson came up with five axioms, or five rules. These theorists call this a tentative list of axioms as more could always be added.
The first axiom states, “One cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 49). In laymen’s terms we are constantly communicating even if we are not participating in speech or dialogue because of non-verbal communication. Watzlawick et al. specify this by saying, “Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 48). For example, if a student does not want to answer a question in class they might avoid eye contact with the professor, thus communicating a bevy of responses such as, “I don’t know the answer” or “I hate talking in front of people.”
Their second axiom claims, “Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 51). The content of communication is more about sending information whereas the relationship aspect is how you take and process that information as it relates to and shapes the relationship you are in. This in turn creates metacommunication, or talk about talk. For example, if someone said, “that was great” the listener could infer from the content that the event referred to really was great in the speaker’s eyes. However, if the speaker was using sarcasm to illustrate that something wasn’t really that great the listener in turn missed the relationship aspect of what was being said. This sequence of communication is also used to shape people’s relationships and can show why the sarcasm used in this case can sometimes hurt new interactions.
Watzlawick et al. state the third axiom as, “The nature of relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between the communicants” (1967, p. 54). This can cause relationships to get stuck in certain patterns that participants find difficult to get out of due to the circumstances. Arguments can become repetitive because each person blames the other for causing their own behavior. The example Watzlawick et al. uses is that of a wife nagging her husband and the husband withdrawing. They claim, “…as Bateson [personal communication] suggests, the dilemma arises out of the spurious punctuation of the series, namely, the pretense that it has a beginning, and this is precisely the error of the partners in such a situation” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 54).
The fourth axiom states, “Human beings communicate both digitally and analogically” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 57). “Analogic communication can be more readily referred to the thing it stands for” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 55), for example objects or pictures. Digital communication on the other hand uses words and the denotation associated with them, but the words rarely have anything to do with the physical object. Both parts of this communicative process relate to axiom two. “We can…expect to find that the content aspect is likely to be conveyed digitally whereas the relationship aspect will be predominantly analogic in nature” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 56).
The fifth and final axiom says, “All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on whether they are based on equality or difference” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 59). Symmetrical relationships are those that are equal and don’t have, or don’t acknowledge differences. Complementary, however, focuses on the differences in a relationship that make weaknesses and strengths mesh together and coexist. The danger comes in both these interchanges with “escalation in symmetry and rigidity in complementarity” (Watzlawick, 1967, p. 59).
In order to better understand these five axioms we can relate them to an everyday communication problem that permeates not only college students' lives, but women in general as displayed in popular culture. The hit movie, "He’s Just Not That Into You" was based on the book with the same title that points out eleven main problems women brush aside when smitten with a man. For this paper I will examine the first two: “he’s just not that into you if he’s not calling you” and “he’s just not that into you if he doesn’t want to marry you” (Behrendt & Tuccillo, 2004, table of contents) in relation to the five axioms.
We can examine the first axiom with the idea of a guy not calling and the connotations related to it. While some may think the male is not communicating with the female by not contacting her, he is in fact bombarding her with information. Thoughts such as, “he’s busy” or “he lost my number” constantly excuse men and put the theoretical ball in a girl’s court. Authors Behrendt and Tuccillo point out, “With the advent of cell phones and speed dialing it is almost impossible not to call you” (2004, p. 23). They want to argue there is no excuse for a man not to call. If their hypothesis is true then the one conclusion that can be deduced for why he’s not calling is that “he’s just not that into you.” All of this we can infer from “not communicating.”
The second axiom which discusses a content and relationship aspect to communication can also help to examine the issue of a man not calling. If someone says, “I’ll call you tomorrow” and this statement is taken strictly from a contextual point of view it can be assumed that the person will call tomorrow. The relationship aspect when meeting someone new can be a little trickier. In order to decipher what is truly being said one must examine how they view themselves, how they view the other person, and how they assume the other person is viewing them. This can be tough to do in a short interaction and can cause confusion in a new relationship. Girls make excuses based on the context of what a man says, but leave out the relationship aspect of it which ultimately gets them into trouble. If a guy says he’ll call you and doesn’t Behrendt insists, “he’s just not that into you.” He states, “If I like you, I don’t forget you, ever” (Behrendt & Tuccillo, 2004, p. 26).
