Women are just like us, except when they’re totally not at all. We look to science for answers.
Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous quantum physicist, is baffled by women.
Think about that: This is a man who claims he can think in 11 dimensions, who popularized Euclidean quantum gravity, and earlier this year discovered a possible solution to the black hole “information paradox,” which is something we can’t even pretend to understand. But when it comes to the opposite sex of his own species, Hawking calls them “a complete mystery.”
This might seem discouraging. If the author of The Theory of Everything thinks women are so unfathomable, what hope do the rest of us have? But the problem isn’t that Stephen Hawking, a brilliant scientist, can’t understand women. The problem is that Stephen Hawking —and this is complete conjecture—maybe doesn’t think about women the same way he thinks about black holes.
Wait, hear us out. That sounds like a bad sexual pun, but we promise we’re going somewhere with this.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: Stephen Hawking takes a lady friend to a fast food restaurant. She says she’s not hungry, but Hawking gets himself a meal. At some point, she sneaks one of his fries. Then she takes another, and another.
“I thought you weren’t hungry?” he asks. “I’m not,” she insists. But her hand keeps disappearing into Hawking’s bag. She’s like a raccoon digging through a garbage can.
Hawking tries to pretend it’s no big deal, but in his head, he’s like, “I just got an idea for my next book, it’s called A Brief History of You Ordering Your Own Damn Fries!”
Who among us hasn’t experienced this and been confounded by it? It’s the catch-22 of modern gender politics. On the one hand, we know that men and women are more alike than different. Pretending that women are exotic creatures makes you sound like somebody from the 50s. “I just don’t understand dames.” Calm down, Grandpa.
But then sometimes women do things—small, insignificant things—that make us feel like we’re living in a Twilight Zone parallel universe where nothing makes sense.
The problem with believing that men and woman are exactly alike is that there’s just too much evidence that we aren’t always alike. “A big mistake that guys make is trying to put themselves in a woman’s shoes,” says Dr. Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco and author of The Female Brain. “They look at a woman crying, and they try to identify with it. But they can’t do that. For a guy, if you’re crying, it means some serious shit has happened. So in that situation, putting yourself in another person’s shoes won’t bring you closer to understanding them.”
Hawking didn’t solve the mystery of black holes by thinking, “How is this black hole like me?” He did it by taking emotion out of it, rolling up his sleeves and saying, “Okay, let’s see what’s really going on here.”
Maybe we should take the same approach to understanding women’s behavioral quirks—the things that don’t really matter but drive us crazy anyway, just like we do things that drive them crazy.
Let’s use cold, objective science—or at least the best guesses of science. Let’s be like Stephen Hawking trying to find the connection between gravity and quantum mechanics, not Stephen Hawking being mystified why the hell his wife keeps stealing his fries.
- She says she’s not angry, but I can totally tell she’s angry. Why won’t she tell me what’s wrong?
The first and most obvious reason is that she doesn’t want to be dismissed as a crazy person. When men get righteously pissed off, other people typically respond with, “Whoa, I wonder what happened to him.” It’s cause and effect. Some outside force pushed him into this foul mood.
But when a woman has the same display of anger, the response is more often, ”Well, well, somebody’s in a bitchy mood.” It’s not that something happened to her. She’s just being hysterical or overemotional.
“Women are rarely rewarded for anger like men are,” says Jessica Salerno, Ph.D, a professor in behavioral sciences at Arizona State University. She led an anger study last year investigating how men and women are perceived differently when they express anger.
Men, she says, are seen as more competent when they get mad. But women who get peeved “are labeled as more emotional and discredited,” says Salerno.
Another possibility is that the thing she’s mad about doesn’t seem, from your perspective, to be something worth getting mad about, so it’s essentially invisible to you.
“Men think about relationships in a more logical manner,” says Larry Young, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Before you start throwing rocks through Young’s windows, he doesn’t mean “logical” as in “better.” In some cases, especially with something as intangible as a romantic relationship, being overly logical can be a detriment.
