In 1992 a yoga instructor with a distance-learning PhD had the courage to ask: "Are women not getting help around the house because they're using the wrong modal verb?"
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Michael: What do you know about a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?
Peter: Let me guess. Women be shopping the book.
[If Books Could Kill theme music]
Peter: As famous as this book is and as much as the title sort of makes it clear what it's about, I don't really know anything about it.
Michael: This is, according to some sources, the best-selling nonfiction book of all time other than the Bible, but then you get into the whole thing about Bible fiction.
Peter: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]
Michael: This book was published in 1992. It basically came out without any splash. Nobody noticed it. The author, John Gray, had published two self-help books before to no acclaim or notice whatsoever. And then a year went by, and then he was featured on Donahue. The book ended up on The New York Times bestseller list for 200 weeks.
Michael: There's also a bunch of like, as a book, this has more just weird spin offs. There was a syndicated TV talk show, co-hosted by John Gray and Cybill Shepherd. [Peter laughs] There was a Las Vegas show, there was a board game, there was a CD-ROM with “role playing and punchy graphics,” according to USA Today, that cost 49.95 in, like, 1990s dollars.
Michael: And then, according to John Gray, this book was such a big deal that judges used to require couples to read it before allowing them to divorce.
Peter: Oh, my God.
Michael: So, who knows if that's true? I mean, we'll get into John Gray's relationship with the truth, but this was something that was really popular. And the context of this book is also like a weird wave of gender essentialist books that came out in the early 1990s. So, there was a really famous one that used a lot of scientific research called You Just Don't Understand. There's a book called Brain Sex. There's one called Sex on the Brain. There's one written by Sacha Baron Cohen's cousin called The Essential Difference. There's one called Why Men Don't Iron. [Peter laughs] And the best one that I found was one called If Men Could Talk
Peter: Good Lord. Gender essentialist cinematic universe. [Michael laughs] Just as off putting to me as the Marvel one, frankly.
Michael: So, okay, you did something very smart and useful in our episode about The Secret, where you walked me through the emotional experience of reading the book. This is what we're going to do for the entire episode. I'm just going to walk you through like, what I was thinking, what I was learning as I was going through this book roughly chronologically.
Michael: So, the full title of the book is Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationship.
Peter: Okay. Improving your communication and getting what you want seemed like two different things, but okay.
Michael: We're already finding some tensions. So, I read the-- I think it's like the 20th anniversary edition of this book. It starts with a preface by John Gray, where he lays out, like, what he was trying to do and the purpose of the book. He says, “The same issues that would frustrate me 23 years ago in my relationship with my wife Bonnie are the same issues that occasionally come up today. The difference today is that I'm more tolerant, accepting, and understanding. I can more correctly interpret her words and reactions and know better how to respond. This book helps us to be more tolerant and forgiving when someone doesn't respond the way we think he or she should. Fortunately, perfection is not a requirement for creating great relationships.”
Peter: Bonnie, reach out if you need help.
Michael: I think one of the challenges of covering these self-help books is oftentimes they start with a nugget of truth and wisdom. So, the idea that to be in a successful relationship, you have to understand where the other person is coming from. Seems totally fine to me. What he lays out in this preface is that basically this is just a guide and, like, a way of seeing the world that is going to help you more effectively communicate with your partner and really find out what they want in the relationship. This is about pleasing your partner and making sure that you're the kind of partner that they need. So, I'm reading through all this, and I'm like, "This actually kind of sounds okay."
Peter: Right. Well intended.
Michael: Right. It's a sort of gender essentialist thing that I really don't subscribe to, but also, I don't subscribe to the Myers-Briggs personality type indicators like, that's a way of looking at the world that seems to help people.
Peter: Yeah, sure.
Michael: We then get into the introduction to the book. We're in the text of the book now. He then gives us the story that inspired the book. So, I am going to send this to you. It's a little long. A lot of the excerpts are a little bit long in this episode because you can't believe what he's saying at many points, and no one would believe me if I paraphrased. So, we're going to have to let John tell the story.
Peter: All right. “A week after our daughter Lauren was born, my wife Bonnie and I were completely exhausted. Each night, Lauren kept waking us. Bonnie had a difficult delivery, and she was taking painkillers. She could barely walk. After five days of staying home to help, I went back to work. While I was away, she ran out of pain pills. Instead of calling me at the office, she asked one of my brothers who was visiting to purchase more. My brother, however, did not return with the pills. Consequently, she spent the whole day in pain taking care of a newborn. I had no idea that her day had been so awful. When I returned home, she was very upset. I misinterpreted the cause of her distress and thought she was blaming me. She said, 'I've been in pain all day. I ran out of pills. I've been stranded in bed, and nobody cares.'
“I said defensively, ‘Why didn't you call me?’ She said, ‘I asked your brother, but he forgot. What am I supposed to do? I can barely walk. I feel so deserted.' At this point, I exploded. My fuse was also very short that day. I was angry that she hadn't called me. I was furious that she was blaming me when I didn't even know she was in pain. After exchanging a few harsh words, I headed for the door. Then something happened that would change my life. Bonnie said, ‘Stop. Please don't leave. This is when I need you the most. I'm in pain. I haven't slept in days. Please listen to me.’ I stopped for a moment to listen. She said, ‘John Gray, you're a fair-weather friend. As long as I'm sweet, loving Bonnie you are here for me. But as soon as I'm not, you walk right out that door.’ Then she paused, and her eyes filled up with tears. As her tone shifted, she said, ‘Right now I'm in pain. I have nothing to give. This is when I need you the most. Please come over here and hold me.’ I walked over and silently held her. She wept in my arms. After a few minutes, she thanked me for not leaving. That day, for the first time, I didn't leave her. I stayed, and it felt great. I marveled at how easy it was for me to support her when I was shown the way.'”
Michael: [humming] Emotional triumphs.
Peter: This is a story about how he needed it explained to him [Michael laughs] that when five days after a difficult birth, his wife, begging for painkillers, was upset that he should hang around rather than just leave.
Michael: And blowing up at her for being upset. [laughs]
Peter: “It was then, as she was being held in my arms, that I thought, women are really from Venus.” [Michael laughs] Are you kidding me? What? First of all, this dude's brother sucks.
Peter: Meanwhile, John is at work five days after the birth and returns home, and she's upset. And he's like, “What, are you fucking blaming me?”
Michael: Also, he's a self-help guru at this time. He doesn't have, like, an office job. This isn't like his paternity leave. [laughs] He chose to go back to work.
