Men and Women are from Earth

 

Reviewed by Barnett and Rivers

Do men and women come from two separate "communication cultures" that make it difficult for them to hear one another? Are they doomed to moan, eternally, "You just don't understand?" Are women the caring, sharing, open sex, while men are hardwired to be strong, silent, self-absorbed, and uncomfortable with emotions? This portrait of the sexes has become conventional wisdom, promoted in best sellers like John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. The idea has also leached into the academic and therapy arenas.

The textbook Language and Social Identity, by Daniel N. Maltz and Ruth A. Borker, states flatly, "American men and women come from different sociolinguistic subcultures, having learned to do different things with words in a conversation."

 

In this scenario, women are the relationship experts, holding marriages and friendships together by putting others first, avoiding conflict at the cost of their own wishes, and not putting burdens on men by demanding intimacy or understanding. Women speak "in a different voice," as feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan put it, because they are so tuned in to others. Men, in contrast, lack empathy with others. If a friend or coworker approaches them to talk about problems, they change the subject or make a joke. In personal relationships men don't have a clue, and as parents, they are the inferior sex. They lack the inherent communication abilities necessary for parenting that nature confers on women.

 

Is this dismal picture accurate? Do the best sellers, some textbooks, and the media's pop psychologists have it right? Are men and women so hamstrung by their communication styles that they are perpetually destined to misunderstand each other--ships eternally passing in the night?

 

As poetic and familiar as this idea seems, it is more fantasy than fact. New research tears this conventional wisdom to shreds. Women and men are far more alike than different in how they listen to people, the ways they react to others who are in trouble, and their ability to be open and honest in communication. As University of Wisconsin psychologists Kathryn Dindia and Mike Allen say, "It is time to stop perpetuating the myth that there are large sex differences in men's and women's self disclosure."

 

Women, Deborah Tannen says, use their unique conversational style to show involvement, connection, and participation, while men use speech to indicate independence and position in a hierarchy. Women seek connection and want to be liked, while men just want to press their own agenda. Tannen also states as fact that men always interrupt women. Is this really how men and women behave? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Tannen's problem is that she often sees gender as the main driver of communication, ignoring a whole host of other important factors--such as power, individual personalities, and the situation you're in when you are about to speak. Do men always interrupt women? In fact, the sex differences here are trivial, conclude researchers Kristen Anderson and Campbell Leaper of the University of California at Santa Cruz, based on their meta-analyses of 43 studies. (A meta-analysis summarizes the findings of many studies.) The key to understanding interruptions is the situation--or, as the researchers put it, "The What, When, Where and How." Power is often the key.

 

Psychologist Elizabeth Aries of Amherst College found that men often interrupt women in conversation. But, when traditional power relationships are reversed--such as in many contemporary couples where the woman is the higher earner, or when male subordinates interact with female superiors--speech patterns also undergo a reversal. The person with less power interrupts less and works harder to keep the conversation going, whether that person is female or male. Those with more power, male or female, are likely to take control of the conversation. Do we really believe that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is often interrupted by her male aides? Or that a male law clerk would break into the sentences of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg? It's impossible to see the true communication dynamic if we are blinded by the notion that something buried deep in women's psyches chains them to the speech styles of the powerless.

 

As for men, are they in fact handcuffed by deep-seated inabilities to engage in conversations about emotion? According to essentialist theorists, who believe differences between men and women are innate rather than socially constructed, men are uncomfortable with any kind of communication that has to do with personal conflicts. They avoid talking about their problems. They avoid responding too deeply to other people's problems, instead giving advice, changing the subject, making a joke, or giving no response. Unlike women, they don't react to "troubles talk" by empathizing with others and expressing sympathy. These ideas are often cited in textbooks and in popular manuals, like those written by John Gray, of Mars and Venus fame.

 

After Gray nabs us with his attention-grabbing titles, he tells us that men are naturally programmed to go into their "caves" and not communicate with other people. Women must never try to talk to men when they withdraw, but must honor their behavior. A woman must not offer help to a man, because it makes him feel weak and incompetent. A woman must never criticize a man or try to change his behavior. She should never show anger. If she feels angry, she must wait until she is "more loving and centered" to talk to him. Only when she is loving and forgiving can she share her feelings. If a man pulls away from her, "he is just fulfilling a valid need to take care of himself for a while."

