Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Gender Wars Come to the Kitchen

Decades of debate about gender differences... decades of heavy thinking about whether gender is socially constructed or biologically determined... decades of effort to produce gender equality in the home and the workplace... and we arrive at this:

"A few weeks ago, Jane Wilcox and her live-in boyfriend had a blowout argument over a kitchen sponge that was left in the sink. There was ranting and accusations of shoddy housekeeping. He packed a bag and prepared to spend the night in a second home on their property."

This lines open an Elizabeth Bernstein column in today's Wall Street Journal. Link here.

I will add that Jane Wilcox is not a child. At age 52 she is a fully grown adult. And she is surely enlightened; she and her male mate have bypassed the institution of marriage. Better yet, she has a name, but, in the Journal, her boyfriend does not.

You take a mature, enlightened couple, a couple that is surely cognizant of all the latest thinking about gender differences, you put them in the kitchen together, and they go to war.

If they wrote the story, it would be called: My kingdom for a sponge!

Apparently, they have not drawn any lessons from Mars or Venus, and have ignored all of Deborah Tannen's contributions to the debate.

Bernstein is correct to note that men and women have different conversational styles. But note how she defines them. To her, women overfeel and overshare, while men underfeel and undershare. Thus, she recommends, reasonably enough, that women share less and that men share more... feelings, that is.

(She does not offer a solution to the real issue: how they should share housework.)

I believe that Bernstein is one of the first to suggest women should express fewer of their feelings and that they should not expect a reciprocal exchange of feelings from the men in their lives.

People do not often suggest this because some forms of psychotherapy have taught us that the best human communication involves sharing feelings, sharing them openly and honestly, and, at best, weaving them into stories.

A cursory glance at John Gray and Deborah Tannen will tell you that this form of communication is natural to women and alien to men.

But why then have so many therapists tried to make this communication style into the best way to communicate?

To the detriment of their male patients, as it happens.

It's a bad idea to try to force men to get in touch with an ersatz feminine side. Assuming that Jane Wilcox wanted her live-in, anonymous, boyfriend, to get in touch with his feminine side, apparently, it did not promote relationship harmony.

And yet, Wilcox did know the kind of therapy her boyfriend needed. He needed some male bonding. So, she called one of his guy friends, asked the man to come over, and sat back while the two of them got into a serious discussion about motorcycle oil.

Wilcox would have wanted to spend hours hashing out the details of the fight; her boyfriend was happy to throw himself into a conversation that was not based on feelings, that did not tell endless stories, but that involved FACTS.

Here I disagree somewhat with Bernstein. When you define the issue in terms of feeling, you are still defining it in terms of a woman's conversational strength.

But if you define it in terms of facts and feelings, then we can say that a conversation should include some of both, no matter what the gender of the participants.

Perhaps women should offer fewer feelings and fewer endless narratives. But they also should show more respect for a man's interest in facts and information. As an accommodation and a way to engage a man's interest in a conversation, she might try communicating some facts and information before weaving it all into a narrative.

Surely, a woman wants to hear how her man feels about her. But if she does not respect the feelings he has about motorcycle oil or the state of the world, he will never get to the point of telling her about how he feels about their relationship.

Men need also to learn to accommodate a different conversational style. They might begin by speaking feelingly about motor
cycle oil or the All Star game or the political scene.

But they should also be willing to listen to a woman's feelings and stories, even when those stories have only a tenuous relationship to fact.

When speaking with women, men need to learn to turn off their inner fact-checker.

Need I say that if a man refuses to acknowledge the importance of a woman's feelings, those feelings will soon go out looking for someone who does.

1 comment:

Meridith said...

I agree: The WSJ article would be more helpful to couples if it offered solutions to "chore wars." I think chore wars are so difficult for women because men just don't care about house-keeping. They don't care about small things, like properly loading a dishwasher, thoroughly wiping down counter tops and kitchen tables, etc. They want to get household chores done as quickly as possible (who can blame them) because they don't care about them. As a result, men cut corners and do a sloppy job. Clean counter tops and a properly loaded dishwasher matter to women, but they don't to men, and that drives women nuts. The question is, then, how to make men care about housework.