Peter: "I was at the office writing drafts of my next [laughs] awful self-help book-
Peter: -while my wife suffered at home." [Michael laughs] Chapter Two, leaving your wife when she's at her most vulnerable. God.
Michael: It's also fascinating to me because this is a story where he basically is like, led begging and screaming to an epiphany.
Michael: This isn't like I realized that I had to be more emotionally mature. It's basically him being extremely immature and his wife being like, “Hey, I need you to fucking nut up and understand what I need right now.”
Peter: She literally explains it to him, like, “Yeah, when I'm in these situations is when I need you the most, and you always leave.” [Peter laughs] And he's like, “Huh.” It's not really a revelation. It's literally his wife being like, “Hey, here is the bare minimum of communication and support in a loving relationship.”
Michael: And then he's like, "I should write a book about this insight that my wife gave me."
Peter: He's like going to his guy friends the next day being like, “Have you ever supported the woman in your life? [Michael laughs] I had a crazy revelation last night."
Michael: "She shouted at me to see things from her perspective. And when I tried it, it was lit."
Peter: Just curious, when your wife's in physical and emotional agony, what do you guys do? Do you leave?
Michael: So, with the thudding lack of self-awareness that we will see throughout this book, he then describes how this epiphany is what led him eventually to write this book. He says, “How had I missed this? She just needed me to go over and hold her. Another woman would have instinctively known what Bonnie needed, but as a man, I didn't know that touching, holding, and listening were so important to her. By recognizing these differences, I began to learn a new way of relating to my wife. I never would have believed we could resolve conflict so easily.” So, this is it. He has the epiphany. And then he does some table setting where he basically establishes his credibility. So, you're reading this book and you're like, “Well, who is this guy," right?
Michael: So, he says after this epiphany with Bonnie, he spends the next seven years doing research to, “Help define and refine the insights about men and women that I've included in this book.” So, this leads him on a path of discovery. He mentions that he's a couple's counselor. The book is based on all the work that he did after his epiphany with Bonnie and the fact that he's counseled hundreds of relationships. The rest of his evidence is that he's given couples seminars to more than 25,000 participants. So, he's also drawing upon the insights that he's gained from those. As far as data, he says that 90% of the participants say that this sounds true to them.
Peter: Okay. [laughs]
Michael: And then-- [laughs] don't get ahead of ourselves. And then he gets to the thesis statement of the book. So, this is like the book in a nutshell. “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is a manual for loving relationships. It reveals how men and women differ in all areas of their lives. Not only do men and women communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment.”
Peter: [sighs] Okay, [Peter laughs] let's just get on with it.
Michael: So that's the intro. He's laid out the epiphany that started the book. He's laid out thesis for the book. At this point, I was still like, “Okay, some cracks are showing. But it seems his heart is in the right place. He wants to make relationships better for people." Ultimately, the epiphany that my wife needs support in these moments is like a true epiphany. It led him to the correct conclusion. I'm like, “Okay, maybe there's other clueless people that will find this guide useful for navigating cluelessly their relationships.”
Peter: Yeah, it's a very sloppy and maybe problematic way to approach empathy. But if it allows people who otherwise wouldn't to see the other perspective, then there's a utility there, right?
Michael: Exactly. So I'm like, “Okay, fine.” So, then we get to Chapter One of the book, which is called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The weirdest thing about this book is that, like, you and me, we look at the title of the book. It's obviously a metaphor. In the book, much of the “evidence” is, like, actual alien species.
Michael: Almost all of Chapter One is this extremely try hard metaphor of, like, the men were raised on Mars, and for thousands of years they lived on Mars, [Peter laughs] and then they look through their telescopes and they can see Venus, and then they're like, “Oh, the people on Venus, they're different from us and they need us. So, they travel to Venus.” And you're, like, "Still going on the Mars and Venus stuff, huh? We're on page 8, 9, 10, [Michael laughs] okay, Mars, still doing this.” And he's not really saying anything particularly insightful about it. But he's just really hammering home this metaphor.
Peter: This is the lore, the lore of men and women.
Michael: The lore. Exactly. And then, Earth is between Mars and Venus, so eventually they go to Earth and they're like, compromising, but then over time, they've forgotten that they're from Mars and Venus. You're like, "All right, we're on, like, page 25. It took you that fucking long to lead me," to like, "All right, my men and women are different. Fine." So, he then gets to finally Chapter Two, which is about men and women's communication styles.
Michael: And he lays out that the reason that men communicate is to deliver information. Men talk because they want to know things, and women communicate because they want to feel things. Women mostly communicate because they want to share emotions, build rapport, deliver support. This is at the heart of what he sees as the problem with a lot of modern relationships is that men and women simply have different objectives in their communication style. Don't react. We're going to do a little role play.
Peter: Okay, okay.
Michael: We're going to do a little role play. Okay, I'm going to send you a little script here. He's giving us a script for one of the main problems that men do when they have conversations with women is they go into, like, advice mode. He calls it “Mr. Fix-It.” So, you're going to be Tom. I'm going to be Mary.
Peter: All right.
Michael: Narrator voice “Mary comes home from an exhausting day. She wants and needs to share her feelings.” Okay, so I'm Mary.
Mary: “There's so much to do. I don't have any time for myself.”
Tom: “You should quit that job. You don't have to work so hard. Find something you like to do.”
Mary: “But I like my job. They just expect me to change everything at a moment's notice.”
Tom: “Don't listen to them. Just do what you can do.”
Mary: “I am. I can't believe I completely forgot to call my aunt today.”
Tom: “Don't worry about it. She'll understand.”
Mary: “You know what she's going through. She needs me.”
Tom: “You worry too much. That's why you're so unhappy.”
Mary: “I'm not always unhappy. Can't you just listen to me?”
Tom: “I am listening.”
Mary: “Why do I even bother?”
Tom: “I hate you, Mary.” [Michael laughs]
I added that last part, that I thought [crosstalk] that's what Tom would say.
Michael: So, you see the pattern here, right?
Michael: She is trying to emotionally bond. "I had a bad day." And then he's like, “Well, then you should quit.” Okay, it's a little annoying when somebody basically fast forwards to the part where they just, like, bark tedious advice at you.
Peter: I've heard this stereotype before that women will articulate their problems because they want to be supported, and men will cut to the solutions. I don't really view this as a particularly gendered thing, mostly because my wife would be Tom in this conversation. I'll be like, "I think this might be cancer." She'll be like, “Go to the doctor. Just go to the fucking doctor.” I'm like, “I don't want to go to the doctor. I want you to tell me that it's not cancer and that I'm being crazy.”