 

Gray cites the case of "Bill," who asks his wife, "Mary," to make a phone call for him while he is sitting on the couch watching TV. Mary reacts with a frustrated and helpless tone of voice. She says, "I can't right now, I already have too much to do, I have to change the baby's diaper, I have to clean up this mess, balance the checkbook, finish the wash, and tonight we are going out to a movie. I have too much to do. I just can't do it all!"

 

Bill goes back to watching TV and disconnects from her feelings. Bill, says Gray, is angry at Mary for making him feel like a failure. He retreats to his cave, "just taking care of himself." If Mary realized this, Gray suggests, she would smile at his request to do still one more chore and say sweetly that she's running behind. As for Bill, all he has to do, Gray suggests, is to say admiringly to Mary, "I just don't know how you do it!" That line might just get Bill a damp diaper in the face. Gray does not suggest that Bill might A) change the baby's diaper, B) help clean up the house, C) balance the checkbook, or D) help with the wash. Who has the power in this marriage--and isn't this really the issue? Gray's scenario puts women in a tight bind, while requiring little from men. Gray's prescription for heterosexual relationships is for the woman to leave the man alone while she supervises the kids' homework, cooks dinner, and cleans up. That's advice that gets couples into trouble, not out of it. A woman who takes Gray's advice at face value may be at serious risk for high stress. Unable to express her anger openly and to ask for what she really needs, always on edge because she must sense a man's every whim and need, she is likely to turn her anger inward. This situation makes her communication inauthentic. She feels anger, but can't communicate it, and as a result she feels worse and worse about herself and her marriage. She is living a lie--and how good can anyone feel about that? On top of that, her husband has no idea of what she's feeling. There's no way he could be the helpful person he may actually want to be.

 

In fact, if women expected men to be unable to relate to other people's problems, they would never bother talking to men about such things.

 

Systematic research does not support those ideas. Erina L. MacGeorge, of Purdue University, and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania find no support for the idea that women and men constitute different "communication cultures." Based on three studies that used questionnaires and interviews to sample 738 people--417 women and 321 men--they conclude that: Both men and women view the provision of support as a central element of close personal relationships; both value the supportive communication skills of their friends, lovers, and family members; both make similar judgments about what counts as sensitive, helpful support; and both respond quite similarly to various support efforts.

 

When someone comes to men with a problem, they don't joke, tell the person to cheer up, change the topic, or run away as Gray and Tannen suggest they do. Both sexes are instead likely to offer sympathy and advice. If men are having a problem, and someone offers a sympathetic response, they don't get angry, minimize, or push the other person away. Like women, they are comforted when people are concerned about them. There are no differences in how men and women handle emotional issues--theirs or others'.

 

Kristen Neff of the University of Texas at Austin and Susan Harter of the University of Denver uncovered a similar lack of difference in men's and women's styles of conflict resolution. They found that 62 percent of men and 61 percent of women reported that they typically resolved conflicts in their relationships by compromising with their partners. This is a far cry from the idea that women always retreat, and men always insist on getting their way.

 

Similar doubts have also been raised about the "fact" that men can't share their feelings, and that they always retreat to their caves or take refuge in silence. A huge meta-analysis of 24,000 subjects in 205 peer-reviewed studied found that women disclose slightly more that men--but the effect was trivial. Practically speaking, there were no differences between the sexes. Because therapists (and others) contend that the ability to self-disclose is crucial to success in therapy, they believe that men's chances of being helped are relatively poor. But this is not so, according these research findings. Even more importantly, the idea that women can't expect men to share, to lend a sympathetic ear, to compromise in settling issues, or to be good listeners can have disastrous consequences. Women who cling to such stereotypes will miss out on close relationships with their male partners and of course men will be further pigeonholed as distant, remote, and unavailable creatures. If that's how they are treated, maybe that's what they will turn into. And if men assume that women are too emotional to discuss problems rationally, they will simply clam up and miss the help and support they really need. Either way, rigid sex stereotypes promote self-fulfilling prophecies.

 

Unfortunately, the essentialist perspective has so colored the dialogue about the sexes that there is scant room for any narrative other than difference. As we've seen, the difference rhetoric can harm both men and women. Given how little empirical support exists for essentialist ideas, it's high time to broaden the dialogue. We believe that men and women are far more similar than different, a provocative idea that is backed by considerable research. We challenge the conventional wisdom, and we encourage others to do the same.

 

Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers are the authors of Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.

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