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AMY KIRK: Spouses in Translation

Whenever Art and I are dealing with cows, machinery or trailers, he’ll suddenly switch to his native tongue to communicate with me. It’s the language cavemen invented — communicating hand gestures, sometimes accompanied by loud grunts. Thousands of years later, farmers and ranchers still use this language when they get keyed up during critical man moments.

Males understand this native language easily, but the opposite sex ... not so much. Fortunately, man’s language has evolved to include sounds, vowels and words — the verbal communication women have adopted as their first language, which is universally used today, and which most people understand. The unfortunate part is that nowadays, men’s hand-signal communication leaves too much room for misinterpretation, because he also invented homonyms for his hand gestures.

My husband’s signals have too many interpretations for me to decipher quickly under pressure when there’s a sudden change in his instructions via a hand signal. An outstretched arm waving across his chest could mean “get out of the way,” “get over here,” “get over there” or “get away from the gate,” but I’m not sure. I have to adapt to the situation and figure out which meaning he’s referring to.

The main reason men and women in agriculture have trouble understanding each other while working outside together is that they’re trying to communicate using two different languages. I call this “Spouses in Translation.” Instances where this occurs include livestock handling; backing up machinery, vehicles, and/or trailers; or instructions indicating when to “start it” (equipment or vehicles) during a guy’s mechanical problem assessment.

One language involves hand gestures and/or occasional hollering (interpreted as loud grunts), and the other includes speaking rhetorical statements and questions in English. Regardless of the distance a farmer or rancher is from his wife, he always seems to want to use his centuries-old native language to communicate: the hand signal.

I am fairly certain using hand signals is due to the fact that men are hard of hearing, meaning they’ve taught their brains that listening to their wives is not necessary if her conversations are irrelevant to his thoughts, plans and ideas, therefore rendered worthy of ignoring. Thus, men have trained themselves to tune out their wives’ voices much of the time, causing men to be misdiagnosed as hard of hearing.

Problems stem from men preferring to use hand signals to communicate and women preferring to talking about it. Talking is in a woman’s nature, similar to the way it’s in men’s natures to hand-signal. Talking is how a woman processes information. She likes to talk it out, discuss it, rephrase it, recap it, analyze it, confirm it, question it and ask lots and lots of (in a man’s opinion, annoying) questions about it — or bring it up later. Men and women perceive, interpret and process information differently, and any woman who’s been married to a farmer or rancher long enough knows the importance of making sure she’s covered every angle of his instructions for her before the task is carried out to avoid being at fault should the plan fail. Talking helps her establish confidence in understanding what’s expected of her or what her instructions are.

Wives may not be fluent in communicating using hand signals, but they do a fair job talking about what their husband’s hand signals are supposed mean.

— Amy Kirk and her husband raise their two kids on a fourth-generation cow/calf operation near Pringle. She blogs at