Michael: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] He also weirdly, like in the transition to the solutions script. He also says that women never offer solutions when someone's talking. He's like, “Your wife might be confused because she's never gotten advice from a woman before.” [Michael laughs]
Peter: Women just go to each other with their problems, and the other woman starts crying. And then they cry together and that's every conversation.
Michael: Exactly. It's the last scene of Mare of Easttown. Just one on their knees, just crumpling to the floor.
Peter: [laughs] Well, what a reference.
Michael: So, now we have to do the good script. Essentially, his only advice to men in this entire book is this, “Do not immediately go to Mr. Fix-It bullshit. When your wife is telling you about a problem, she needs emotional support. She needs you to reflect her emotions back to her. She doesn't want you to tinker with it and fix it.” So, this is the script of Tom and Mary again, but this is like, they fix their problems and this is how it's supposed to go.
Peter: This is good Tom.
Michael: This is good Tom. So get in a good Tom headspace.
Peter: All right.
Michael: So Mary comes home from work again. She says, “There's so much to do. I have no time for me.”
Tom: [takes deep breath and exhales] Hmm, sounds like you had a hard day.
Mary: “They expect me to change everything at a moment's notice. I don't know what to do. I even forgot to call my aunt.”
Tom: “Oh, no.”
Mary: “She needs me so much right now. I feel so bad.”
Tom: “You are such a loving person. Come here. Let me give you a hug.”
Michael: Tom gives Mary a hug and she relaxes in his arms with a big sigh of relief. She then says, “I love talking with you. You make me really happy. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better.”
Peter: Patronize your wife until she loves you. [laughs]
Michael: Patronize your wife. Just like, “Hmm," "Oh, no.”
Peter: To be clear, when I took a deep breath and relaxed on the exhale, that's because it says, “Tom takes a deep breath and relaxes on the exhale.”
Michael: Yeah, I removed some of the stage directions. It also said, like, “Tom furrows his brow and says, ‘Oh, no.’” [Michael laughs] So, you were supposed to be emoting with me, Peter.
Michael: So, again, it's like, this is not bad advice.
Peter: Right, and I get that.
Michael: Right. Just let people's feelings back to them. Listen closely. But it's amazing to me that he can't come up with any examples of this that are more than just going, “Hmm," "Oh, no.” Tom's not offering any insight. “Oh, it sounds like the same thing happened to you last week.” Or like, “Oh, your boss has been, like, such a frustration for you this month.” Something to indicate that he's actually invested in this problem.
Peter: Right. Do you want to talk more about it?
Michael: This is when I started to lose confidence in the book. It seemed okay at the beginning. I was willing to sort of give it a chance, but I don't know, this is, like, very specific or very helpful. Then we get to the section on women's communication styles. So, he says, “When a woman is stressed, she instinctively feels a need to talk about her feelings and all the possible problems that are associated with her feelings. When she begins talking, she does not prioritize the significance of any problem. If she's upset, then she's upset about it all big and small. To feel better, women talk about past problems, future problems, potential problems, even problems that have no solutions. The more talk and exploration, the better they feel. She's not immediately concerned with finding solutions to her problems, but rather seeks relief by expressing herself and being understood. By randomly talking about her problems, she becomes less upset. This is the way women operate. To expect otherwise is to deny a woman her sense of self.”
Peter: Women be talking.
Michael: Women be talking.
Peter: Women will feel stuff and then they're going to want to yap about quite a bit.
Michael: [laughs] This is another pattern that we see throughout the book where he's very clearly talking about his wife here.
Michael: Like he's saying something very specific. He's like, when women are upset, they just talk about fucking everything at once. Past, present, future. They can't distinguish. They bring up on, “Oh, my mom is sick and work was bad and the dog isn't home.” And you just have to let them talk and tire themselves out. It's like you're just talking about your wife who seems to have anxiety.
Michael: This is not remotely universal to women at all. I also know men that do this when they're stressed out.
Peter: Of course.
Michael: I do this when I'm stressed out.
Peter: Women will always say things like, “John, I hate you. [Peter laughs] John, you never listen. You're the worst husband on earth.”
Michael: So, then he gives, like, weirdly, specific advice about this. He says that “When you're telling a story to your husband, you should skip to the end first, because men get bored if they don't know where the story is going and you're building suspense, but men don't like it when you're building suspense.” That also just seems like something you want to tell your wife, but you're giving us advice.
Peter: I understand the desire to simplify complex things, right?
Peter: Everyone wants that quick solution. You want to be able to say, “Oh, my partner is doing that thing. What's the button I press to fix it?” But some things are just complicated, and you can't simplify them. It'll only dilute your understanding. I think relationships, gender dynamics, they fall into those categories. You can't treat your spouse's behavior like it's something your pet is doing.
Michael: A lot of his advice in this book sounds like dealing with a difficult coworker or something, where it's like, okay, you're forced into a situation with this person, you have to come up with a strategy for how to manage them. He has this advice throughout the book where he's like, "Try to remember things going on in your wife's life. Like, if she had a doctor's appointment, ask like, 'How did the doctor go?'”
Peter: You should not need to be told, "By the way, [chuckles] when your wife is ill and goes to the doctor, you're going to want to follow up." [Peter laughs] A lot of this stuff just comes across as like, “Do you like this person?”
Michael: But then, okay, then we get to the part that made me leave the book and go to google. So, his advice to women, after establishing all of their communication problems, they just talk about everything at once, is women oftentimes give criticism in a way that is accusatory. There's this fundamental mismatch where she thinks she's saying something innocent, but he sees it as an attack on him. So, he then lists-- the fucking list in this book, Peter, every list has 10 to 20 more items than you need to understand the concept. He then lists a bunch of phrases that women say and the way that men are interpreting them.
Michael: So, I'm not going to send you the whole list, for the love of God, but I'm going to send you three examples.
Peter: [laughs] [sighs] Okay. “What she says, ‘We never go out.’ What she means, ‘I like going out and doing something together. We always have such a fun time and I love being with you.’ A man may hear, ‘You are not doing your job. What a disappointment you have turned out to be.’ [Michael laughs] ‘We never do anything together anymore because you are lazy, unromantic and boring.’”
Michael: “We never go out.” That's what hears.
