The Human Condition:

Socializing the Sexes – January 17, 2016

People puppets

Maybe they socialize kids differently today—and from what I read and hear, I expect they do. The gender-neutral crowd must engage in serious playground monitoring and supervision to enforce the teacher’s, the new adult world’s, view of proper behavior and good relations between individuals. But it was different in my day of essentially free-range kids.

Oh, of course, we had adults to socialize us. Our parents were the first line of society’s defenses, followed only then by our teachers and other adults in our lives such as aunts and uncles, the family doctor, the pastor, the barber, the neighborhood police and postal workers, and various merchants we regularly visited, to name a few. But parents did the rough grinding, taking off the sharp corners and stubborn facets our budding personalities in order to tame the wild beast of self-will. After all, the parents got to us first, when we were just babies and knew that everything we touched was ours and most of it belonged in our mouths.

Mothers and fathers teach children by example and correction. They teach sons and daughters to be respectful and courteous, to think of others, to be honest, brave, and loyal to the family and by extension to whatever group they join. A child learns these things early, usually before being released into the world of school and introduced to people not in the family and not bound to him or her by loyalty and obligation.

And there the differences start—or they used to.

Little boys went off at recess to play team sports and competitive games—first dodge ball, then baseball, touch football, and any game where two groups can line up, working with each other on one side and against all the others on the opposite side. In the rough-and-tumble, a boy learns an important lesson. You can trash-talk the other team, and you can taunt a batter or a pitcher while he’s on the field, but you keep your talk game-related and good-natured. If you say personally demeaning and hurtful things, striking at another boy’s sense of self and “essential vanity,”1 then you will face consequences.

At a certain point, when a boy’s pride has been stung enough, he will lash out. He will drop the good-natured banter and fling himself at you, fists flailing. This is an emotional state, an outburst, a release of control. The boy who is lashing out soon learns that the other person usually can defend himself with equal or perhaps even harder punches. And the boy who taunted the first boy to the point of distraction learns that the male ego is a brittle thing and that fighting is hard work. With time, and after enough bruised noses and split knuckles, one boy learns to control his temper and the other learns to control his tongue. Both learn a solid lesson about impulse control.

It’s a difficult way to grow up, but the alternatives are all worse. If the boy being stung beyond endurance does not “stand up for himself,” then something fragile inside him starts to die. He will see others in his group regularly giving and taking punches, while he does not dare to fight. He might pride himself on his Buddha-like passivity and mature self-restraint, but the thought will lurk in the back of his mind that a certain amount of cowardice may be involved. And he will understand instinctively that these are only children’s tests, and that later adult tests are sure to come and they will be much harder. The boy who has not bloodied his knuckles on the playground may not be ready to fight, to resist, and to hold himself upright as a man.

If the boy doing the taunting does not get his share of “knuckle sandwiches,” then something evil inside him starts to grow. He will see that others in the group—some others at first, but more over time if this goes on—do not oppose his will and ego. Eventually, he will think he can get away with anything, say anything, and control others with his tongue and the force of his personality. He will become a bully who expects fear and deference in others. But here the thought does not lurk that these are only the tests of childhood. He will probably not suspect that somewhere, sometime, he might belabor an opponent who will not fold and who will have learned to use his fists to advantage.

And for the others, those boys standing by and watching, this brief burst of combat—the lashing out and the bashing back—is cathartic. It relieves tension and clears the air. That is why they cheer it on, not because they are savages, but because they know instinctively that this is how young male primates learn their role and their place in the monkey troop. If the boy being goaded backs down and refuses to fight, they feel a little sick, knowing that something is dying. And if the boy doing the goading is not opposed, they feel a bit fearful, knowing that someday one of them will have to challenge him.

When the process works—and it almost always used to—boys learn a valuable lesson. That the world is an uncertain place, and if you shoot your mouth off too freely, there is always someone around who will close it for you. That every man is an unpredictable quantity and so worth your caution if not your respect. That power has its limits when men have the means to attack and defend themselves. That leadership—the mysterious process of getting others to do what you want—is best exercised by establishing shared values and reaching through the other person’s natural defenses to touch a core of self-respect, good sense, and humor, rather than by shaming and goading, by breaking the other person’s spirit to your will.

But girls, I think, were socialized differently. However, I must admit that, while I was on the playground, I didn’t spend much time with the girls, so I only have general notions about how they once played together and socialized among themselves.

My sense is that little girls learned to relate through either individual exercise or cooperative play and tests of individual skill. They would compete as individuals in games like jacks and hopscotch. They would cooperate in feats like double-dutch jump rope. Later they would compete in non-contact sports like badminton, tennis, and volleyball. The point was to prove your own skill, speed, or cleverness but not necessarily to dominate your opponent physically. Did groups of girls on the playground ever break out into fights? I’m sure they did, once or twice, especially in the early grades. But girls were always supposed to be “nice” and “ladylike,” which meant never resorting to anything so vulgar and hurtful as fisticuffs.

Since I don’t believe that any group of human beings is composed of angels, and that the good and bad in human nature is pretty evenly divided between males and females, I do know that girls in a group are not, and never were, as perfectly sweet, cooperative, and supportive as their mothers or their teachers expected them to be. My sense is that, where little boys learned to use their fists to defend themselves, little girls used words and verbal cleverness. When a girl was pushed beyond endurance by another girl’s hurtful taunts, she had two options: to break down and cry, or to come back with something even more clever and hurtful. If you cry, you lose. If you can excel at spite and malice, you win. Buddha-like passivity and self-restraint have nothing to do with this verbal combat, although a crushing tactic on the high ground might be to say, “I choose not to reply to your vulgar accusations!”

