Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

newsflash: women are more relational

Circles of protection

The Little House on the Prairie enlightened me as to why women and men are different and what the difference is. In the book, the threat of not surviving the winters means that they must each do what they are best at. For example they can’t afford to divide the childcare equally, because it is more important that the father’s strength is used more productively on things that require strength; otherwise they may all perish. Likewise, if you imagine being in a modern precarious situation with your baby and its opposite sex parent (say, your car broke down in a storm), then the three of you would naturally divide up what needs to be done based on the best outcome (what you are each best suited for), not based on your preferences or sense of fairness.

The division of tasks in those situations can often follow the traditional circles of protection: the mother is the inner circle around the baby so she can nurse it, and the father is the outer circle so he can protect against external threats. In discussions on what makes the sexes different, the circles of protection theory seems to be the most natural and timeless to me. Even if you are coming from a position of fairness and equality and – like me – you resist believing in any difference at all, you can’t argue things like who has the milk and who’s usually bigger.

Whether by selection or culture, the circles idea seems to explain other differences. For example in Little House, the mother handles immediate daily needs of children and home, while the father does projects with a more singular long term focus – by necessity. Or the simple way to look at it is that her role is to put dinner on the table today, and his role is to put dinner on the table next winter. This can explain why women are usually more able to multitask about present-moment tasks and men are more able to plan the future, in the sense of architecting real changes from an abstract idea. In other words, differences like these are not necessarily just a product of cultural expectations. So in both time and space, the shortcut way of thinking about the difference is “inner vs outer.”

There’s more genetic variation among men because, at least in part, some of their genes are unpaired, while all female genes are in pairs. A mutation in an unpaired gene is more consequential, so more variation is expressed in the male genome. Males are a lot less viable as fetuses – perhaps because of more expressed mutations. Also males have a wider variation in height and other physical features than females. We can observe that the most extreme people are men, and women tend to be a bit more similar to each other. For example the cruelest despots and criminals are nearly all men, and the most brilliant scientists and composer are also nearly all men. There’s some idea that an equal number of women would have risen to fame and success if they had been allowed, but I think that is only partly true, because the genetic spread would predict a wider spread in men’s abilities. So if you look at the way people vary, you get the same inner/outer idea from a different angle: women are collectively more on the inner circle of variance (more alike) and men on the outer.

All versus each

The inner/outer split also extends to what it feels like for me to be around women and men. I can’t prove anything here, but it always feels like women have the shared feeling that we’re all in it together, while men are more “every man for himself”. It’s not necessarily a difference in independence or being more/less controlling, but just a recognition that there’s all women and then there’s each man. In crowds, women inch toward each other like grazing animals, in a way that is protective, but if men did the same thing, it would feel predatory. (Not always, just a general pattern.) Since I present ambiguous gender, one of the ways that I can tell how I’m being gendered is feeling how other women occupy space around me: if the tension in their aura goes down as they get closer, then I know I’m being femaled and we’re in that inner circle. If I have the inclination to do the same thing back but I’m being gendered as male, then I become aware of the predatory vibe being reflected back and I stop doing it.

That kind of nonverbal social control is part of maintaining that box of shame that I’ve spent my life living in. When a chick breaks free of its shell, people are overcome with with how darn cute the thing is and they get very encouraging, but when I’ve tentatively tried to peck my way out of my shell, it feels like the reception I get is more like “get that hideous thing back in its shell!”. So as a young transgender child, when I felt that a fundamental aspect of me was not acceptable, I learned to live in the closet, and I didn’t really know that people can safely be themselves in public.

A very short shortcut way of naming the inner/outer concept is by saying women are more relational. This is easily misunderstood, as I don’t think women want relationships more or that they are better at it; it is just another way of saying we are in that inner circle, or saying we feel the all over the each.

Emulating models

I took a voice class recently. I had been wanting to do this for years because when I talk, unlike E.F. Hutton, people too often either don’t hear me or assume I’m wrong, so I wanted to project more confidence. I found a class that was geared toward finding your feminine voice, so part of the class was about enumerating differences in speech between women and men at all different levels.

There are cheap and easy ways to talk about the differences, and in the class, the conversations could easily drift toward saying men are insensitive jerks or going along with the “men are always wrong” idea, although that kind of judgment was veiled in less direct (more feminine) language. Yes, we’ve probably all experienced men doing really dumb things when no woman was around to stop them, but I think and hope that’s a product of cultural conditioning and isn’t really the root of the differences. So I found myself trying to consciously lock in on a mental image of enlightened strong men. This particular mental task doesn’t come naturally to me, and I found my images to be mainly either tending to the jerks, or the churchy “nice” men who act like women but without the strengths of women. So the image of Laura Ingalls’s father was a nice third way to break that false duality of weakness – a man putting dinner on the table next winter, and being strong from a center of love.

I also had the opposite trouble during that class of being unable to lock in on the image of a woman worth emulating. She would not be that hopelessly weak woman who infringes her own movement with skirts too tight around the knees and who raises her voice at the end of every sentence to alleviate any threat by signaling universal incompetence. There’s a lot of easily observed differences in patterns of speech and manners along these lines that are related to submission. It helped to notice that other strong feminists, other autistic women – and in general people that I would want to be more like – do not tend to follow those submission patterns.