Peter: We'll circle back. [laughs] “What she says, ‘This house is always a mess.’ What she means, ‘Today I feel like relaxing, but the house is so messy. I am frustrated and I need a rest.’ A man may hear, ‘This house is a mess because of you. I do everything possible to clean it up and before I have finished, you have messed it up again. You are a lazy slob and I don't want to live with you unless you change, clean up or clear out.’”
Michael: House is a mess.
Peter: “What she says, ‘I want more romance.” What she means, “Sweetheart, you've been working so hard lately. Let's take some time out for ourselves. Would you surprise me with flower sometime soon and take me out on a date? I love being romanced.’ A man may hear, ‘You don't satisfy me anymore. I am not turned on to you. Your romantic skills are definitely inadequate. You have never really fulfilled me. I wish you were more like other men I have been with.’” [Peter laughs] Good Lord. John needs therapy more than anyone-
Michael: More than anyone.
Peter: -I have ever seen in my fucking life. [Michael laughs] Your wife's like, “I want a little more romance.” “Did your ex fuck you better? Is that what's happening?”
Michael: I was going to make exactly that same joke. "Oh, I don’t fuck you like Todd does, huh?" She's like, "What?"
Peter: Good Lord. But it's funny that there is something to this. Like when someone expresses a frustration, you don't want to take it too personally, right?
Peter: It's something you can work on together. She's going to say, “We don't go out that much.” You're going to hear that, “You're a fucking loser. You're the laziest piece of shit on earth.” But that's actually not what she's saying. It's like, no one who has a healthy relationship with themselves thinks that's what she's saying.
Michael: Dude, also keep in mind this entire thing is a list of advice to women.
Michael: This is not advice for men. Like maybe don't jump to deranged conclusions without understanding first what she means. "What do you mean, sweetie?"
Michael: That's not his advice. That's not the framework for this. The framework for this is women need to not say things that trigger all of these sub-deranged understandings in their husband. So, he ends this chapter by saying, “The answer is that she should definitely not offer criticism or advice unless he asks. Instead, she should try giving him loving acceptance. This is what he needs, not lectures. As he begins to feel her acceptance, he will begin to ask what she thinks.”
Peter: Oh, my God, just clean up a little bit, dude.
Michael: Have sex with your wife.
Peter: This hearkens back to the initial anecdote, where he returns to his bedridden wife in pain, lacking painkillers, who's upset, and immediately he is like, “Oh, so you're mad at me?”
Michael: This is what I was just about to say. Like, this totally recasts the opening anecdote.
Peter: Right. The idea that is her fault in some way [laughs] is just so obscene.
Michael: Okay, so the first phase of me reading this book was like, “Whatever, sure, I don't know, it's getting a little more iffy.” The second phase of reading this, I was like, "All right, who is this fucking guy?” So, then I started googling around to figure out who John Gray is. So, he's born in Houston in 1951. His dad is an oil man. His mom runs a bookstore.
Michael: When he's a teenager, he goes to a transcendental meditation seminar and gets really into transcendental meditation, yoga, all this kind of 60s woo-woo stuff that was bouncing around at the time. He ends up becoming essentially the executive assistant, or, like, the right-hand man of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guy who's linked to The Beatles at this time during their sitar phase.
Peter: Oh, okay. Yeah.
Michael: He's the guy who popularized transcendental meditation. He was, like, quite a famous figure at the time. John Gray essentially follows him around the world for the next nine years and becomes a big transcendental meditation guy. He says that during this period, he attained bachelor's and master's degrees in the science of creative intelligence at something called the Maharishi International University.
Peter: Oh, yeah. No, I've got degrees from there too.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. The Peter Loboy University. [Peter laughs] There's one in Switzerland that is not accredited. There's also one in Fairfield, Iowa, which is accredited, but people have reached out to the university and they don't appear to have any record of John Gray ever attending, so it's not clear that he ever got his bachelor or master's. He also has never been a licensed couple’s counselor. In the paperback edition of Men Are from Mars, he says that he's a member of the National Academy for Certified Therapists, which does not appear to exist. He also says that he's a member of the American Counseling Association, which offers memberships for $189 on their website, [Michael laughs] so anyone can be a member of that.
When he was done traveling around with this Yogi guy, he moved to San Francisco and started offering couples counseling. That part is true. However, there's a weird loophole, or at least there was at the time, in California law, where you don't need a license to practice couple’s counseling if you're a religious instructor. The idea is that priests can give couples counseling without necessarily getting licensed because it's under, like, a spiritual framework. So, because he's this kind of quasi-religious guru, he's able to give couples counseling advice, but it's not clear that it's, like, couple’s counseling. I think it's like meditation counseling.
He never is specific about what the nature of the counseling is and throughout the book one of the weirdest things about the book is he says he's been a couple’s counselor for seven years. There's maybe two or three examples of couples in this book. So, after three years of being this, like, yogi transcendental meditation guy, he links up with another self-help grifter named Barbara De Angelis, who offers relatively legit couples counseling or these kind of seminars for couples.
Michael: They're only married for three years, and I don't know what happened behind the scenes, but what we know is he basically rebrands. At the time he's this guy with a ponytail. He's a yoga meditation, woo-woo guy. After a couple of years with her kind of air of legitimacy, he rebrands himself as, Dr. John Gray. I don't know if it's at her suggestion or what, but he eventually gets a PhD from something called Columbia Pacific University, which is a distance only degree granting institution that was shut down by court order in the year 2000. [Peter laughs] Fully just like a grifter you. And I read some of the court documents. It basically seemed it was just a box ticking exercise. The authorities found that four of their PhD students had been granted PhDs after less than a year of study. [Peter laughs]
One person wrote their PhD on Spanish literature in Spanish, and it was judged by four instructors who didn't speak Spanish. [Michael laughs] Like, they got a good grade. You just basically buy a degree from this place. And when people have pushed back on him about this like, “Kind of seems like you have a fake PhD.” He then points them to the fact that he was granted an honorary degree from some university in Illinois after he gave a commencement speech. He's like, “Oh, that's why I'm allowed to put PhD on the titles of my book.” [Michael laughs] An honorary degree is not a degree. This university that gave him an honorary PhD doesn't even give PhDs. Like, you just don't have a PhD, dude.
Peter: I do want to point out, before we move on, you're saying that he used to be a little bit bohemian, but now he's bourgeois. [Michael laughs] What does that make him, Michael?
Michael: He's wearing a vest. He's going to bakeries. Also, what is fucking amazing to me, is this is not a secret. I found out most of this from a 1994 LA Times article, like, at the height of his fame. It's called something along the lines of “John Gray's Unconventional Path to the Bestseller List.” And it just lays out--
Peter: All the various frauds that he's committed.
