Bottling it up or talking it over?

Talking on phone24 July 2012

The popular notion that 'women like to talk about their problems, men bottle things up' holds more than a grain of truth – but according to a recent study looking at how people in the UK deal with their emotional problems, it's not quite that simple.

"It's clear that young women are much more interested in talking about emotions than young men are, but older women are much more similar to older men than they are to younger women. So it's not gender on its own – it's gender in relation to age, generation and class," says Dr Julie Brownlie, who carried out the research 

The ESRC-funded study was the first national survey to address these issues. Over 2,000 people took part, answering questions on their attitudes towards emotional support as part of the annual British Social Attitudes survey. The research team followed this up with interviews with 52 participants to get a more in-depth response.

The findings suggest that women tend to be more positive about the value of talking about emotions, with the gap between men and women greatest in the younger age groups (18–24 and 25–44). People in the middle age groups (25–44 and 45–59) were most comfortable with the idea of talking to a therapist or counsellor, and those in the youngest (18–24) and oldest (60+) age groups least so. This reflects the 'mustn't grumble' attitude of the pre-war generation among older people, in contrast to the post-war 'baby boomers' generation who are considerably more at ease with a confessional culture.

Overall, two thirds of participants (68 per cent) said they found it important to be able to talk about their feelings. But the talking is generally within their own social network: most people still draw the line at seeking help from a professional listener. Where people did open up to a professional, in all age groups this was much more likely to be a GP rather than a counsellor or therapist.

"When people say it is good to talk, they often have in mind that it is good to talk to the right person," says Dr Brownlie. "In general, these are people with whom they have gone through similar experiences, with whom they have a history together."

Such shared experience can be the crucial element in obtaining emotional support from other people – with or without talking. As Dr Brownlie says, "This idea, that you can only be intimate with someone through talk, isn't true for many people, and particularly for a lot of men. Often for men what matters is that other men might have gone through something similar, so there is a sense of understanding even if it isn't spoken."

What people experience as supportive can be as simple as having someone alongside them, doing everyday things together – such as shopping or cooking a meal. And perceived support can be as important as actual support: "People have a sense of security from knowing there are people in their life whom they matter to, even if they never activate this through talk," says Dr Brownlie.

This has implications for voluntary organisations that try to offer emotional support, such as Samaritans, because that sense of just 'being there' is something it's difficult to replicate outside actual friendships.

The team are now drawing on the research to write a report for Samaritans on male suicide in mid-life, and the reasons why men in this group may find it difficult to get emotional support.

24 July is Samaritans National Awareness Day.