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From Mars to Venus and Back Again

"You aren't listening! Why can't you ever be sensitive to how I feel?"

"Oh, you're blowing things out of proportion. Just lighten up--you always make a big deal out of nothing."


If this conversation sounds familiar to you, then you probably already know much about the difference between men and women. Anyone who has ever been friends with a member of the opposite sex has been forced to realize that the ways in which men and women look at the world and each other are often at opposite ends of a bipolar scale. The resulting conflict between the sexes has been the source of countless misunderstandings and emotional pain and the topic of many scholarly books, such as the now-famous Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

So what is the real reason for men's inability to understand the workings of the female mind and women's frustration about the insensitivity of men? Although I am far from an expert on the subject, I believe that it all comes down to the teachings of our society-what psychologists or anthropologists would call the "enculturation" of men and women.

As research has proven, girls and boys are taught, from the beginning stages of infancy, to think, act, and communicate in different ways. This teaching begins in the games that are played by almost all young children. In typical "girls' games," such as house and dress-up, no clear rules of play exist, so that the games depend largely on cooperation and sensitivity between players. Also, these games are not competitive and do not have proclaimed winners and losers. Because of these characteristics, the girls who play such games instinctively learn to include others in activities, to be sensitive to the needs of others, and to talk about feelings and personal subjects. Later on in life, women also learn specific ways of bonding with friends and solving problems. In feminine culture, both processes are accomplished through personal communication and support, as well as the sharing of emotions and ideas.

Just as "girls' games" teach growing women to act in a certain way, the traditional "boys' games" also establish a particular mindset in the malleable brains of young boys. Games such as war and "cowboys and Indians" have clear-cut rules that regulate children's behavior during the games. Because of the clearness of these rules, talk and cooperation is not required to play. Also, the existence of winners and losers establishes a competitive spirit in boys who play these games. Therefore, from a young age, men are taught to "prove themselves," to act with authority and assertiveness, to be the center of attention, and to solve problems. Masculine culture also dictates that men bond within the framework of joint activities, rather than through personal communication, and that they be the "problem-solvers" in relationships.

A simple comparison between the attributes of girls' and boys' games provides a clear and logical explanation of the difference between the sexes. Because society teaches children these rules of behavior and expects men and women to think and communicate in certain ways, conflict is inevitable, once these differing perspectives on relationships and life have had the chance to interact and clash. Men and women need to learn that there is no inherently "right" way to behave and that much of their instinctive conduct in personal and social relationships is determined by the society in which they were raised. For example, a woman who feels that her boyfriend never sympathizes with her feelings and always offers "solutions," rather than support, needs to understand that he is acting in accordance with the behavioral rules that he was taught as a child. He probably feels that his reaction to his girlfriend's behavior is supportive and sensitive, even though she may conclude that he doesn't care about her or her emotional needs.

Therefore, the best way for men and women to understand one another is to avoid judging the behavior of others from their own gender-biased perspectives. Instead, they should actively strive to understand the inherent differences between men and women that result from the process of socialization in our gender-conscious society. They will then understand that men and women are not, in fact, from different planets and that a bridge can be built over the chasm separating men and women's behavior and communication.

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