Michael: Yeah, but does it in this way that it's like, that's weird.
Peter: Right. He says that he earned that money from business, but if you look at the records, he actually robbed it from a bank. Unconventional.
Michael: It doesn't reach the obvious conclusion to this, that he's doing this cynically. It's not like he thought it was a real PhD when he signed up and like, “Oh, no, it's not a real school.” He did this so that he could take on an error of legitimacy and give people advice and sell books to people.
Peter: The ways in which our culture coddles grifters.
Michael: It's amazing. Oh, my fucking God. We can debate how fair it is to blame somebody for what they did after their book was published, but it is notable that he has been a just nonstop grifter since his book hit the big time. So, in 1997, he sets up something called the Mars & Venus Counseling Center, where he allows people to be certified Mars and Venus counselors.
Michael: So, this is a guy without a license to practice who's now selling licenses to people. He's been selling dietary supplements through his website since fucking 2005. In 2019, he gets a cease-and-desist order from the FDA for making health claims like, "This can cure Alzheimer's," and shit.
Peter: Oh, God.
Michael: He did some extremely bleak autism grifting in the early 2000s where he said you could treat autism by taking 102 degree baths.
Michael: Not 101, not 103. They have to be 102 degrees and that will help your kids get over their autism. The only artifact of this in the book, like, as I was expecting this pseudoscience stuff to come up in the rest of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I don't really know if this is to his credits, but he doesn't really do any, like, the female brain pan shit.
Peter: Right. There's no biological analysis.
Michael: Yeah, he's not even really trying, which I'd rather have that than a bunch of pseudoscience. Fair enough. But in the book, he does say, “Some women who avoid dealing with negative emotions and resist the natural wave motion of their feelings experience premenstrual syndrome. [Michael laughs] There is a strong correlation between PMS and the inability to cope with negative feelings in a positive way. In some cases, women who have learned successfully to deal with their feelings have felt their PMS symptoms disappear.
Peter: How is this--? This is so sexist that it's turning me, a straight white male, into, like, a raging feminist college student.
Michael: You're burning a bra next to your laptop right now. [laughs]
Peter: Oh, my God. I was wondering how much of this book is just like, men are rational and women are emotional. Is that a big part of it?
Michael: This is the rest of the episode, Peter.
Michael: So, to get back to the book, so I'm only a third of the way through the book by this point, and I'm like, “Oh, this is just some random guy. It's not clear that he was ever really a couple's counselor.” He's been giving these fucking seminars, which I think are just full of the same grifty bullshit. Like, he's talking at people. He's not really getting experiences from people. He's not gathering data or anything. Essentially, the entire book is just like him working through his own shit. The only example he cites in the book over and over again is himself and Bonnie. So, like, roughly one third of the book is spent on this idea that men need to go to their caves. Like, women want to talk when they have a problem, men want to retreat from the world when they have a problem.
Michael: It's, like, four chapters in a row. He just talks about this concept of, like, "You can't ask a man not to disappear on you." He says at one point when he comes back from his cave and his wife is upset, he explains, “I needed some time alone. It was only for two days. What's the big deal?”
Peter: Oh, my God. [laughs] What the fuck? Two days?
Michael: Two days. He is 41 years old when this book is published. He has three kids.
Peter: I mean, I don't mean to state the obvious here, but perhaps the reason that your spouse is not retreating for days on end is not because they're a woman, but because they cannot.
Peter: I love the idea of him writing this book as, like, a defense against Bonnie.
Peter: He's carrying, like, a six pack into the room with the TV, and Bonnie is like, “John, please. We haven't talked in days.” And he's like, “Cave time. Sorry. Still in my cave.”
Michael: This book, the only interesting thing about it, because it's, like, thuddingly repetitive, is it ends up being this almost accidental biography of him. The tension that he's dealing with is that he obviously loves his wife, but he was a transcendental meditation yoga guy for nine years. Like, he needs solitude, and when he has problems, when he's challenged, he wants to run away from things and go meditate for two days or whatever. That's his conflict management style. And he says this in interviews. He doesn't say it in the book, but it's like, yeah, based on his background, he runs away as soon as he sees a problem, and he's terrified of having to actually remain in this relationship and actually address a conflict. He wants to run away, wait two days, come back, pretend like everything is normal.
Michael: But instead of realizing that he has these patterns that really aren't very healthy or adult, he comes up with a whole worldview of like, “No, no, no, this is how men are. I'm doing this because I'm a man. The problem with women is they're always telling men not to go to their caves."
Michael: Every single thing in this book is just like him dealing with his own shit, but not dealing with it or processing it. It's justifying it.
Peter: Right. Maybe I've got this wrong. I was conceiving of it as he's directing the book toward Bonnie as an excuse. Maybe the book stands between himself and a recognition that he could improve himself.
Michael: Right, right.
Peter: He retreats into, like, “I actually can't improve myself because this is just man's stuff. All men do this, and women have to understand.”
Michael: The other accidental biography thing in this is there's a bunch of weird, oblique references to parenting and upbringing. He says, “Men have not seen how a woman who feels hurt can suddenly change, feel better, and sustain a positive attitude. Generally, they have seen how a woman, probably their mother, who did not feel hurt, continued to dwell on her problems.” This is, like, 30 pages later. He says, “Had our past been different, we would have watched our father successfully and lovingly listen to our mother expand and express her frustrations and disappointments. We would have watched our mother trusting our father and sharing her feelings openly without disapproving or blaming him. We would have experienced how a person could be upset without pushing someone away with mistrust, emotional manipulation, avoidance, disapproval, condescension, or coldness. But it didn't happen that way for most of us. Instead, we spent 18 years learning unsuccessful communication skills.” John. John. [grunts]
Peter: I do wonder whether gender dynamics when he was growing up were so bad that this book is, like, a positive step, even if you can look back at it and think, like, “Wow, this is essentialist nonsense.” But at least the premise of, like, people have reasons for their different behaviors, and you should try to understand those. That in and of itself is progressive enough that it's a vast improvement upon what was there before. I don't know.
Michael: I think that's, like, the tension that he's struggling with in this book because I think he grew up just, like, hating his mom and being like, “My mom is this horrible shrew to my father.” And this has helped him understand what he perceives as his mother's behavior. He's like, “Oh, well, she did this because she's a woman. She didn't feel appreciated. He didn't feel needed.” He now has this entire framework around it.