“Guys sometimes create a list of things in our head that we figure are part of doing a good job in a relationship,” Young says. Her birthday comes around, and we remember to buy her flowers. Another check in the box!
But we didn’t get her a card. “Big deal, right?” Young asks. “Why does she need a card? She knows how you feel. You plan on saying things to her that are so much more meaningful than the tripe in a birthday card. But when she gets a card, she doesn’t see the physical card. She sees the time you took to go to the store and look through several cards and find something that you think expresses the perfect thing about your relationship.”
For us, we see an overpriced piece of mass-produced cardboard that won’t survive tomorrow’s recycling. But she sees the effort.
Here’s the really remarkable part: That effort is often more important to her than whether you succeed.
It doesn’t matter if you give her a cringingly awful birthday card, with a poem that rhymes “love” and “sort of” and plays the “Thong Song” whenever it’s opened; it’s the fact that you tried that matters. The same rules apply to recognizing when she’s upset.
In a 2012 Harvard study that examined 156 couples, women weren’t necessarily happier with men who could read their minds. “Women’s satisfaction was more strongly related to the perception that their partners were trying to understand their negative emotions than to men’s actual accuracy in reading those emotions,” says Shiri Cohen, Ph.D, the study’s leader and a clinical psychologist.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the foggiest idea why she’s angry. It’s enough that you think she might be angry, and you’re trying to figure out why.
The reason the “Are you mad?” question get so frustrating for us, Cohen says, is because our brains look at the problem in a very different way.
“The more empathic men are or try to be to their partners’ upset or negative feelings, the more connected and understood their wives feel,” she says. “But it makes men feel less competent in making their female partners happy.”
Asking her why she’s angry means admitting that you’ve failed in making her happy. But ironically, recognizing that she’s unhappy makes her happy. If we’re entirely wrong and she really is happy, the fact that we’re showing an interest in her feelings at all makes her even happier.
It’s a win-win for you any way you slice it.
- She cried during a soap commercial. That’s… insane, right?
The most common explanation is social conditioning.
From a young age, women are trained not to suppress their tears and men are told to man up, says Brizendine. But your question, if we can be presumptuous, isn’t about crying in general. Everybody cries sometimes, unless you’re an emotionally barren monster with no soul.
Your issue is the soap commercial.
Even a super-sad commercial, where there’s an old guy and a kid, and maybe a dog that just got adopted, doesn’t seem like something worthy of crying over.
“I see this all the time,” says Brizendine. “At my clinic, we have a name for it: ‘Crying Over Dog Food Commercials’ crying. About 80% of women experience this 24 to 48 hours before their period begins. Her progestin is dropping like a rock, and she—”
Ooooooookay! We’re going to stop you right there, Dr. Brizendine. While this may technically be true sometimes, making hormonal assumptions when the hormones aren’t yours is always a bad idea. It’d be like a woman saying to a man, “You have a terrible attention span right now. Do you have a boner?”
There’s better biology to explain her tears. Back in the 1980s, biochemist William H. Frey analyzed the chemical properties of emotional tears—as opposed to tears caused by, say, cutting onions—and found that sad tears contain the hormone prolactin.
According to recent research, many women have prolactin levels that are almost sixty percent above most men. Ipso facto, the tears come more easily for her.
It might also be their lack testosterone, says Ad Vingerhoets, a behavioral science professor at Tilburg University and author of Why Only Humans Weep.
“Testosterone has an inhibiting influence and thus elevates the threshold to cry,” he says. Meaning, our testosterone keeps the tears away unless it’s something really serious, like our dads dying or we’re watching a new Star Wars trailer.
There’s another way to think about this, one that takes a “glass half full” approach. It’s not that she’s crying, but that she chose to do the crazy soap commercial crying in front of you. That, believe it or not, is kind of a big deal.
Psychotherapist Judith Kay Nelson, Ph.D, who’s extensively studied the reasons why humans cry, wrote that healthy crying is a “relationship-seeking behavior.” People are more likely to cry in front of somebody if they feel a sense of security and attachment towards them, Nelson says.
Think about that the next time she starts bawling over nothing. You think she does that with just anybody? Hell no.
