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‘It’s Not About The Nail’ – what’s the meaning of the viral video?

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With over 24 million views on Youtube, the 2013 viral short video ‘It’s not about the nail‘ caught the public imagination with its witty take on communication, gender roles and above all, the importance of listening to each other with empathy and understanding.

Despite being less that 2 minutes long, the video, using metaphor, black humor and an absurdist plotline, highlights the complexity in relationships when we communicate. Yes, the words we use are crucial, but it’s equally important that your partner truly understands your feelings.

With over 7 thousand comments on the Youtube page, It’s Not About the Nail hit a collective nerve, with countless fans acknowledging the comical but painful realism portrayed in the film. Some examples of the Youtube replies include:

“I have watched this video a hundred times and shared it many more times than that. This video has single handedly helped me with so many relationships, not just romantic ones. I am a black-and-white “fixer” and to those who are storytellers I appear very cold and unemotional. Using this video has helped me be more emotionally available to everyone.”

“So many of us were not listened to properly as a child and this is why just listening can be so powerful…. there is also the sense that someone else is sharing/witnessing our pain, which immediately relieves some of it….  It’s an incredibly funny AND serious piece of theatre – BRAVO!”

So if you want to better understand the meaning of It’s Not The Nail’ video, read on for our low down:

 ‘It’s Not The Nail’ – plot and narrative breakdown

The film, shot in 2013 in writer/director Jason Headley’s living room, consists of a short, but snappy dialogue between a couple, with the filmaker playing the man, and actress Monica Barbaro playing the female protaganist.

The video opens with a tight close-up on Barbaro. She’s explaining her feelings to her partner, what she’s going through right now. She talks about a ‘pressure’, a relentless pressure that scares her, that she doesn’t know if it will ever stop. She can literally feel the pressure in her head.

It’s at this point the story switches into surreal mode as Headley replies in a matter-of-fact way ‘Well, you do have a nail in your head’. And indeed the camera reveals a 3 inch nail embedded in the forehead of his partner. The dialogue switches to absurdist dry comedy:

Woman: ‘It’s not about the nail!”

Man: “Are you sure, because, I mean, I’ll bet, if we got that out of there…

Woman: : “Stop trying to fix it!”

As the conversation continues, Barbaro urges Headley to stop trying to find a solution, because all she wants is for him to just listen‘. Headley insists that if only he could help her remove the nail, then everything would be solved. Eventually Headley concedes ‘ OK, fine. I will listen. Fine.”

Relieved, Barbaro continues to explain her feelings, the unexplained achy pain, her lack of sleep. Finally, she’s talking and her man is listening to her.

Headley, responding empathetically. “That sounds… really hard.”

The video ends with a joke where the couple attempt to kiss, only to be hampered by the protruding nail.

 ‘It’s Not The Nail’ – the background story

In an interview with Splice, writer and director reveals how he came up with the idea for the story:

“The idea for this script actually came out of a conversation with my wife about the importance of listening. I said to her, ‘Yes, sometimes I just need to listen. But sometimes there’s a solution. Sometimes it’s like you’ve got a nail in your head and you’re complaining about a headache.’ Later, we were out to dinner with some friends when my wife said, ‘Jason has this thing about a nail in my head.’ Our friend said, ‘You should do a short about that.’ I realized, ‘Oh my gosh you’re right’.”

What is the meaning of the story?

The video is put together in clever way because it’s not entirely clear what the message is. For some, it suggests that the man is correct – it’s obvious, there’s a freaking nail stuck in your head! – whereas for others they see the woman as being correct, in just wanted to be listened to.

But despite your opinion, the basic message is simple, it’s about shining a spotlight on the differences in how man and women communicate when trying to express their deep feelings.

It’s Not About The Nail suggests men are inherently problem solversMen tend to tackle tricky emotional issues in the same way they solve other difficult tasks -with a practical, logical, ‘fix-it’ mentality. Whether it’s a deep-rooted psychological psychodrama, or re-tiling the bathroom, men aren’t interested in discussing their ‘feelings’ about the problem, they just want to work out a solution, implement, and move on.