In the process of trying to tease apart what is a real difference and what is a self-imposed limitation from the culture, I practiced things in a theatrical way, and through that, discovered tendencies that had been buried. One difference is that women gesture during speech with the forearm and hands only, while men use their whole arms more – they control a bigger piece of space. When this was brought to my attention (I had not thought about it like that before), I realized that I went through phases in life of changing the way I do this one thing. I didn’t think about how I gestured until Junior High, when people would tell me that if I continued to gesture certain ways, I would get beaten up or teased. I adopted a strategy of consciously suppressing movements and walking and carrying things certain ways. People didn’t have backpacks then: boys carried books at their sides while girls carried them protectively cradled in front. I carried them the girl way until I was told it was wrong, and then I made myself remember to carry them the boy way. This and many other unnatural things were forced on me and have been stuck there for so long, that it feels like it will take a long time to release them.

Coming out should never be about imitating, but doing some practice acting can loosen up things and help a person to be more free to be themselves. In the long list of behavioral differences discussed in that class, I considered where I fall in each one. Few individual people, whether trans or not, fall naturally completely on one side for all the differences. They are general patterns, and people usually have some of both. Yet a lot of people seem to put a lot of energy into conforming themselves, like those Junior High gender enforcers I encountered. They want to purge any aspect of themselves that doesn’t match their concept of their gender. That same thing seems to go on with trans people, and a person can get too caught up with imitation.


Now I’m going to change focus a little to the actual ways of analyzing speech, and what the male/female differences are. The core reason why all these things are different seems to be the way women are more relational (understanding the limitation on what I mean by that word), which ultimately comes from the circles of protection. In the list below, I’m mostly listing differences that have been observed by academics, so these are real (averages not absolutes!), and not just my own generalizations.

(1) Choice of topic. Men talk about things, and particularly things that may be abstracted away from themselves in space and time, while women talk more about experiences and current feelings. I think this is a direct fallout of the roles that we end up in, as Little House explains. To get dinner served today, you have to stay focused on current needs of the people present – relational! To get dinner served next winter, you have to stay focused on future needs.

(2) Motivation to communicate. Men like to demonstrate competence, which highlights the difference between themselves and others (the each), while women like to feel bonded and protected, thus highlight similarities (the all – relational!).

(3) Conversational shape. Women take turns and confirm each other’s statements with continuous feedback (relational!) while men are more likely to interrupt and not provide listening feedback. Women connect the topic with the other person much more (relational!) – such as if I say I’m tired, I would also comment on whether the other person looked tired too, or relate it in some way.

(4) Choice of sentences. Men make more objective, judging statements (something is or does something) and give advice more. Women ask questions, make more empathic or emotional remarks, give compliments, expose their own weakness, and apologize more – relational! Appearing uninformed is a no-no for men but is more ok for women.

(5) Sentence construction. Women more often join phrases into longer sentences, use more words, more pauses, and append more indirect tags such as disclaimers and other softeners. (“So… I’m afraid we might be running a bit late, do you think?”) Men don’t. (“We are late.”) I think what’s going on here is that women are padding out the ideas to make it a two-way communication (relational!) even while the other person is not talking – they are watching and listening for vibes while talking.

(6) Word choice. Women use inclusive pronouns (“we”) more (relational!), a larger variety of descriptive adjectives, and more terms of affection (relational!). Men swear a lot more often, speak in the first person more, and have a smaller descriptive vocabulary.

(7) Phoneme voicing. Women rest longer on vowels than men (soooo, instead of so) particularly as stress. Men use volume or staccato as a form of stress punctuation. I think this is extremely relevant to the idea of being relational because women are being receptive during the voicing of the vowel so it has to take more time. It’s not so much a higher thought process but not exactly unconscious either. Imagine a woman saying “soooo?” when she really means “what happened last night?” and think of all the expressions on the other person’s face she can read if she draws it out long enough. She could get a vibe and change the way the sound is intoned a couple times during the same vowel.

(8) Intonation and pitch. Intonation is the change in pitch over a word or words, beyond what is necessary to distinguish the words themselves. Women have higher pitch and intone (or sing) sentences more – a bigger range of pitch. Men have a greater physical pitch range (including falsetto) but use less of that range in speech. Interestingly, women use a higher pitch when speaking to men than they do when speaking to other women – the submissive aspect perhaps. I don’t have a great idea why the up-and-down pattern is feminine, but perhaps women are communicating more relational layers and thus need more aspects to inflect to get those layers across.

(9) Resonance. Resonance is the wave shape, influenced by which body cavities the sound travels through – like how the resonating chamber of different instruments produces different sounds. An identical pitch sung by a man and woman sound different enough to usually identify the sex of the singer because the shape of the instrument is different.

Grazing while female

In all of these 9 layers, a person could just use the information to adopt techniques like an actor learning to express a new role. But to me it is more powerful to use this to discover the real me whether it conforms or not. The idea that women are more relational may be obvious to anyone reading this but it was a newsflash to me, and here’s the flash part: People are out in public. What I mean by that is: my natural inclination to act relationally, which is a source of fear for me, is the same inclination that other people express shamelessly. I have PTSD symptoms from simply acting and speaking according to my natural inclinations and getting threats in return. It feels like there is a prohibition against grazing while female, but learning that other people routinely express themselves in that relational way shows me that other people are not subject to that law.

I would like to get a radio signal from my home planet saying “permission to be self granted” and have this permission be magically authoritative. But self-imposed laws don’t melt away so easily.

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