Mars and Venus. Pink and blue. As the stereotypes would have it, men and women have little in common but the ability to procreate. But how grounded in scientific reality are our culture’s notions about the ways the sexes diverge? And what does the influence of gender mean for our minds—for how we think and communicate?
We at Scientific American Mind wanted to know, too. So, in a first for the magazine, the editors have devoted an entire issue to this topic of gender and the brain. The articles look at male-female differences—and also some perhaps surprising similarities. “He Said, She Said,” by linguist Deborah Tannen, for instance, explains how all conversations and relationships between couples involve a combination of hierarchy and connection. Women’s and men’s conversational styles turn out to be different ways of reaching the same goals.
You probably have heard of Tannen before. Her 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, sparked national discussion and became a fount of rich material for late-show comics—especially variations on why men avoid asking for directions. In another feature article, “The Humor Gap,” Christie Nicholson takes a serious look at what’s so funny about humor to men and women. Jokes in new relationships work to attract a love interest. Women find funny men sexy, and they laugh more than men—a gesture of connection. Later, couples may make jokes to smooth their way over life’s rough patches.
Partners who start families also display their own styles as parents. You’ve heard of the “mommy brain,” but did you know that fathers also undergo biological changes after their baby is born? Dads challenge their children; moms coddle them. For the kids, the two approaches create a winning combination. See “Family Guy,” by Emily Anthes.
As the French expression goes: vive la différence. It’s learning about the ways that we differ that often makes us grow together as a human species