Michael: But he's immediately turning it into advice. He's basically taking all of these lessons that his wife has taught him [laughs] and turning them into universal rules and then selling them back to people.
Peter: God. It's funny that this is a book that is essentially about at its core some level of self-awareness.
Peter: But this dude has fucking none.
Michael: None. Exactly. It's wild. The next sort of section, as I started thinking about the project that this book is engaged in, I started googling like "John Gray women."
Peter: Oh, yeah. Okay.
Michael: This is from a 2014 interview. “The reason why there's so much divorce is that feminism promotes independence in women. I'm very happy for women to find greater independence. But when you go too far in that direction, then who's at home?” I was like, “That's not great. What's the next tab I have open?” He gave an interview to an Australian newspaper because he was like, doing a book tour there or something, and they asked him about Julia Gillard, who was the prime minister at the time, and he does this whole thing that “She's too masculine, and the reason she's turning off voters is her masculinity.” I mean, obviously, he knows nothing about Australian politics, and neither do I, honestly. This is his theory for why this happened.
And then this is from the article. It says, “Dr. Gray also said the perception from the electorate that the PM was a liar would be hurting her chances." "Women are the best liars without a doubt. Every day they wake up and put on makeup. Women are hiding what's going on all the time. They're often hiding so much, they don't know what's real.”
Peter: Good Lord.
Michael: It’s like, of course.
Peter: Fucking you, lifelong fraud. [Michael laughs] This is, like, a trope that I've heard so many times that women are lying when they're putting on makeup, it's the most bizarre shit ever-
Michael: So weird.
Peter: -because A, you'd have to be a complete schmuck to look at a girl with heavy eyeshadow and be like, “Is that real?” But also, okay, like, “You don't do your hair?”
Michael: Suits are fake. It's all fake. Working out is fake.
Peter: It's so stupid. I can't process it as anything other than a manifestation of just, like, pure hatred for women.
Michael: And again, it's like, maybe it's unfair to judge this 1992 book from what he said in 2013, but it's like these ideas are everywhere in this book. He has this whole thing that men need to feel appreciated and women need to couch their requests and concerns in a way that acknowledges that he's doing his best. [Peter laughs] He has this whole thing about men need to go to their caves, and the following chapter is about how women's emotions come in waves. He gets to this point where he talks about the fundamental contradiction of what happens when a man wants to go to his cave and a woman needs support because she's at the bottom of her wave. A woman needs support when she's feeling bad.
In one of the other only specific examples in this book, he says, “There was nothing wrong with Harris's need to be alone, nor was there anything wrong with Kathy's hurt feelings. Instead of arguing, he could have told her something like this, ‘I understand you're upset, and right now I really need to watch TV and relax. When I feel better, we can talk.’ This would give him time to watch TV as well as an opportunity to cool off and prepare himself to listen to his partner's hurt without making her hurt feelings worse. In hearing this suggestion, Kathy said, ‘If he gets to be in his cave, then what about me? I give him space, but what do I get?’ What Kathy gets is the best her partner can give at the time, by not demanding that he listen to her when she wants to talk. She can avoid making the problem much worse by having a huge argument.'”
Peter: [laughs] A huge argument caused by him.
Michael: Caused by him.
Peter: Do not irritate the cave dwelling male.
Michael: The cave dwelling male.
Peter: What the fuck. I mean, the basic approach, like, the tips directed towards women are like, A, leave me alone, B, tell me I'm a good boy.
Peter: That's it. You're literally weighing her need for emotional support against your need to just completely disengage from her. [laughs]
Michael: And to fucking watch TV. He's not specific about what her problem is or what she's going through, but it's like, “Yeah, I had a really bad day, sweetie. Can we talk about it?” You're like, “I really need to watch TV, though.”
Peter: Yeah, come on.
Michael: He never deals with the fact that some of his advice is fundamentally incompatible. He never tries to form a compromise of, like, “Okay, listen to her for 15 minutes,” and then be like, “Sorry, I also had a long day, I really need to disengage.”
Peter: Is three days too much cave time? What about if her problems are severe? Someone in her life is terminally ill? Is the cave acceptable in that situation? I would like to see the outer boundaries of the cave.
Michael: And this is another super dark theme that goes throughout the book. He keeps complaining about women trying to change men.
Peter: Even though Bonnie has successfully done it many times, made it making him a much better person, even though he still sucks.
Michael: [laughs] She's basically trained this guy like a fucking seal.
Michael: So, he says, "The biggest problem in relationships occurs when a woman shares her upset feelings and as a result, a man feels unloved."
Peter: Yeah, yeah, that's the biggest problem in relationships for sure.
Michael: The biggest problem I know.
Peter: The biggest problem is that my wife is upset, and I do not like the way that she's expressing it. That’s it. [laughs]
Michael: He says, "The most frequently expressed complaint men have about women is that women are always trying to change them.” Later in the book, he has a list of mistakes women commonly make. One of them is, she tries to change or control his behavior by sharing her negative feelings. [It is okay to share feelings, but not when they attempt to manipulate or punish]"
Peter: Yeah. That's not something that you're inferring because you are in desperate need of therapy, John.
Peter: This is someone who has basically conceded that he takes the smallest comment as, like, an unbelievably aggressive critique.
Michael: What he's basically expressing here is like an age-old misogynistic belief.
Michael: First of all, the idea that somebody would ask you for some form of support and you would immediately leap to, “Oh, are you trying to change me?” It's like, “Well, yeah." Like, I would like you to behave differently, but casting every single one of those requests as some existential threat is just like a huge escalation. On this thing of, like, she's sharing her upset feelings to manipulate or punish you. Is this something that human beings do? Like, can't people use their emotions as a kind of hostage situation in relationships? Sure, fine.
Michael: To express this as something intrinsic to women and to express this as something that men should look out for, like, “Is she telling me she's sad because she's really sad or is she trying to change me?” That is just like rank, like black widow stereotypes appearing in the best-selling relationship advice book of all time. [laughs]
Peter: He's written in an entire book that's dedicated to protecting his ego. That's like, the whole book.
Michael: And this leads into the next section. The next phase of my engagement with this book, once I realized what the project of the book was like, is any of this correct? Like, is he on to anything?
