Many have observed that men have a tendency towards social and emotional cluelessness. There are plenty of oblivious women and sensitive dudes out there, and nonbinary folks both unaware and keen. But overall, my own experience confirms the trend. In general, men are less perceptive and expressive when it comes to social cues and subtexts, emotions and relationships.
Why is this? Feminists often point to childhood socialization that emphasizes sociability and relationships in girls, while encouraging competition and toughness in boys. Other people believe that biology and human evolution explain the differences we observe. I’d like to point to a factor elided by these explanations. Quite simply, people just don’t tell guys very much.
I am the rare man who was raised as a girl. Like many trans people, I listened closely to the messages intended for my true (not assigned) gender, so I absorbed a lot of norms of masculinity. As a kid, I felt it was important not to cry and to fight with punches and kicks, not scratches. Still, I was encouraged to master the feminine art of relationships, and I had intensely expressive friendships with girls. I was just as perceptive, emotive, and socially astute as anyone else.
I have not become less open or perceptive since transition. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it much easier to cry and show other feelings, and I continue to enjoy deep, expressive conversations. I also find it easier to read and empathize with other people. I’m training to be a counselor right now–I am trying to talk about feelings and relationships all day long, for a living!
And yet, I find that I know far less about what friends and family members are feeling than I did before transition. Why is this? They don’t tell me. My own family members often communicate important feelings to me indirectly, by telling Alma. Nobody gossips to me, so I have no idea which of my friends are getting together and which are breaking up.
This was put into sharp relief by a recent conversation with Alma. She mentioned that she has a class with a friend’s roommate, let’s call him J. Alma said she was comfortable talking to him because she knows he has a girlfriend and is pretty serious about her. Here’s the thing: neither of us actually knows J. We’ve met him briefly and seen him at parties. Neither of us knows J’s girlfriend. But while I have nothing more than a vague image of J’s face, Alma knows his relationship status, the seriousness of said relationship, and even has a sense that he is a good boyfriend. How is this possible? Because our female friends told her. They know, because one of them knows the girlfriend, and she told them. It suddenly struck me what a massive quantity of social information is exchanged in all-female conversations. Meanwhile, when I talk with the guys in our social group, we talk about a lot of things…but we exchange almost zero of this type of information. J is a friend-of-a-friend to both of us, but while I’m not even completely sure I would recognize the dude, Alma knows a great deal about his life situation and his character.
This is just one example; the trend holds across many situations in our lives. This puts us at totally different starting places when it comes to social and emotional insight. Alma noted that when she interprets subtle social exchanges–like a glance or a tone–she is working from a lot of back-story, full of hints at what might be important and what that might mean.
Of course, this is very much connected to socialization and social norms. Friendships among men tend to look different from friendships among women. But I think it’s worth adding this into our analysis. It may not be so much a function of the perceptiveness, expressiveness and sociability of individual men, but rather of our social networks.