As an example, he tells me men can’t look at each other because males invariably interpret eye contact with other males as a challenge or threat. It’s biological. Therefore, men must talk shoulder-to-shoulder instead of face-to-face. If you want to have a real conversation with another man, he tells me, engage him in something else…like bowling, I suppose.
My mind turns immediately to my own conversational style. It’s true I don’t look people (of either gender) in the eye as much as I should, though I remind myself to. I’m uncomfortable with meeting new people. Even familiar people can throw me off sometimes. I always thought that was because I was a little shy.
I appreciate his interest in biological necessities and honoring what nature needs males to be, but something in me bristles when he suggests I’m just being biological. There’s a list of what males are and do, attributes I’ve learned from colleagues, from educational conferences’ summary of Carol Gilligan and others, and from books like Real Boys by William Pollack. I’ve been told boys are naturally more active, less able to attend to lessons than girls. They are slower to develop fine motor skills. They are more likely to judge moral issues according to a rule or law than to examine the specific situation. They don’t naturally ruminate, or nurture, or collaborate. They are fixed on their place in the pack and keen on reproduction.
Most of these conclusions are versions of versions of what a scientist once found, and let me say I see some truth in some of it. I freely acknowledge all of us—men and women—may act according to animal instincts we dimly recognize. I also know the inertia of socially constructed gender roles. No individual, movement, or Act of Congress can do much in the short run to change the way we’ve come to think of men and women. I don’t object to research on gender because, if it uncovers what we don’t know or suspect, good.
So why do I become so defensive in the presence of people who say guys will be guys?
I’ve always had very neat handwriting. From an early age, I’ve liked close work, gravitating to tiny toys and intricate tasks. Instead of attention deficit disorder, I suffer from attention surplus disorder, becoming so engrossed the outside world vanishes. And nothing fascinates me more than complexity. I ruminate—probably more than is healthy—and am reluctant to reduce complicated issues to one-size-fits-all solutions. I especially dislike reductive explanations that suggest all of anything is anything. For me, it always depends.
So, when people describe boys, I feel left out. And, when I don’t feel left out, I’m being a “typical male.” Even if, in a particular case, I am displaying traits associated with males, I’d like to respected as a individual, not as a representative of some larger group. Wouldn’t anyone in any group want that?
It isn’t healthy to accept behavioral determinism or any sort of determinism that says you’re bound to do certain things… even before you act. When people says guys do this or guys do that, I think “Oh, yeah, really?… Not this guy.” Sometimes I wonder if discussing maleness creates behavior instead of describes it. We can’t really all be the same, can we?
Systems are handy. If you are an auditory learner, record class for later playback. If you are a visual learner, write your notes as diagrams and bubbles. If you are a tactile learner, make sure to get your hands dirty.
No one has ever been able to tell me what to do if you are an olfactory learner, if there is such a thing.
However, the scientific method arose, at least in part, from paranoia that we might grab systems to suit us before fully investigating. Are our categories complete, or have we only found answers to the questions we’ve thought to ask? Are we looking for ways to verify assumptions or to reach comprehensive answers?
I hear someone who believes in the centrality of maleness saying I’m trying to wriggle out from under mountains of evidence or deny tendencies deeply coded and hard-wired into my gender. So what? No theory—however well grounded—should take responsibility out of an individual’s hands. Even if men typically do one thing or another, I’d rather believe I have a choice.