Michael: Chapter Twelve of the book is called “How to ask for support and get it.” He says, “One of the main problems in relationships is that women often feel unsupported. One of the main reasons that they feel unsupported is they don't know how to ask for support.” He starts the chapter by saying, “She assumes that if her partner loves her, he will offer his support and she won't have to talk. She may even purposefully not ask as a test to see if he really loves her. To pass the test, she requires that he anticipate her needs and offer his unsolicited support. This approach to relationships with men doesn't work. Men are from Mars, and on Mars, if you want support, you simply have to ask for it. Eventually, she may ask for his support, but by this time she has given so much more and feels so much resentment that her request is really a demand. Men don't respond well to demands and resentment. Demands are a complete turn off. Her chances of getting his support are dramatically reduced when a request becomes a demand. In some cases, he will even give less for a while if he senses that she is demanding more.”
Peter: I like the implication that women do respond well to demands and resentment.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs] Well, the whole book is how to coddle his demands and resentment.
Michael: So, at least he's consistent.
Peter: The fact that he has not been adequately supportive is a given here.
Michael: Obviously. Remember when I said that his advice to men is, like, kind of weirdly generic. His advice to women is extremely specific. He says, one of the most common mistakes in asking for support is the use of could and can in place of would and will. “Could you empty the trash,” is merely a question gathering information. “Would you empty the trash,” is a request.
Michael: I was seeing this. I'm like, “This is like a weirdly, specific thing.” And then he spends pages delineating exactly what he means by the specific wording women have to use to get men to support them around the house. So, again, this book has a bunch of, like, extremely fillerish lists. He then includes 17 quotes from men describing why they hate it when their wife ask could or can.
Peter: [laughs] This is, like, the most research he did for the whole book.
Peter: What shit do you hate the most about your wife?
Michael: I am going to send you four of these quotes.
Peter: Oh, my God. All right. “When my wife says, ‘Can you change Christopher's diaper?’ I think, ‘Sure, I can change it. I'm capable, and a diaper is a simple thing to change.’ But then if I don't feel like doing it, I might make some excuse. Now, if she asked, ‘Would you change Christopher's diaper?’ I would say, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and do it. Inside I would feel like I like to participate, and I enjoy helping raise our children. I want to help.”
Michael: I want to help. Just not enough to respond when you say could rather than would. [crosstalk]
Peter: Yeah. I would like to pause because first this reminds me of, like, were you ever in elementary school and you'd ask a teacher, like, “Can I go to the bathroom?” They were like, “I don't know,-
Michael and Peter: -can you?”
Michael: Oh, God.
Peter: --it's like, "Shut the fuck up and let me pee while using colloquial speech, please." Also, I just I love this book where this premise, spoken or unspoken, is basically like, men are rational beings and women are touchy emotional freaks. It's also like, by the way, even the slightest shift in the way that you speak will cause me to lose my fucking mind and question my entire role in the relationship. [Peter laughs] Okay, next one. [laughs]
Michael: Next one.
Peter: “Just this last week my wife asked me, 'Could you plant the flowers today?’ And without hesitation I said, 'Yes.' When she came home, she asked, ‘Did you plant the flowers?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Could you do it tomorrow?’ And again, without hesitation, I said, ‘Yes.’ This happened every day this week, and the flowers are still not planted. [Michael laughs] I think if she had asked me, ‘Would you plant the flowers tomorrow?’ I would have thought about it and if I had said yes, I would have done it.'”
Michael: If only she had asked differently.
Peter: Are you fucking kidding me?
Michael: I wouldn't have behaved like a lazy piece of shit and agreeing to do something for my wife. I'd just not do it.
Peter: It's actually her fault that I didn't plant the fucking flowers, when you think about it.
Michael: Normal adult stuff.
Peter: “When I say, ‘Yes, I could do that.' I am not committing myself to doing it. I'm just saying that I could do it. I have not promised to do it. If she gets upset with me, I feel like she doesn't have a right. If I say I will do it, then I can understand why she is upset if I don't do it.”
Michael: Shouldn't ask could.
Peter: “Hey, could you take Katie to her recital.” “Yeah, I could.”
Michael: “I have the ability to do that. I have car keys.”
Peter: Is that what you think your wife was asking you? You fucking piece of shit.
Michael: You know how human conversations often consist of just walking up to people and asking them about their abilities? I'm like, “Peter, can you swim?” And you go, “Yes.” I'm like, “Thank you for that information.” Okay.
Peter: [laughs] God damn it. All right, this is—
Michael: Last one, last one.
Peter: “When I hear a ‘could you,’ I'll immediately say yes. Over the next ten minutes, I will realize why I'm not going to do it and then ignore the question. But when I hear a ‘will you,’ a part of me comes up saying, ‘Yes, I want to be of service.’ And then even if objections come up later in my mind, I will still fulfill her request, because I have given my word."
Michael: Keep in mind, these are all being marshaled as advice to women.
Peter: These are the worst people on earth. My wife is asking me for a simple favor, and I am just going to be unbelievably obnoxious and pedantic about the specific ways in which she asks me, just plant the fucking flowers, take out the trash. Like, my God. By the way, I totally empathize with procrastination on this shit. That's not it. But you can't rationalize it away as like, “She didn't ask me right. She didn't treat me like a special boy.”
Michael: Be an adult. Be like, "I agreed to it, but then I got tired, and I didn't do it."
Peter: I want to do it, and I know that I should, and it would better for everyone, but I'm lazy. I can't manage my priorities, blah, blah, blah. That's how it is.
Michael: This section of this book is so bad that there's an entire academic article about it.
Peter: Hell, yeah.
Michael: For this, I read a book called The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron, which was really interesting, and she describes what's going on here as tactical misunderstanding. The basic premise is that much of what we convey in our speech is not in the literal meaning of the words. A lot of it comes from the context in which it's being said. The example that she uses in her article is, when she was growing up, mom would set the table, and they'd sit down to eat, and then dad would go, “Do we have any ketchup?” Obviously, what he means by that is, “I would like some ketchup.” So, mom gets up, she goes to the kitchen, grabs the ketchup, comes back to the table, gives him the ketchup. But she noticed that when she the child said, “Do we have any ketchup?” Her mom would say, “Oh, yeah, it's in the middle cupboard,” basically implying she has to go and get the ketchup and bring it to the table.
That is an example of tactical misunderstanding. Her mom is basically pretending not to understand what the meaning of the words are. She's pretending to take it literally because in the hierarchy of the family, the mom considers the father to be sort of higher than her on the hierarchy and she is willing to serve him, whereas a kid is lower than her on the hierarchy. She's going to pretend like, “Oh, I guess you were just curious about whether or not we have any ketchup.” This is something that we all do all the time. We all speak in ways that are not congruent with the literal meaning of our words, and we all deliberately decide how to interpret other people's speech depending on what we feel like or what our place in the hierarchy is.
