Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus. Or not. Since the early 1990s, there’s been a surge of books telling us just how different men are from women. According to the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, while children don’t recognise that boys and girls are as different as we suppose them to be, preschool teachers are teaching them that some things are for boys, and some for girls. They’re encouraging boys to be assertive and competitive, and girls to be passive and communicative.

We start training our little boys to be men from the minute they’re born. We wrap them in blue blankets and give them toy cars. When they’re a little older, while small girls play princess and have polysyllabic conversations with their dolls, boys are out there pretend-shooting things, already learning, from their fathers, to express themselves as little as possible. Particularly when it comes to emotions. It’s not that ‘boys don’t cry’ – it’s that their mothers and fathers tell them not to.

This brings me to my friend Vanessa, who’s a little closer to thirty than I am. Tired of dating men in their twenties who couldn’t live without their Playstations or express themselves in full sentences, she started dating an ‘older man’. He’s only forty, but she figured he’d be a ‘grown up’, and that somewhere along the way he’d have learnt some communication skills.

She was so wrong. Finding him one day at his PC, furiously attacking the Gorgon army, or whatever it was, in a faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, she sighed. After wrestling him away from the controls, she told him about her disastrous last relationship, with the surfer who couldn’t hold down a job. He answered that she was much better off with him, a man with a bond and a stellar career. But what she had meant was, ‘Why are you playing games when you are a grown man?’ All he heard was, ‘My last relationship was unhappy’.

Men don’t communicate the way women do. While they aren’t aliens from another planet, they have a different set of skills. Vanessa was expressing herself in a roundabout way, trying not to upset her boyfriend. He was responding to exactly what she said, not realising that she was trying to get at another issue entirely: her frustration that her man still acted like a boy. He was just doing what he knew how to do. He was getting straight to what he thought was the point. And playing games, he was being the competitive man he’d been taught to be. He was being the strong, dominant, master of the universe.

The author of ‘Code Switching: How to Talk so Men Will Listen’, believes men and women communicate so differently that she describes her book as being ‘a travel guide, in a way, to another country with another culture.’ Even in e-mails, she asserts, men write short, to-the-point messages, while women write longer messages, sharing personal information. Psychologist Diane Halpern points out that while there are differences in the ways men and women think, and communicate, these ‘differences are not deficiencies’. In either sex.

We demand a lot from our men. We want them to be sensitive and communicative, but at the same time assertive and ready to take charge of any situation. There are men who get this balance right, but they’re few and far between, because it’s an almost impossible feat. Men’s brains have been hardwired to work differently. They want to ride Harleys, drink beer and communicate only what’s necessary, and shoot stuff. Even when they’re forty. They accept and love us with all our ‘Does my butt look big in this?’ neuroses. And Vanessa, realising that playing games doesn’t make her boyfriend any less of a fantastic man, has decided to try and do the same.

Catherine Hayden

 

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