Girls are weird. It’s almost 30 years ago and the speaker is my then 10-year-old son, immediately and predictably seconded by his 7-year-old brother. Yeah, they’re weird. I move quickly, hoping to choke off this line of thinking, not worrying much about stifling their self-expression. I allow that it’s OK for them to say that they don’t understand girls, but it’s not OK to say that girls are weird. Boys are not the measure of man, the standard by which we decide what is normal for people. They don’t argue with me but it’s clear from the look they exchange that I have failed to make this sale.
My failure isn’t surprising. I’m fighting a belief deeply engrained in our society: women are unfathomable, totally mysterious to men, not normal. Exotic and enticing perhaps, but, well, weird.
Ten years later I’m having coffee with male colleagues. What do women talk about? Although the question is in English, the thought process behind it is foreign to me. My interrogator is also my boss, so I don’t make the obvious comeback: Ask your wife. I do wonder how I came to be spokesperson for my gender. Maybe it’s because these men see me functioning in what they think of as their world and hope I can be their native guide to mine.
Men talk about the weather, and work, and politics, and sports, but women can talk for hours, he goes on. What do you talk about? He seems sincere; I decide to give it a shot. Before I can even begin, though, another colleague preempts me.
Women talk about their feelings. His tone invites me to agree.
Well, we talk about the weather, and our work, and politics, and sports, I pause, only to be interrupted.
And your feelings, prompts my helper.
I persevere. And our families. Now the interruption is more emphatic, the request for concurrence more definite. And your feelings, right?
And our feelings, I acknowledge honestly but a tad reluctantly. Reluctant to contribute to his stereotype, unable to deny it. Yes, we do sometimes talk about our feelings. He beams, happy in my validation of his arcane knowledge of this strange beast that is woman.
The boss is less beamish, not entirely satisfied with my explanation. Apparently reluctant to believe that women talk about many of the same things men do, he would clearly prefer a list of more exotic topics. Memories of past lives, perhaps? Our plans for world domination?
Fast-forward to the present. This time the question itself is in a foreign language. What do women want?, my Spanish tutor asks evenly, his tone giving no hint to his state of mind. Is he making conversation, merely curious, sadly baffled, or frustrated beyond belief? I can’t tell, but the impatience of my response is softened by my need to search for the right words and verb tense. What does anyone want? I finally piece together, the snappiness of the come-back inversely proportional to the time required to produce it.
For the next hour we explore this odd conversational gambit. Odd, not because women don’t want things, but because I would never think to ask its complement: What do men want?
For one thing, the men I know are individuals, wanting different things for dinner, never mind the things that will make them happy. Unlike Star Trek’s Borg collective, men all have minds of their own.
For another thing, men don’t strike me as being any kind of aliens, Borg or otherwise. The ones I know have understandable drivers — needs, motivations and impulses. I don’t always share those drivers any more than I necessarily laugh at the same jokes, but I can usually understand them.
Just as I would never think to ask what men want, so I hesitate to presume to answer such a question on behalf of all women. The women I know are individuals, too.
Why is it that so many guys seem to want to believe that women are hard to understand as a gender? Are they trying to find a single defining principle that will work for all women instead of just learning the territory, step by painful step? Are they looking for a short-cut to understanding the woman with whom they share their lives, or an excuse for not embarking on the journey?
Why is it that women sometimes feed this notion? Does it help us to feel secure in a world where men have so much other power? Does it counterbalance men’s physical strength, their economic and political clout? Does it give us a thrill to think we understand the enemy but remain hidden ourselves, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma as Churchill once described Russia?
Be warned in time, James, and remain as I do: incomprehensible. To be great is to be misunderstood. Oscar Wilde wrote that.
Being misunderstood, as individuals or as an entire gender, is an achievable objective. It’s hard enough to know ourselves, much less to understand anyone else, and the gender gap adds an undeniable layer of complexity to the problem. But it’s easy to overestimate the differences, benefiting no one.
No one asks, What do tall people want?, or, What do red-haired people talk about? No one says, Bakers are weird. There are differences between the sexes, certainly, but we go out of our way to exaggerate them, when we could just relax and enjoy them. As one of the current anonymous internet offerings has it: Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it.
Girls are weird. Yeah. Boys too. Isn’t it great?