- She gets angry with me when I notice another woman’s boobs. But if I’m not supposed to notice them, what’s with all the cleavage?
Ah, boobs. Is there anything more fascinating to us, and more taboo to admit that we’re fascinated by? Even just looking in the direction of breasts can get you labeled as another Anthony Weiner.
But boobs are everywhere, marching in front of us in full view, like a never-ending Macy’s Day parade of mammaries. It feels impossible not to look. I mean, they’re right there. Imagine if we walked outside with just a hint of testicle peeking out of our pants. Would we be surprised by the occasional glance?
The first step to making your boob obsession a little less awkward is realizing it’s out of your control. You don’t love looking at boobs just because boobs are awesome.
You’re biologically hardwired to enjoy boobs, says Young. He suspects it’s connected to the mother-infant bond during breastfeeding, in which a motherlode of oxytocin is released into mom’s brain. In our brain circuitry, we’ve connected boobs with making women fall in love—at least on a subconscious level.
“It’s not like every time you see some breasts, you’re thinking, ‘I could stimulate her oxytocin release and make her bond with me,’” Young says. “But we have the evolutionary history of our ancestors in us.”
Another theory is that it’s all cultural. We think boobs are great because we grew up in a culture where we’re constantly told BOOBS ARE GREAT. In her book Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, cultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler describes telling friends in Mali, West Africa about American men’s sexual fascination with breasts.
Their responses, she wrote, ranged from “bemused to horrified,” and they regarded the very idea of stimulating breasts during sex to be “unnatural, perverted behavior.”
But what about her? When she wears something that reveals a lot of cleavage, is it cultural? Is she being driven by evolutionary history?
Possibly. It’s also possible that what she wears has nothing to do with trying to attract a male gaze.
“Women may have a multitude of socially dictated reasons for adopting the sexualized look, none of which have much to do with intent to convey an interest in or consent to sex,” says Avigail Moor, Ph.D., a social psychologist.
Let’s translate that: Her tits may be on display, but they’re not always on display for you. Your wandering eyes are what they call in the military “collateral damage.”
- Any time there’s a problem, she wants to talk over every last detail, even if I already have the solution. I just want to fix it, but she keeps talking and talking and talking and . . .
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from every hack stand-up comedian ever, it’s that women love to talk. What’s the deal with all the words coming out of ladies’ mouth holes, am I right?
Well sorry, but science doesn’t necessarily agree. A 2014 study at the University of Arizona found that, on average, men speak 15,669 words each day compared to women’s 16,215 words. So if it seems like she’s talking too much, somebody else probably thinks the same about you.
A 2013 study examining the brains of boys and girls found that girls had 30% more FOXP2 in their brains, a protein involved in vocalization.
Mike Bowers, Ph.D, a professor of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech who led the study, says it’s too soon to say “if FOXP2 is directly accountable for why women more often use verbal strategies to solve problems than men, but it is a great place to start exploring why the two sexes have different brain wiring.”
Yet another study, this one from the University of Pennsylvania, found even more evidence that male and female brains have structural differences. Ragini Verma, Ph.D, the study’s leader and an associate professor of radiology, scanned the brains of both men and women, creating road maps of each participant’s brain.
“Women by far have better connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and men connect more from front to back,” says Verma. “Male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and action. Once men hear something, they immediately want to act on it. But with women, their brains are wired so it’s more about the connection between the analytical and intuition. It’s not as action oriented.”
Brizendine sees these differences play out in her own marriage. “My husband is also a scientist, and when I come home, I like to tell him about all the frustrating parts of my day,” she says. “Within 20 seconds, he’ll say, ‘You know what you should do,’ and I say, ‘How could you possibly know what I should do? You haven’t heard the whole story!’”
Brizendine has tried explaining to him that what she really wants isn’t a solution, but empathy. “Women do this with each other all the time,” she says. “When girlfriends get together and they talk about what’s upsetting them, nobody is like, ‘Okay, I think I see your problem.’ What she says is, ‘Oh my god, I know exactly how you feel, that happens to me too!’”
