Saint Valentine’s day seems an apposite time to discuss a recent revelation I’ve had about a difference between the way men and women look at love. This thread of thought began several days ago in a meeting with some colleagues with whom I have been working on making games for education. To do such a thing right, you need to make some games, ask kids for feedback, and then repeatedly iterate your game design based on that feedback — ideally extracting principles of good educational game design along the way.
In this meeting one of my colleagues reported a difference in the feedback from twelve year old boys and girls on a game to teach math. Most of the boys wanted the game to be a race, or an adventure, with a driving narrative and lots of things moving on the screen or blowing up. The girls, on the other hand, said, essentially, “hey, I just want a learning game. Give me something that lets me practice my math skills, and shows me how I’m doing.”
A caveat here: This was just one group of kids, and certainly it would be wrong to suggest that all boys or girls think some particular way. But there was a definite tendency which, in one of those random associative sparks, got me thinking about the nature of love.
But first, a short digression to some fine feathered friends. The male peacock possesses remarkably vibrant tail feathers, the sole purpose of which (as far as we can tell) is to impress any eligible peahens with his fitness as a mate. We humans can’t really know how a peahen feels about this display on an emotional level, but we do know that a good tail feather display indeed attracts the gals, all other things being equal.
In humans, something a bit more subtle goes on — and it goes both ways. Men and women each try to impress each other with advertisements of their sexual desirability. But in this case, we do know a bit about the emotional level of things. And I think the difference in what those twelve year old boys and girls wanted from educational games might provide some real insight here.
On Valentine’s day — at least in the U.S. — the situation becomes notably asymmetric. On this particular day, a man is expected to impress his mate by spreading his metaphorical tail feathers. This might be through a gift of flowers, or exactly the right necklace, or dinner for two at an exclusive restaurant — preferably one that needed to be booked months in advance — or perhaps an intimate home-cooked meal by candlelight.
The details vary from couple to couple, but in my experience observing people, the larger pattern is consistent. The woman doesn’t book the restaurant — the man does. And if she was expecting some gesture of this sort, and none was forthcoming, there will be disappointment, and perhaps conflict.
A naive reading of this dynamic might suggest that men and women are focused on the giving and receipt of surface pleasures — flowers, fine food, candlelight. But in fact, I think that is far from what is going on. The real dynamic here is that the man is declaring: “I think you are special, and I will put sufficient thought and effort into convincingly expressing that.” It is not the money spent on the necklace, or the size of the bouquet that constitutes the tail feathers, but rather the thought and effort that the man has invested.
And the success of that thought and effort is judged by the woman solely in terms of whether the gift represents the man actually seeing her — understanding and acknowledging her for who she truly is, rather than merely as a projection of his own desires.
In a very pragmatic sense, the woman is testing the man. This is not always an easy test to pass, which explains why there is often a certain amount of anxiety around Valentine’s day. If, in some alternate universe, men and women thought the same way, there wouldn’t be nearly as much anxiety. In fact, the entire need for this test probably would not exist, and cultural rituals would be quite different.
But there is a difference — exactly the same difference described by those twelve year old kids: Men are focused on the process around the emotional exchange, and women are focused on the underlying emotional ground truth it expresses.
So a man might go out of his way to buy a fancy necklace, or two dozen red roses, or a sports car. And he might find that while his mate is appreciative, she is still unhappy — and he won’t understand why. The problem is that he is looking at the game that they seem to be playing, and he is trying to win that game.
Meanwhile, she is seeing the physical transaction merely as an indicator of something that is far more important to her — whether the man truly understands her, and truly sees her. So if she craves dark german chocolate, and her man got her roses, and she doesn’t even like roses, there’s a problem, no matter how lovely the bouquet, or how much money he spent at the flower shop.
Both are trying to reach out to each other and to affirm their connection, but it’s like the difference in the way boys and girls look at games that teach: The guy is focused on the video game, and the gal is focused on the lesson.