Women have a tough time getting men to open up. If reporters had as much trouble getting interviewees to talk, there'd be a lot more headlines like "Scientist Discovers Miracle Cancer Cure, Categorizes Day As 'Fine, How Was Yours?'"
Reporters try to elicit fresh information, personal perspectives, and telling anecdotes from our subjects. That's not so different from what women look for when they approach their husbands or boyfriends about dicey topics like money, commitment, or why he insists on leaving the wet towel on the bed, not to mention the less dicey but equally elusive ones such as what happened at work that day. But reporters' methods are different: We try to remain impartial, we avoid becoming emotionally involved, and we focus on asking questions that will make the subject confident, trusting, and at ease. The questions women ask men, by contrast, often leave us somewhere between uncomfortable and queasy. Pretty soon we sense the attack coming and move into defense mode. When you go after our inner thoughts through a heavily fortified front gate, you've got zero chance of finding out what's really going on—or, God forbid, how we feel about it.
Take the perennially ineffective "What are you thinking?" It's an honest, legitimate question that is doomed to failure. It turns men into nervous liars, because we're essentially thinking about nothing. Or sex. Or a baseball highlight. Might as well ask Dick Cheney where the undisclosed location is.
When I get that question (and it's usually in bed), here's what I do: First I think up something complimentary—How nice it is to be here with you, perhaps. Then I ask myself if it's too sappy to be believed. If so, I revise. Finally, I let it fly and hope she hasn't planted a polygraph in my pillow.
Here are some secrets to a successful interview, which may also help women get their men to let down their guards and spill their guts. Choose the right time.
A reporter looking for person-on-the-street interviews in, say, New York will have little luck with commuters rushing out of the Times Square subway station at 8:57 on a Monday morning. But those same people sunning themselves in the park during lunch hour will talk your ear off. So even if something has been bothering you, don't slam a man with it when he gets home from work; try a lazy Sunday afternoon (not during football season). Pick the right place.
Susan Shapiro, a fellow journalism teacher at New York University and the author of Five Men Who Broke My Heart
, told me that she knew to meet interview subjects on their home turf (an athlete in a sports bar, for example), because it let them feel they were in control. Yet she didn't do the same with the men in her life. Now she has learned to butter up her husband for a big talk. "Even though I prefer sushi," she said, "if we go to his favorite Tex-Mex place, he's going to be happier." And more receptive. Prepare unexpected questions...and shut up