Thursday, March 8, 2012

If I'm Not Warm and Fuzzy, Am I Cold and Prickly?

It's a curious relationship we humans have to our cultural status quo.  Some of us are aware of norms that are manufactured by society.  Some of us disregard some norms.  Some of us take them as read and believe in them without separating them from the fabric of life.  

Today I'm interested in the expectation that women will be friendly, and what it means when a woman is not. There's a difference between a woman being unfriendly and a man doing so.

How can we know there's a difference?  Well, there's your own, non-scientific research where you watch social interactions and compare... but luckily there's plenty of scientific research on the subject of gender differentiated friendliness.

I wish I had access to a college library system for this.  But some very quick searches (on the google) do reveal scholarly articles on the subject.

The first thing I noticed in my google search was that the bulk of the studies I found were based on the hypothesis that men misinterpret women being friendly as a signal of sexual interest.  While, my point isn't to write about sex right now, this indicates something important when men show negativity towards an unfriendly response from a woman.  (Sorry, apparently gay people are again left out of the mainstream of research on this one. Ditto transfolk.)  

Not to be outdone there was this article (supposedly based on a study though they don't mention which) that tells women and men how to be hot:

Guess what the results are!  Women: be friendly, Men: don't be friendly.  

Whether this article is based on good scientific data or not, it's important for another reason.  It really shows what is expected from society because it's written from a social interaction perspective by people in this society.  Even if they're just giving us opinions... this is an opinion that's out there in force!

That article has this to say about the "happy/friendly" display:
"Happiness appears to convey femininity and low dominance to both sexes. It also indicates sexual receptivity..."
And, under "what men find sexually attractive" they quote the study:
"A friendly woman is likely to be more sexually receptive than a high status woman. Men find appeasement in a woman more appealing than pride.
Indeed, perhaps because women are known to smile (the key behavioral component of the happy display) more frequently than men, happy displays have been associated with femininity." 

Speaking of smiling, I remember this particularly in readiness.  (That's where they stick you between kindergarten and first grade if you're not socially or mentally developed enough.  For me it was probably social; I hated kids, they hated me... it worked.) I would walk down the hall with a sour look on my face.  Maybe it was one of those "this sucks and I'm scared" looks... I don't know.  But I remember that the older girls (and sometimes boys) would pass me in the hall and smile at me.  This made me frown more because I distinctly felt that they were only smiling at me because their mommy told them to.  That and some of those boys were the same ones who were mean and boisterous on the bus in and I couldn't make sense of the disparity.

I know, you see why I was in readiness?  But seriously, the point is that friendliness is a taught skill.  And we teach it differently to boys and girls.

Given all this, perhaps not as a rule but as a general, the response I recently received to an "unfriendly" email I sent, no longer surprises me.  It does, however, make me sad. 

It started two Tuesdays ago.  I received an email from someone with whom I used to be intimate.  It had been a difficult relationship, lots of stops and starts, but passionate on my part.  It ended badly.  He tried to make contact about a year ago (4 years after the end of our initial relationship), but it was hampered when he stopped responding to emails.  I was a bit surprised to hear from him again.

Given our history, I wasn't inclined to be super warm and fuzzy.  He said he was interested in reconciliation.  (I eventually decided that I am interested in closure but not at the time I wrote this email.)  Here's the email I sent (note that what I refer to at first is my response to his question about what form I see the process of "reconciling" with him will take):

Well, I don't really.  Only because it's not something I'd thought about before you mentioned it.  If I understand you correctly (and do correct me if I'm wrong), you'd like to clear up old feelings that may still be lurking from the tough stuff we went through in the past towards the purpose of having a new relationship.  I am a little unclear what kind of relationship you're interested in.  You mention that we used to be friends and more and you'd like to be able to call me the same.  Does that mean you're interested in a sexual relationship again, or to have a friendly connection, or something different?