Women, the video implies, are also interested in finding solutions, but they also have more of a need to express their fears, anxieties and inner thoughts about external problems. In order to feel supported by their man, they need to feel they are being listened to. This doesn’t imply that women are uninterested in the man’s ‘logical’ solutions. It just means that women need to know the man feels empathy for her, to truly understand what she’s going through.

Communication and ‘metacommunication’

9 times out of 10 (my made-up stats!) when there’s a serious issue in a relationship, it can be traced back to a communication problem. And one of the ways that communication can break down is when we ignore context  and fail to read between the lines.

Metacommunication a phenomenon first described in 1951 by Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, is “communication about communication” It encompasses a broad spectrum of non-verbal messages and signals,  and it’s a secondary expression of intent can either support or conflict with what you’re communicating verbally.

Metacommunication can include a range of behaviours including body language, eye contact, use of objects, facial expressions, tone of voice, tactile (touch) communication etc. It’s something we do all the time, but it’s below the radar, so we don’t always read these non-verbal signals, nor are we always aware that we’re sending them.

It’s Not About the Nail  is a great example of the importance of recognising and acknowledging metacommunication.  In the video, Barbaro is describing the problem with the nail, however, she is not interested in hearing about solutions, she just wants her partner to empathise, to listen and understand her feelings about the situation. The man, on the other hand, is not picking up on the metacommunication at all. He is just hyper-focussed on the literal problem of removing the nail.

Honing your metacommunication skills, and getting better at recognizing subtle non-verbal cues is a great tactic for helping improve the way you communicate with not just your partner, but in all your interpersonal relations.

Gender roles and stereotypes

In the video, there’s a clear implication that there’s a big difference between the way men and women communicate. And stereotypically this is how things are often portrayed, in a gendered way where it’s the woman who needs emotional support and it’s the man who needs to fix things.

But it’s important to remember that this is a 10 year old film and these days the discourse on gender has become much more heated and complex. So rather than fixating on Headley’s binary depiction of traditional male and female archetypes, I think it’s better to regard the protagonists, not necessarily as man and woman, but just two people in a relationship.

That way, for instance, it leaves space for the female ‘problem-solver’ type, or the man who constantly needs attention and support emotionally. People are just people. Stereotypes exist, but they don’t define 100% of the human experience.

What is the nail a metaphor for?

To anyone who sides with the man’s opinion, consider the nail as a metaphor.  The nail is any situation you’re stuck with, that causes you pain. Yes you could attempt to fix the problem, but you’re also aware there’s risk that any change might incur side effects or consequences that cause even greater pain and suffering.

So people live with a ‘nail in their head’ all the time, to avoid the uncertainty of removing it. The nail might be a metaphor for your work – you absolutely hate your job, and it makes you unhappy. But you can’t leave because you’re too worried about how that would affect your financial means of living. Maybe your nail is your romantic relationship itself. You’re in a toxic relationship, but loneliness, breakup or divorce is an even worse outcome for you. So you stick with it.

Or finally, perhaps you have a health problem. You know there’s a surgical procedure and/or medication that may improve your condition, but you’re worried about side effects. So you continue suffering in uncertainty.

Clearly, in any of the above situations, we feel stuck. Ultimately, yes, we may be looking for a ‘solution’, but this may seem too daunting to contemplate in the here are now. In this moment, we just want to be heard. We just want someone to listen to our dilemma, to empathise with the shitty situation, and then, once we’re heard, perhaps we can move on to thinking about how to ‘fix things’

Regardless if you’re male or female, we all need a balance of practical help, and emotional support. Neither tactic is right or wrong, this isn’t a black and white issue. The real trick is to know what’s needed at any given moment, and then to be able to apply just the right balance of pragmatic helping, and empathetic listening.