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Why men often assume that when a woman shares a problem, she’s asking him to propose a solution?

If you are a woman, you would have observed it yourself. If you are a man, it is more than likely that you are wondering ‘what is even wrong in that’? Before I explain why men do this (or what is wrong about it), let me add that it has indeed been shown through various ways (lab observations / studies / surveys etc.) that women in general are better at empathizing and men in general are better at systemizing.

Empathizing Vs. Systemizing

Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. It occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion. And it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.

Systemizing on the other hand is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system. The systemizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. This is done in order to understand and predict the system, or to invent a new one.

I have borrowed the above explanation from Simon Cohen’s “The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain”. Simon shares his own studies on this difference between men and women.

Males score less than females on empathizing skills
Females score less than males on systemizing skills

Just to be clear, not every man is poorer at empathizing than every woman. Most men are. Likewise, not every man is better at systemizing than every woman. Most men are.

And now, before we explore the ‘why’ of it (which to be honest is not that important in my opinion), let me share the problem with this urge to offer solutions (which you would do when you have lower empathy skills and higher systemizing skills; E < S).

There are three kinds of conversations that we have –

  • the “what happened” conversation – on things like who did what, what cane be done about it, who should take up the job etc.
  • the feeling conversation – how is one feeling (angry / hurt / disgusted / unsafe / loved etc.), is it okay to feel like that? and so on and so forth; and
  • the identity conversation – where we discuss about the implication of a given situation on us – are we being good? are we doing the right thing? are we competent? and other such things.

I borrow this classification from a wonderful book called “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen that I think everyone should read.

Since most men are not as good empathizers as women, they are not able to realize when a particular conversation is a “feeling conversation”.

When a woman is having a “feeling conversation”, she wants you to acknowledge that she has been heard. She does *not* want you to offer solutions. But that’s exactly what men end up doing – treating every conversation / discussion like a “what happened” conversation where the objective, for the man, immediately shifts to doing something about the situation. This upsets the women and the man wonders – how can she get upset when I was offering a solution to the problem she just described? I was trying to help! Some men even want to have a ‘logical’ argument about it so that they can see the issue in their ‘reasoning’.

See the thing is, ultimately, everyone does want their problems addressed. But when you move to “what happened” before spending enough time in acknowledging the emotions, the conversations go nowhere and in spite of your great intention of doing something for the other person, you make it worse.

Alright, now that you are aware of this issue, I hope that if you are a man, you will henceforth try harder to listen and try to control the urge to offer solutions. Listening is not as simple as it sounds and if you really want to get better at it (for your own good), I urge you to pick up the “Difficult Conversations” book that I recommended earlier. It’s an eye opener. Not just for men, but for women too.

And now the last part – the ‘why’ bit. Why are men like this? The answer is what you would expect – a bit of biology and a bit of social / cultural setup.

The biology

Let me tell you the story from a psychology experiment (borrowing again from the ‘Essential Difference’ book that I earlier mentioned).

In the Rosie Maternity Hospital in Cambridge, England, two researchers (Jennifer and Anna) videotaped over 100 babies who were just one day old.

The babies were shown Jennifer’s face, smiling over their crib. Her face moved in the natural way that faces do. The babies were also shown a ball the same size as Jennifer’s head, with the same coloring but with her features rearranged, so that the overall impression was no longer face-like. Let’s call this ball a ‘mobile’ face.

The idea was to compare the baby’s interest in a social object (a face) and a mechanical object (a mobile).

In order for the experimenters to remain unbiased, mothers were asked not to tell the researchers the sex of her baby. This information was only checked after the videotapes had been coded for how long each baby looked at each type of object.

So the question was, would babies look longer at Jennifer’s face, or at the mobile?

When the videotapes were analyzed, it was found that girls looked for longer at the face, and that boys looked for longer at the mobile. And this sex difference in social interest was on the first day of life!

This difference at birth echoes a pattern we have seen right across the human lifespan. For example, on average, women engage in more “consistent” social smiling and “maintained” eye contact than does the average man. The fact that this difference is present at birth strongly suggests that biology plays a role.

Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference

And if biology is at work, there will be evolutionary theories to explain why women and men ended up happening different kinds of brains. I don’t want to go there (read the quoted book if you are interested) because this makes it easy for a man to just say ‘that’s how we men are’ – which then becomes an excuse to continue acting like an asshole! And in any case, biology is just one way to understand the difference.

The social / cultural influence

With or without the knowledge of the biological difference, most parents typically hold in their mind some notion that boys are wilder or greater risk-takers and therefore need more restrictions. This leads to boys growing up in ways where empathy matters less and systemizing matters more.

Growing up, it has been found that more men choose to work (when choice is there) in “dominance-oriented” occupations (i.e., those emphasizing social hierarchies and the control over others), while more women choose to work in “dominance-attenuating jobs (i.e., working in a team of equals with others, and / or working with disadvantaged people). In essence, more men end up getting socially / culturally influenced and encouraged to let a skill that they are already likely bad at since birth, further deteriorate.

So yeah, that’s the explanation. But what I believe is more important is for men to try to become better after acknowledging this problem of lower empathy. Not only will it help you in general in all conversations, it will be immensely helpful in your relationship with your girl-friend / partner.

The most romantic gift: to listen to another’s anxieties for one hour, without judgement or “solutions”, as an analyst might.

Alain de Botton

Systemizing is a great skill to have (and useful in many things), but it gets you almost nowhere in most day-to-day social interaction. I especially want to encourage all the ‘good intentioned’ men out there, who ‘genuinely’ want to offer solutions to problems that predominantly impact women. Please learn to listen more than you think is necessary. There is no other way for you to really understand the problem (that you so earnestly want to solve) because unlike women, you don’t have access to the lived-experience they have! And when you don’t understand the problem well, all your systemizing will be useless in bringing in any real change.

All the best, men.

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