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The Mystery of Sensitive Men and Spock-Logic Women

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"Males and females are different."

No duh!

A few years back, it was popular to write self-help books about the different ways females and males operate -- how they relate, communicate and love differently. Many of us read those books in hopes of improving relationships based on an awareness of those differences.

But while some people found themselves in those descriptions, others were left indifferent. And some were even upset because they didn't find themselves well described by the portraits that were painted. If I'm supposed to be a "Venus," why don't I feel like one?

In those books, it was common to read that regarding relationships, males tend to communicate with friends on an as-needed basis, such that it might be weeks or months between contacts -- and that contacts are often around shared activities. In that same literature you might read that females tend stay in close contact with friends and to communicate in an ongoing way, in order to maintain the relationship.

But what if these gendered* descriptions don't describe you? What if you're male and the description of the relationship style that is purportedly female fits you better? What if you're female and you find yourself nodding in agreement to a description of the male pattern?

The truth is: that happens -- a lot.

For the moment, let's take a side path into the land of personality type. Specifically, let's look at a model of personality with which many of us are familiar, based on Carl Jung's theory and Isabel Myers's work on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It describes preferences on four dichotomies: Extraversion-Introversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling and Judging-Perceiving. There's a shorthand set of letters that comes along with these: E-I, S-N, T-F and J-P, respectively. If you've taken it, you may already self-identify as an ENFP, or an ISTP, and so on.

In the language of personality type, there is one pair of preferences that is particularly relevant to gender and behavior: the Thinking-Feeling (T-F) preferences.

According to literature on personality type, Thinking types are often tough-minded, logical, impersonal and task-oriented. They can be direct in communication and may miss being tactful (the how of what they say) in the pursuit of what is accurate. In contrast, you'll read that Feeling types are often warm-hearted, empathic, humane and concerned with relationship, and may struggle so much with being caring communicators and with being connected that the hard, interpersonal messages sometimes get lost when they talk with others. Hear the difference? Thinking = task/impersonal. Feeling = relationship/personal.

As a heads-up for what's coming, I'll note that you'll also read that Extroverts tend to seek more and broader relationships, and Introverts tend to pursue fewer relationships, preferring to spend more time with an intimate few friends.

Now let's return to our self-help books' gendered assertion about male and female communication styles, with men tending toward as-needed, infrequent contact and women tending toward ongoing, relationship-oriented contact. According to a colleague's study, these purportedly gendered behaviors are more about personality type than they are about gender.

This friend and associate, who passed away a few years ago, did a study on how type and gender impact relationship behavior. He found the "as needed" behavior seems to be more related to being an Introvert with Thinking (IT) than it is to being male. The "ongoing way" behavior seems to be more related to being an Extrovert with Feeling (EF) than it is to being female.

Guess what? The Thinking-Feeling preference is the only preference that shows a dramatic gender difference. Data show that about 65 percent of Thinking types are male (and so 35 percent are female) and about 70 percent of Feeling types are female (and thus 30 percent are male).

Of course, we'll always have trouble teasing out how much of this is "really" innate and how much is socialization. But with more male Thinking types and more female Feeling types, it's easy to understand how people might see Thinking and Feeling behaviors as being intrinsic to the gender of the person.

What's especially interesting to contemplate is how some behaviors that more naturally emerge for Thinking types have been characterized as "male" and some behaviors that more naturally emerge for Feeling types have been characterized as "female." And since we have evolved social agreements that ensure that males and females are supposed to behave in certain ways, those relationship behaviors become proscribed.

Bottom line: Sure, many men are indeed Thinking types, and many women are Feeling types. But behaviors associated with Thinking and Feeling may have less to do with essential qualities of maleness/femaleness and more do with personality type. (And yes, social pressure does have impact in teaching people what's "appropriate" male or female behavior.)

What this also means is that at least 35 percent of males, the Feeling type males, may think that the way they prefer to relate isn't in line with the socialized gender expectations ("Stop being so sensitive!"). And at least 30 percent of females (the Thinking type females) may feel that the way they relate isn't in line with socialized gender expectations ("Gosh, try to be more tactful!").

So maybe this is a reason why some females read those "Mars" descriptions and say, "That's more me," and some males read the "Venus" descriptions and say, "That's more me."

Most adults have made peace with it if they grew up perceiving and operating in ways that went against the gender norm. But don't be trapped into believing that you only have to exhibit attitudes and behaviors that are proscribed: You can be a Feeling female and be tough-minded when it's called for, just as you can be a Thinking male and be warm-hearted when it's called for.

So be yourself. You're going to be anyway. And vive la différence!

*For this article, we are using "gender" to refer to "apparent sex," rather than gendered behavior. There are plenty of folks who identify and express in ways other than (simply) as male or female. For the purposes of this study, and my reference to it, we'll on this admittedly limited convention.