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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

Men and women—how different are we? Some say only physically, all other differences stemming from outside influence. Others say our differences arise as much from inside as from outside.

A thoughtful Facebook post last week by an educated professional woman I’ve known for years got me thinking about the topic. She’s a well-regarded high-school teacher.

Her post offered two major differences between the sexes, acknowledging that if they’re true of each group they’re still not necessarily true of every man and every woman. Then she asked for responses.

First, she suggested that men tend to argue their differences directly and then maintain the same relationships they had before their difference, while women tend to suppress differences from one another, take them personally, resent them, and sometimes plot revenge.

Published evidence supports at least part of this. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen, an expert on how the sexes use language differently, theorizes that men are born to compete with one another, to find out thereby who’s best at what, and establish themselves as experts in what they end up being best at. She holds that men argue differences as part of this competitive nature and actually enjoy good verbal fights with one another.

She theorizes that women have no such innate competitive drive but do have an innate desire for harmony. Thus they can feel hurt and personally rejected when others challenge them. Tannen has conducted tons of structured observations and has published two books on these differences, books filled with specific behaviors she has observed and recorded. She’s an excellent writer, so her books are not only interesting but also easy to read.

Second, my Facebook friend also suggested that men tend to surround themselves with allies, people they team up with as they seek success, while women tend to surround themselves with “friends” who gossip about them, criticize them behind their backs, and undercut their success.

I don’t know that Tannen’s work supports this suggestion directly, but it may do so indirectly. If men’s competitive nature developed millennia ago when survival depended on hunting and war-making skills, those who teamed up would have had advantages over those who fought among themselves or went out alone.

When I first read the post, I felt it sounded “anti-feminist,” as if men have the better qualities and women the worse. I was intrigued, though, that a woman had written it. Then I read the responses—the many, many responses. They were all by women. And they all agreed with the post.

My friend and her responders heartened me with their open-mindedness. In criticizing their own sex, they totally out-think today’s smug, closed-minded partisans who dismiss all challenges to their ideologies as “mansplaining” and “whitesplaining,” as if no man and no white could have anything legitimate to say about gender or race.

Open-minded people weigh ideas not by their source but by their merit.

Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in English at Lyon College. He can be reached at