Why the H___ Does S/He Do That? — Gender Differences in Relating

I think this is going to be at least a three-parter. If I try to cover all the gender differences re: relating in one post, it would be twenty pages long. In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the primary differences. (Please keep in mind that these are generalizations; there will be lots of exceptions to the rule.)

Photo by Lisa Hall-Wilson WANA Commons

Men tend to be more hierarchal; women tend to be more egalitarian.

Men are concerned about where they are in the pecking order. Women tend to emphasize that we’re all in this together. So someone in a mixed group at a social gathering mentions a problem he or she is having, and what happens? The men jump in with possible solutions (this is also related to another difference we’ll talk about next time). The women say, “Oh, I know just what you mean. I had a similar problem when…”

Now, notice that I didn’t say that men need to be at the top of the pecking order. Most men don’t necessarily need to be there; they just want to know where they stand. Which is good because not everybody can be king of the hill.

Men get frustrated with women who want to turn everything into a team effort. My husband once had a female boss who drove all the men in her department crazy. She had a “team” meeting every week that was (my husband’s words) “us listening to Jodie’s stream of consciousness while she figures out what she wants us to do that week.” I’m sure Jodie perceived it as seeking her subordinates’ input. Indeed, she might have even been uncomfortable with the word subordinate.

My husband’s other comment was “She’s the boss; why doesn’t she just tell me what she wants me to do instead of wasting my time in these silly meetings.” He didn’t mind having a female boss; he just wanted her to act like a boss, i.e., be the leader, the top dog.

This major difference between the genders was researched by the well-known sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen. She found this pattern in various cultures around the world. Her theory about its origins was based on evolution. In more primitive times, a man who understood and respected hierarchies was a better hunter and warrior, i.e., better provider and protector for his family (and therefore his children were more likely to make it to adulthood to pass on his hierarchal genes).

When you’re chasing a herd of elk or defending the village against an invading enemy you don’t have time to stop and have a committee meeting to discuss how to handle the situation. You have a hunting chief or a war chief who says “You go here, you go there!” And everybody follows orders because the hierarchy has already been established.

On the other hand, the tasks the women did to contribute to the survival of their families and tribes were better accomplished through cooperation. They minded the children, tanned the hides, dried the food for winter consumption, gathered roots and berries. So those women who were better at being part of the team were more likely to see their children make it to adulthood to pass on their cooperative/egalitarian genes to yet another generation.

This ties in with the whole issue of competitiveness. There’s a lot of research out there that indicates men are more competitive than women, in general, and that this is probably at least partly innate. They are much more likely to feel the need to be “one up” on the next guy.

Photo by kbowenauthor WANA Commons

Yeah, yeah, I know, there are plenty of women out there who are super competitive. There are at least two other factors that play into competitiveness. One is genetics. The personality continuum of agreeableness vs. ruthlessness has a heritability factor of 42%. What does that mean, you ask. It means that 42% of our tendency to be agreeable and cooperative vs. aggressive and ruthless is inherited, male or female.

The other factor is our perception of the availability of resources. If we think that resources are limited, then we need to compete for them. So the girl who grows up not getting much attention from her dad perceives male attention as a limited resource that she has to compete with other women to obtain.

This whole hierarchal thinking tendency is, by the way, why guys are reluctant to ask for directions if they get lost (this is less of an issue now, since the advent of GPS devices). Admitting that you are lost and need help is a one-down position. Women don’t understand this, because they have no problem with asking for directions.

Photo by Basher Eyre, Wikimedia Commons

I was explaining this to one of my developmental psychology classes a few years ago and one of my male students piped up, “Yeah, and if you do ask for directions, ask a woman, not a guy. Cause if he doesn’t know, he’ll make something up and get you more lost.”

I gave that student an A for class participation. What an astute observation! The person asking for directions has just given the guy the one-up position. He’s not going to sacrifice that by admitting he doesn’t know the answer. He’ll make his best guess and say it with authority!

A woman, on the other hand, has no problem with admitting she doesn’t know. She’s okay with admitting that we’re all clueless together.

Now, ladies, before you start shaking your heads and exclaiming about how dumb guys are, let’s look again at more primitive times. The guy’s lost in the jungle. He encounters a male stranger. If he admits to that stranger that he’s lost, this may be perceived as a sign of vulnerability and the guy may attack him to steal his possessions. So he blusters his way through until the other guy shows that he’s friendly by inviting him to come enjoy the local village’s hospitality for the night.

Now if a woman is lost in the jungle and encounters a strange male, unless she’s armed to the teeth and has a pet tiger on a leash, she’s already physically one-down. So her best bet is to throw herself on the guy’s mercy and ask for his help.

So what do you think about all this? Have you noticed these differences in the men and women you relate to?

How about exceptions to the rule? My great grandma used to say, “There’s an exception to every rule, including this one.”

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington Mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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  • Reply
    September 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Totally makes sense. I'm probably in the minority here, but I think all the talk about men and women being equal is missing this point. Sure, we should have equal pay, equal rights, etc. BUT we are different by design. We're going to be good at different jobs…in both the world and relationships. We compliment each other. And thank god for GPS! lol

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    September 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree, Shannon. Viva la difference! (And thank God for GPS, also.)

  • Reply
    Coleen Patrick
    September 21, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I'm going to remember the jungle vulnerability thing! It makes a lot of sense when you put it that way. 🙂

  • Reply
    September 21, 2012 at 2:05 am

    We're not equal in many ways. Especially physically and how we think and 'see' the world. I have a wonderful relationship with my hubster because I'm more equal than he is. Just say'in.

    Great post!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    September 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    Hey Coleen and Christine, thanks for stopping by! “more equal” I love it! 🙂

  • Reply
    Pat O'Dea Rosen
    September 22, 2012 at 1:12 am

    I'm glad you're doing at least three posts on this topic, Kassandra, because it's fascinating. BTW, I'm very glad I don't have to tan hides this evening.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Wow, this is all quite interesting. I enjoyed reading this post. It all makes sense. I'm terrible at directions and will turn the wrong way leaving the rest room in a restaurant and have a hard time finding my way back to the table! My oldest daughter is just like me, but my middle daughter has a great sense of directions.

    I guess all this has to do with many men not wanting to go to the doctor when they're sick. Kind of like the asking for directions thing? Very interesting!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    September 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Glad you found it interesting, Pat. More to come on Monday.

    Good point, Lynn, about going to the doctor. By definition, a one-down position (something tells me there's a vulgar double entendre in there that I didn't intend; I should probably edit this sentence but I think I'll let it be. 🙂

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