Women are from x, men are from why?
I became a ‘relationship expert’ as a single woman aged 26. Which is to say: a publisher asked me to write a book about men and women and how they relate. “You’re pretty enough to go on television,” he said, as part-justification of my authorship. This, plus a small advance (and the chance to write an actual book that would be sold in actual shops), was more than enough motivation to bang out just over 50,000 words.
I wasn’t alone. New volumes purporting to offer the answer to heterosexuality’s most universal question – why are men and women different, and why can’t we just get along? – are published constantly, shadowing John Grey’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which still leads the Amazon rankings 22 years (and more than 50 million copies) after its first edition. Some of these books are even by are actual experts: due out at the end of this month is a new addition to the field.Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots, by management and marketing professor Dr Gloria Moss, examines gender in “visual creations and preferences”. Five years after my book, Himglish and Femalese, came out, will the hunger for answers about the differences between men and women ever be satiated?
My key thesis was that men spoke “Himglish” and women spoke “Femalese”, two words that I made up. One scathing review (“sloppy … cliched”) described the book as “1970s linguistic theory [turned] into a noughties self-help guide”. As I hadn’t read any 1970s linguistic theory, this was flattering. Men, I wrote, were brief, straightforward communicators; women, more complex, with clever use of metaphor and innuendo. The truth was that most of my research had been conducted while counselling other twentysomething women in the art of writing text messages to men they’d slept with.
Moss’s book is more rigorous. “The evidence for visual-spatial differences along gender lines is, after height, the most robust of all the sex differences, and extremely well-supported in psychological literature,” she says, speaking from her office at Buckinghamshire New University. “A lot of these differences could well be the results of hundreds and thousands of years of male and female activity as hunters and gatherers.” While the book primarily examines the implications of this for business – designing a car that a woman will like, for example – the final chapter looks at how these differences can affect relationships. For example, Moss writes, women tend to see cushions in disarray because they evolved to spot berries in the wild; men tend to let cushions fall asunder because hunting required them to be able to visually assess larger fields rather than notice small details. Domestic unrest can ensue.
What would Moss say to suggestions that her book might be sexist? “I would say it’s the very opposite of sexist,” she responds. “Failing to acknowledge evidence of this kind is to do men and women an enormous disservice. Because what often happens, if you ignore these differences, is that one set of skills – usually the male set of skills – becomes the norm. And the other gender gets judged against that norm.”
She’s not wrong: for the most part, the big titles in the genre are primarily marketed at women, whose behavior they position as inherently problematic – whether it’s The Rules dictating all the ways in which women were breaking them, or He’s Just Not That Into You (later made made into a movie) which chastises women, albeit with a touch more empathy, for hoping for the best in the face of ambiguous or disappointing behaviour.
I ask Dr Tim Kurz, a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Exeter, whether these narratives can be harmful. “One of the common themes within these books is this notion that men – and only men – have a particularly insatiable biological ‘need’ for sex,” he says, “which women are told they should try to ‘understand’ and ‘be amenable to’ in order for romance to flourish within the relationship unit.”
So how are these books enduringly popular? “If the question is: why relationship guides that are predicated on notions of essentialised biological difference continue to fly off the shelves?” Kurz says, “then I think it relates to the extent to which they provide people with easy rather than difficult prescriptions for living.”
I know what Kurz means: in the months following the publication of my book, I received emails from readers who hoped that I’d be able to advise them. Being curious and empathetic (nosy, and given to schadenfreude), I always enjoyed reading their descriptions of woe. But what struck me most was that people only wrote when they already knew the answer: Should I continue not to tell my girlfriend I’ve been cheating on her for nine months with her best friend? Should I marry the boyfriend I haven’t had sex with in three years? These correspondents wished I could tell them things about the opposite sex that would grant them “expert” permission to ignore the – hard, sad and selfish – things they really had to do. I don’t blame them. Goodness knows, there have been many times in my own relationships with men where I’d have loved someone to give me a formula for success. Unfortunately, I suspect that the real truth is the only way to understand a man or a woman is to spend time getting to know them – not men and women in general.
As the popularity of my book has ebbed from mediocre to non-existent, it’s been a relief to move away from being a relationship expert. I only ever had one really good tip to offer, which I shared in the conclusion of my book: men and women are sometimes jerks. To succeed in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, try not to be a jerk. I stand by that advice.
Posted on : The Guardian