- Speaking of friends, my wife has lot of female friends that she’s weirdly intimate with. Not friends like guys have friends, where you talk about the game and nobody brings up anything personal and you barely know what he does for a living. She hangs out with them all the time, talking about . . . I don’t even know what. They even go to the bathroom together. What is that about?
Women seek out friendships for very different reasons than men do. They want to “co-ruminate,” says Tamas David-Barrett, Ph.D, a behavioral scientist at the University of Oxford.
“They meet up and then tell each other, often in a sequential monologue form, about their issue at the particular moment in their lives.” But men, he says, prefer active friendships. We want to socialize with other men while doing another activity, like playing sports or fishing. It could even be an “imaginary action,” David-Barrett says, “like going to the pub to watch a game on TV together.”
A landmark UCLA study found that women often form emotional bonds with other women because of innate biological instinct, and it’s not just human females who do it. Researchers described the behavior as “tend and befriend,” in which the females of a species (human or otherwise) cope with stress by nurturing their young (the “tending” part) and seeking out social contact, especially with other women (the “befriending.”)
It’s quite a bit different than the “fight-or-flight” response that males have classically used to deal with stress. It’s a pattern that’s still repeated today. When things get stressful, the women huddle together, and the men want to start throwing punches or get the hell out.
Keep that in mind the next time she goes to another “girl’s night out” to watch The Bachelor and drink Chardonnay. What she’s really saying—deep in her evolutionary muscle memory—is “I need to be with other women because I’m worried our tribe might be gored by saber-toothed tigers or decimated by famine or pestilence.”
- Can we talk about the fries stealing now? Why can’t she just order her own food? I’m not judging her. Hell, I’ll even pay for it. She can get the loaded fries with the onions and chili. I don’t care! Fart all night, that’s cool. But don’t make me the a-hole who slaps away her hand because she won’t stop pilfering from my plate.
This is maybe the most maddening paradox of modern gender politics.
On the one hand, as we’ve already discussed, men would rather not cry in front of strangers, or even people we know well. It makes us feel weak and vulnerable and judged. But give us a plate of food, and we’ll attack it with all the self-censorship of a lion feasting on a buffalo carcass.
Meanwhile, women have no problem crying in public. They’ll bawl their eyes out with little or no provocation. But with few exceptions, you won’t see a woman do a full-on Animal House Bluto at an all-you-can-eat buffet with quite the same self-abandon as a man.
This should be the least surprising thing you ever read, but many women—not all women, but many women—have complicated relationships with food.
“There’s the cultural pressure to be thin, which makes them overanalyze every bite,” says Brizendine. “But there are evolutionary factors happening as well. For our early ancestors, females needed to have a flat abdomen and thin waistline, to prove they weren’t pregnant by some other guy, and a curvy waistline to demonstrate how fertile you are. Those pressures to have a certain appealing body type still informs a lot of how men and women act around each other.”
A 2010 survey revealed that 25% of women think about food every half an hour, while only 10% think about sex that often. When was the last time you thought about sex? Probably right in the middle of reading this sentence.
Here’s another shocker: 60% of women in committed relationships would rather not eat in front of their partner. That may explain why she prefers to sneak a fry or two from your plate rather than order her own meal. It’s less of a public declaration of hunger.
Here’s another explanation, which has nothing to do with gender: Maybe she wasn’t hungry before, but after seeing your big, succulent plate of fries, she changed her mind. Or rather, her internal chemistry reminded her, “Oh yeah, food is delicious.”
A 2012 Germany study found that ghrelin—a hormone that tells us when to eat—can get stimulated just by visual images. Looking at food has a physiological reaction. Your body may be telling you, “No, I’m not hungry, thanks,” but then a big plate of fries magically appears on the table, and it’s like a Jackson Pollock painting of greasy gloriousness, and the ghrelin in your blood says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, nobody told us this was happening. Change of plans!”
Let her have the fries. It was your own damn fault for ordering them, and flaunting it in front of her like some kind of carb burlesque. She’s not made of stone, man!
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December 2016 issue of Men’s Health.]