“How’re you doing?” says Dennis as I walk into the Pacific Martial Arts changing room. Instead of replying with my habitual robotic “Fine, how’re you?” I have a crazy impulse to actually tell him. I’ll share my feelings!
“Well, my feet have been tingling for about a week. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor tomorrow.” Without missing a beat (appropriately: Dennis is a drummer) I hear, “You’ve got a brain tumor. No doubt about it. You’re going to die.”
For the rest of our hour and a half training session, whenever I stop to check on how my feet are doing Dennis again says, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a brain tumor. Your time is up.”
Sensei Warren, our regular martial arts instructor, came in late. After telling him my tale of tingling feet I got a marginally better prognosis: “You’ve got diabetic neuropathy. No doubt about it. You’re going to lose your feet.” And I don’t even have diabetes.
Now, I know both Dennis and Warren care a lot about me. They demonstrated their manly concern by telling me that I’m either going to die or lose my feet. If one of them had given me a big hug and said “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right,” I would have begun to worry that he had a brain tumor.
If I want sympathy, I’ll tell my troubles to my wife. From my marital arts buddies I get camaraderie and support that isn’t expressed in words. Dennis taught the class that evening. He started off by saying, “Let’s work on kicks tonight since your feet are giving you a problem.”
Which is what we did. For almost an hour. The unspoken message was, “Your feet are OK. Suck it up. This is no big deal.” That’s pretty much what the doctor said the next day: “Your feet look fine; I’ll do a blood test anyway; call me in a month if you’re not better.”
Rob Becker’s one-man “Defending the Caveman” show wonderfully explains this whole male communication thing. Laurel and I saw Becker perform some years ago. We laughed throughout the show, as did the whole audience, men and women alike. Lines like the oft-repeated “Men are assholes” got fervent applause from both sexes. You can’t resist clapping your hands when you hear the truth.
So what are the roots of the man to man interaction style that was so much in evidence during my martial arts class? Why is it that, as a reviewer of the play says: “Among men, ‘loser’ and ‘butthead’ are terms of respect and admiration. There are comments that occur between two females that can never be spoken between guys over a beer. The phrase ‘what are you going to wear?,’ regardless of the context, is the harshest of insults.”
The differences [between men and women] mostly revolve around our disparate social roles as evolved over the countless millennia we lived as a society of hunters and gatherers. Men were the hunters. They went out in a group, focused on one single, solitary goal: the kill. It might take them all day, quietly waiting in ambush, but eventually their goal would be accomplished and they could go back home and defend the cave.
The women were the gatherers. They noticed everything about them, gathering both food and other details that would help them gather more things then and in the future. Then they went home and gathered more information from each other while the men stood guard.
So men’s brains are tuned by evolution for goal-oriented teamwork: hunting a mammoth, scoring a touchdown, fighting a war. Unnecessary conversation, such as discussing how a man feels about his tingling feet, is a distraction from the task at hand. You don’t want to miss the attack of a saber-toothed tiger because you’re having a group hug.
Women’s brains, on the other hand, are tuned for more diffuse communal tasks: gathering fruits and vegetables, caring for children, maintaining a home. As sexist as this may sound in today’s “Girl, you can be whatever you want to be!” culture, it seems unarguable to me that there are strong gender differences hard-wired into our genetic heritage.
Listen to the lively conversation as an audience leaves “Defending the Caveman.” People instinctively recognize the truth whereof Rob Becker speaks. It’s liberating for both sexes to be reminded that men are men, women are women, and never the twain shall completely meet.
Laurel and I used to get together with a couple, Faith and Michael, who shared common interests with us. Most of the evening Laurel and Faith would chat by themselves, while I’d converse with Michael. Then, after they went home, we’d compare notes. Our conversation would go like this:
“Gee,” Laurel would say, “I feel so bad that Michael’s mother is in the hospital. Hopefully she’ll recover from the cancer. I wonder how he’s coping, especially with the new health problems he has. How does he feel about all this?” “I haven’t a clue” I’d reply. “I had no idea his mother was ill or that Michael was ailing. Those subjects didn’t come up.”
“Well, what did you talk about?” Laurel would ask incredulously. “Why, about the philosophy of science, like we usually do. We had a great conversation.” Which was true. It just didn’t include even a smattering of communication about such insignificant and unimportant details as what is going on with our personal lives. We had much bigger fish to fry. We were engaged in deciphering the mysteries of the universe.
Yet, at the same time I learned a lot about Michael, as he did about me. Not by explicitly sharing touchie-feelie stuff, but simply by him being him and me being me as we talked about things that were important to us.
We would zero in on a philosophical question (“Are the laws of nature objective aspects of reality or manmade creations?”) and try to track it down. Often Michael would go one way and I’d go another way, but we were engaged in a common hunt for truth that brought us close together in a fashion that most women would never understand.
For men, feelings don’t have to be verbalized to be felt. Nonetheless, with Valentine’s Day coming up it is wise to remember that cavegirls have a different perspective on how their needs are met than cavemen do.