I will be kind towards you, certainly, without being unkind to myself.  As for a particular relationship (of whatever sort) I'm not sure what you can bring to my life right now.  I'm willing to consider that there is something you can bring to my life, and at the same time, you're right, there are misgivings left over from the past that make me hesitant. 

I am a different person than I was.  For instance, I'm more likely to see bullshit than I used to be.  I'm less likely to put up with it, although I am likely to be kind if I choose to point it out.  I'm less sweet (if I ever was) and more direct. 

If we're going to talk about stuff now or in the past, being direct and honest with me is the one thing that will make the biggest difference.  It's one of those things I understand why it's so difficult for a lot of people, what with vulnerability, not wanting to tip one's hand to the other person, potential hurts.  I can promise you that I will never try to hurt you but understand that you may feel any number of things that I don't intend.  And I know I'm hypersensitive to manipulation/dishonesty.  If I feel those things, I'm very likely to get clammy and retract and possibly even call it out -which can be tough because with stuff like honesty, it's my feeling and another person's word, and I hate conflict, but I've learned that sometimes I need to go through it.

I know I don't sound terribly friendly.  I don't mean to be unfriendly, only direct about what I need if we're going to communicate.  I am willing to be open about my feelings and what happened in the past so far as I remember it.  I'm not likely to go back, pick through past correspondence to point out some minute point.  That goes towards who's right, in my opinion, and I'm not interested in going there.

Let me know what you think, where you've been since I last knew or anything else you think is pertinent.

I'm not going to post his response because I think it would be terribly rude.  Suffice it to say, he sounded displeased.  He used phrases like "definite sharp edge" regarding my email and upheld ideas that might have been meant to garner some recognition that I wasn't playing by the rules, like by saying that he was holding the olive branch.  I think he also took my ideas about self protection more personally than I meant, saying stuff like he's not going to bullshit me.  I can see how that could happen, though I didn't mean it personally.

I find myself wondering if an email, like the one I sent, had been sent by a man, if he would have had such a censuring response.  I have no way to tell, but I was pissed.  There have been a number of times when I've stated clearly to a man what I need in any given situation and he takes great offense. 

My suspicion is that this all has to do with men feeling uncomfortable about lacking dominance in a situation.  This is not meant as an aspersion toward men; this is how men are trained to be men here.  Can you have two people be dominant at once?  If I'm strong (I'm not especially vying for dominance), does that mean he is submissive or weak?  Does submissive equal weak?  Can I state what does and does not work for me with strength without a man feeling that I'm creating a hostile environment?  

In my mind the ideal is that this sort of thing runs as a kind negotiation.  We don't have to be overtly friendly but be kind to each other and state clearly what will work for each of us.  I have a feeling that if I'd been able to say the content of my email through voice (preferably face to face), my tone would have been better understood.  That said, I think it's likely that if I'm going to state my position with strength and clarity to men, I'm likely to run into this a lot.


  1. I am just full of thoughts about this.

    1) A masculine-human translation guide: You're being mean = you didn't give me what I wanted
    You're crazy = I just lost my locus of control over you.
    2) I think the study cited herein, should be renamed: how to attract people invested in their traditional gender role. I, personally care less and less, that being nice, listening openly, etc., makes me more likely to be the girlfriend, and less likely the boyfriend, of women in search of marriage, pregnancy and property, who spend a great deal of energy justifying their partners' abusive actions
    3)I think one model of equality, has no one either dominant o submissive. Another is to trade those roles equally. If there's a way for both parties to be dominant simultaneously, I've not encountered it, but it sounds hot.

  2. Btw, happy International Women's Day everyone.

    When I was little and was understanding that there's a Mother's Day and Father's Day I asked my mother why there wasn't a Kid's Day. She told me the same thing her mother told her: "Every day is Kid's Day."


  3. I can't see any male/female dominance issues here. I see a controlling person who is trying to make you feel badly for taking care of yourself instead of running over and taking care of him. I do think society gives men more of a pass for being manipulative than women, but then society has given men a pass for being abusive to their partners in all kinds of ways...