Yes, a girl had to “stand up for herself” in terms of verbal give-and-take and not break down in tears. And yes, a girl who could take on all comers with her mouth, making them cry without ever feeling the sting of tears herself—and that’s kind of a psychopathic personality, isn’t it?—would learn to be a bully. But for girls the fight never, or almost never, made the transition from words to fists. It never reached the stage where physical skill and endurance took over from continual brainy cleverness, where a boy learned new and surprising things about himself and his opponent. So disputes among little girls could go on and on, building tensions, and remain unresolved through physical combat.

In my career over forty years in business—first in book publishing, then in engineering and construction, at an electric and gas utility, in the pharmaceutical business, and finally in biotechnology—I’ve seen the results of this differential socialization again and again. And remember, these were the decades when women were finding parity of position and pay with men, at least in the fields where I worked—editing, technical writing, and corporate communications.

In my earliest career, I was the lone editor in a printing and publishing company owned by a husband and wife team who had a second man outside the family as their partner. Because the two men had gone off to serve in World War II, the woman had long since become president of the company, with the final authority in all decisions and the daily running of the business. And she used it. The printing business at the time was almost all male, except in the bindery, so this was a woman running a shop full of men. I would see her tongue-lash and speak rudely and dismissively to skilled typographers, photographers, and pressmen who were twice her size physically and as old or older than she was. She would inflict contempt on them to the point at which, had I been doing the talking, I would have consciously prepared to duck a blow. But she was oblivious to the hardened eyes, pursed lips, and clenched fists that her words were provoking.2

Most of the women I have met and worked with since then were better at managing their relationships with men. And, as the decades progressed, normative behaviors also developed for relations between the sexes in the workplace. But still, I occasionally saw women speak pointedly and hurtfully to men in ways that no man would consider prudent or fair.3

But then, it was always my luck to work in mixed groups, mostly among writers and editors, where the men could be courteous without being seen as weak and the women could be forceful without making things personal. In most of these groups, we represented the best of civil society and learned to value each other’s skills and opinions.4

And then, toward the end of my career, I was the manager of Internal Communications—a new position with a one-person operation, me—and for a brief period the company put me under the female vice president of Human Resources, a department composed almost exclusively of women.5 And for me that was like being transformed into a little girl and transported back to the playground. Almost every discussion was a subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—attempt by one person to establish authority over the others. Almost every comment carried a personal innuendo and hurtful meanings. The fights between groups in that department would go on for months and most were never resolved. The air was never cleared, except in a show of submissiveness. But there was never anything “nice” or “ladylike” about the atmosphere, except that they never actually drew blood off one another.

When I once had to present a detailed proposal on an important communications project, these ladies demanded copies of my slides in advance, flipped through them before I could even start speaking, and then continuously interrupted me to address their own issues and observations at random, so that I had no thread of a case to make. (When I remarked on this later to my supervisor, she explained that this was just how the group handled important decisions.) If during that presentation I had lashed out in frustration or broken down in tears, I would have lost. So I hardened my eyes, pursed my lips, clenched my fists, and persevered.

Women and men are socialized differently, or at least they once were. I don’t know what the modern, more feminized, metrosexual approach will bring in later years for the current generation. But, as a man myself, I tend to prefer the way boys did it. And I’m sure most women could speak up and defend the girls’ method of settling disputes. But I’m not sure that refraining from socking someone on the jaw is the least hurtful way to handle your differences.

1. To borrow a phrase from Frank Herbert’s excellent novel The Dosadi Experiment.

2. In contrast, her husband and the business partner both could issue a rebuke to these journeyman printers with a wry comment, a wink, or a joke to take away the sting. They might speak of how the work could have been done better, rather than belabor how stupid the man was for botching it in the first place. These men all had the rough-and-tumble of the playground in their past and could now put personal antagonism behind them.

3. And I am not talking here about women “knowing their place,” “keeping their mouths shut,” or any other misogynist reference. The issue is that, in a disagreement or dispute, some women would occasionally strike for the jugular, saying things with maximum hurtful effect, and being totally oblivious to the other person’s essential vanity in a way that men learned early on the playground to avoid doing. These women had never experienced the unpredictable volatility of human nature and had never been confronted with a true fight-or-back-down situation.

4. The most memorable contrast came when I worked at the biotech company. I was a technical writer attached to the Consumables Development and Manufacturing (CDM) group, which produced chemical reagents that ran on the company’s genetic instruments. This was a unit consisting mostly of biologists and chemists, careers where women and men were about equally represented. We had very little daily contact with the company’s engineers who designed and built the instruments. In CDM, men and women sitting around a table might disagree by saying things like, “Well, yes, but don’t you think …?” On one project, however—preparing an established instrument package to meet FDA requirements—a team from CDM had to hold regular meetings with a team from the Instruments group, almost all of whom were males. We quickly learned that, in Instruments, people disagreed by catcalling and throwing rolls of tape at each other. Yes, they also winked and laughed with each other … but they threw things!

5. There was one other man, who unlike me had a Human Resources position alongside all these women, but he mostly kept his head down and avoided large meetings.