With any luck at all, I will embed a wonderful short clip called “It’s Not About the Nail” in this post. If it doesn’t work, I recommend that you Google “It’s not about the nail” and enjoy the following 78 seconds. It’s serious and it’s funny. It’s wonderful.
OK. That was the last wonderful thing I have to offer. Now I want to think about what “it” means in the expression “It’s not about the nail.”
There is an object somewhere (an artifact, a fable, a relationship) that is consonant with some meanings and not with others. I know that sounds stiff, but I am trying for the most general formulation I can think of. It will get better from here on.
“Consonant with some meanings and not with others” is my way of saying “about.” When you say a movie is “about” something, you are trying to identify a theme, often a theme that means a lot to you. You will expect other people to say, “No it isn’t. It’s really about [something else].” Many happy and collegial hours have been consumed, along with unnumbered beers, in such discussions.
Contentious issues are a different matter. When I say that closing a tax loophole is “about” forcing the corporations to pay their fair share and you say it is “about” taking away the incentive for corporations to create jobs, then “about” means something very important. The tax loophole has many effects. I pick the one I want to talk about and say that the loophole is “about” that; it’s about tax equity. You pick the one you want to talk about and say that the loophole is “about” that; it’s about a thriving and growing labor market.
It makes no sense at all to ask what it is “really” about. On the other hand, we both agree that it is not “about” global warming or aesthetic standards. Another way to say this is that tax equity is very important to me and it is the effect of the loophole on that that I want to talk about. That is how “about” functions. The tax loopholes are consonant with some meanings—the ones that I think most urgent—and not about others.
Let’s talk about what I think is important! No, let’s talk instead about what I think is important. That’s what “about” is about when there is a conflict to be resolved.
This formulation casts a new, but not really unexpected light, on “about the nail.” The nail is an external problem. It is an issue she is facing, but he is not. The issue he is facing is that she wants from him—desires urgently from him—a response that he finds difficult to summon up and which, in his judgment, will do no good at all. He is highlighting this issue; she is highlighting that issue. One will be in the foreground; the other in the background.
This little clip is a parody. It’s intended to be funny and it is. But it is funny because it plays off of a very common situation that is not funny at all. Wives very often want a response of emotional intimacy from their husbands. When their husbands treat them as people with problems and then put all their attention on the problems, the wives feel that the problem has been featured and that they, themselves, have been forgotten. Husbands very often take pride in their ability to solve problems and their attention gravitates to the external part of the issue rather than to their wives’ emotional response to it.
If the wife’s difficulty has to do with being bullied at the office, for instance, it may be that she has done everything about the situation she is willing to do. She has examined the possible responses. She is sure that the one she has chosen is the best one available. Now she wants help is carrying the burden that her choice has imposed on her. There is no “nail” here. A husband who insists on perceiving a “nail” (because there is something he can do about it if there is a nail) is choosing to deal with the problem he would prefer to the problem he actually has—which is that is wife is suffering and needs the patient non-judgmental caring that someone who knows her and loves her can offer.
No nail. So it isn’t “about” the nail.
This little skit is funny—I know this analysis is not, I’m sorry about that—because here there really is a nail. The husband wants to do what husbands mostly want to do—solve the problem—but in this particular case, he is exactly right. And the wife knows it. All the understanding in the world will not keep her from snagging her sweaters—all of them, she says—on the nail.
She focuses on the easy issue for her. Her husband wants to “solve the problem” rather than to “care about me.” She’s had that grievance many times before and charging her husband with “not listening to me” is so easy she doesn’t even notice that she has chosen one line of response to him rather than any of several other more promising ones. The husband doesn’t help himself much when he uses genuinely inflammatory language. When she says, “What I really need is for you to just LISTEN, he actually says, “See, I don’t think that IS what you need…”
The man is fearless! She has said what she needs. We all tend to think that there is a reality to which we have private access. We know and others do not. He has said that she has read this “reality”–her own reality–wrong. This “fact” to which she has direct access and he does not has been misinterpreted by her. He knows what she really needs and she does not.
OK, so he’s correct in this particular instance. It still is something he should know he cannot say. Maybe he could say it in some other way—some way that does not use those particular words. Those are truly awful words. Trust me on that.
Because once you say those words, that’s what the conversation is “about.” And nothing good is going to happen.
 OK, part of it is internal to her, but we’ll leave that aside for now.
 I’m assuming “wives and husbands” here, mostly for convenience. This particular issue operates the same way with nearly any set of two people who care for each other, on the one hand, and who have a project they are pursuing jointly on the other. I have seen this dynamic exactly between doctoral students and advisers.