Axiom three relates strongly to the idea, “he’s just not that into you if he doesn’t want to marry you.” In the popular movie remake of the book, Jennifer Aniston’s character wants her boyfriend to propose even though he has made it very clear that he does not want to get married. She ends up tricking herself into thinking, after seven years, that one day he will change his mind. They consistently get in cyclical arguments about her desire for marriage and his resistance to it. For a short while they break up and both refuse to budge from their positions, blaming the other, thinking they will never find common ground on the issue. In romantic comedy fashion they both must disconnect from their patterned system in order to be reunited.
The fourth axiom describing analogical and digital communication is also represented in the movie. Ginnifer Goodwin’s character meets a guy in a bar and they exchange business cards. In our modern society these business cards represent analogic communication. The interchange about the exchanging of the cards, however, is seen as digital communication. There is a brief and awkward conversation where Goodwin’s character tries to nail down who is calling whom for future interaction. The man ends up saying vaguely, “we’ll be in touch,” punctuating the conversation and leaving the business card exchange as impersonal as possible.
The final axiom can be expanded further when relating it to “he’s just not that into you if he doesn’t want to marry you.” Aniston’s character and her boyfriend have a symmetrical relationship in that they both hold equal power, but complementary in that their relationship goals are opposite causing them to approach situations differently. Throughout the movie their strengths and weaknesses begin to harmonize and audience members start to root for them. Aniston becomes an exception to the rule allowing the relationship that viewers watch to not fall prey to the dangers of interchanges, tying the story up in a perfect Hollywood bow.
Watzlawick et al.’s five axioms can be used to clearly defend Behrendt and Tuccillo’s signs that a man might not be interested in you. In the movie, however, the audience finds there are exceptions to the rules just as there are exceptions to Watzlawick et al.’s five axioms. The theorists do not leave enough room in each axiom for life to occur. To some extent these axioms are sweeping generalizations; no matter how true they may be the majority of the time there must be room for exceptions.
I also found while examining the theory that one important aspect of communication has been left out. Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Life in Everyday Life, makes an important expansion to what could be axiom two. He states,
In spite of the expectation that everything said by the performer will be in keeping with the definition of the situation fostered by him, he may convey a great deal during an interaction that is out of character and convey it in such a way as to prevent the audience as a whole from realizing that anything out of keeping with the definition of the situation has been conveyed. (Goffman, 1959, p. 177)
While Watzlawick et al. did a thorough job of explaining content and relationship aspects of communication they do not cover, in any of their axioms, what it looks like when participants put on a communicative show. Since this is so prevalent in interaction it is vital that the theory at least address this issue in relation to the five axioms.
On the other hand, the theory has many major benefits when applied to communicative interchanges. Watzlawick et al. point out clearly and correctly that often no matter how hard participants try to rebel against communicative and relational norms they can get stuck in patterns. It was interesting to dissect with this view the overarching negative male and female interaction patterns that led Behrendt and Tuccillo to write He’s Just Not That Into You.
The way the axioms overlap can also be seen as a benefit. While it was somewhat difficult to write the paper with different examples of each rule when some were so similar, the axioms work the same way communication does. By overlapping, one can look at the rules as if they were having a conversation with them, truly interacting with the lens Watzlawick et al. see communication through.
After examining the five axioms, it is clear that this theory’s lens aides in assessing the problems addressed in He’s Just Not That Into You. Watzlawick et al. clearly defines the structure held in interaction that can lead to problems. This allowed the rules to show why women become blinded when it comes to the truth in their own relationships. Interactants should now be more aware of negative repetition in relationships, and in turn work towards changing the way women approach communication in that context.
Behrendt, G., & Tuccillo, L. (2004). He's just not that into you: The no-excuses truth to understanding guys. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment.
Craig, R.T. Lecture. October 8th, 2009.
Goffman, E. (1959). Communication out of character: Team collusion. In The presentation of self in everyday life (pp. 167-207). New York: Anchor Books.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York: W. W. Norton Company.