Michael: So, when men are doing this, they are very deliberately misinterpreting these phrases.
Peter: That one guy literally fantasized about a world where she had used the word would instead of could and was like, "I think I would have-- [crosstalk]
Michael: I definitely would have done it. Absolutely would have done it. I actually did a decent amount of reading on the actual differences between men and women in communication styles. This thing about tactical misunderstanding is a really good example of the ways that what we think of as men and women and how they're different are actually reflections of existing hierarchies. People higher than you on the ladder are able they have the ability to be like, “Oh, I don't know what you mean by that,” and sort of make you the subordinate person, spell out your request. It's basically this way that people in power treat every request by their subordinates as if they're asking for a favor.
Peter: [laughs] Right.
Michael: They're basically casting themselves in their own marriages in this role of like, "Any support that I give, she has to direct me, and if I acquiesce to her request, it's basically me doing something nice for her. So, I want to be thanked for it. I want to be asked in this perfect way. It's something extra that I'm doing." So, this entire interaction is 100% about reestablishing a hierarchy of the home in which men are able to be delegated to, but women are fundamentally the project managers and they have to ask for any aspect of support that they need under every circumstance.
Peter: It's hard not to look at these quotes from these guys and see that they're rationalizing something that they don't quite understand. They don't have a good explanation for why they don't do things when they're asked. But here's John Gray coming around with this framing of like, “What about this would versus could thing?” And they're like, “Yes, that's it.” Because they can't confront the sort of reality that they are in fact treating their wives as if they were subordinate or at the very least, just being fucking lazy.
Michael: All of this reminds me of a fight that a friend of mine had with her husband where she asked him to empty the dishwasher. He was like, “Oh, why are you always nagging me about this?” His kind of pitch to her was, “I want to empty the dishwasher as like an act of love to you. I want to do it because I want to do it, and it's something kind, and when you ask me to do it takes away the kindness and generosity, and it just feels like I'm kind of ticking a box and I don't get to feel like a husband who's doing his duties. You're robbing me of this emotional satisfaction that I get from emptying the dishwasher.” And her response to this was like, “Okay, great, but you feel like emptying the dishwasher two or three times a month, and it needs to be emptied 20 or 30 times a month. I get that you want to be doing this because it satisfies you. I would also like that. But the dishwasher needs to get emptied.”
Peter: The point of emptying the dishwasher is not to serve your emotional needs. It's to refill the dishwasher. I do understand that when someone's telling you to do something, it's not emotionally fulfilling to do it. I get it. There's a shelf that I have been meant to put up for about a year and a half.
Michael: Oh, Peter.
Peter: Well, I don't think it would look that good. My wife disagrees.
Peter: But I totally understand that, like push and pull, where it's like, if you're going to do it, you would want to be doing it on your own terms. On the other hand, it's like the reason that it needs to be done is not so that you can feel better. The reason that it needs to be done is because it needs to be done, right?
Peter: Except in the case of the shelf, [Peter laughs] which I really don't think needs to be put up.
Michael: [laughs] I'm glad we've reached the part of the book where you're recognizing yourself. You're like, "Well, if she had said, 'would you put up the shelf?'” [laughs]
Peter: Some people retreat to a TV cave. My cave is just not putting up the shelf. [Michael laughs] And I've been there for a year and a half.
Michael: So, I mean, to get into some of the actual literature on gender differences, most of the studies on gender differences in communication, it seems like they do find differences. Like on the question of do women talk more than men? It seems like in the meta-analysis that women do talk slightly more than men, but these things are very situational. In The Myth of Mars and Venus book, she says, “One study of heterosexual couples talk carried out by the sociologist Pamela Fishman found that women asked men far more questions. Questions are often used as opening moves in a conversation rather than being straightforward requests for information. Questions like, ‘How was your day or who was at the party?’ are invitations to talk about a certain topic. One reason why the women in Fishman's study asked so many questions was that their partners often passed on several proposed topics."
"By not responding or responding very minimally, men signaled that the women should propose another line of questioning they were interested in discussing. Once women had offered them a topic they were interested in, they often did most of the talking. But they did not regard it as their responsibility to initiate conversation or find something to talk about. They left it to their female partner to do what Fishman called interactional shitwork." Even on what seems like a simple question of, like, "Do men talk more than women?" It's like, well, in these studies, they're finding that men and women talk roughly the same, but women talk more in a way of, like, fishing around for topics. Once they find a topic, he then does more of the talking. This kind of shows up in all of the studies on this, is that oftentimes you do find differences, but once you drill into the differences, it's like, “Oh, it's actually really situational.”
Peter: Yeah, that's really interesting. I guess I never thought that, like, women talk more.
Michael: Me neither, actually.
Peter: Maybe that's because I like to talk.
Peter: The idea that it's a female thing would not compute in my brain.
Michael: Do you just use the phrase, “Excuse me, a man is talking," and they talk a lot less.
Peter: “I'm mansplaining here. I'm in my talking cave. Please be quiet.”
Michael: [laughs] There's also something called the gender similarities hypothesis.
Michael: One of the researchers on this says a much better way to think about gender differences is that men are from North Dakota and women are from South Dakota. Are there differences if you really look for them? Sure. But there's actually much more similarities if you look for them. One of the examples that she uses is there is actually data that shows that men are less likely to share personal details in their friendships.
Peter: That I believe. Yeah.
Michael: But when you actually look at the specifics, most men reveal personal information about themselves to their friends, and most women reveal personal information about themselves to their friends. But the minority who don't reveal personal information is, like, slightly larger among men than among women. Okay. There's a gender difference there on average. But the most accurate way to talk about that is that most people reveal personal information to their close friends.
Peter: That's interesting too. There's a couple of levels to this because you can identify all sorts of differences potentially between men and women. But then the next level question is immediately, “Well, is that just socialization?”
Peter: Right. There was a study a few years ago that I'm probably going to misremember a bit, but that tried to map male and female brains. This was a big deal at the time because they found that there were some average differences, the size of certain features in the brain, but there were no truly definitive distinctions, no singular feature you could point to and be like, “That's a male brain.” And because there's just too much variation in both cases, and even that whether or not certain types of brain activity might be influenced by socialization is sort of up in the air. I would think that a huge chunk of any differences we're seeing are socialized.
Michael: Well, reading all this stuff, I actually sort of concluded that, like, I'm not actually married to the idea that there's no differences between men and women.
Michael: And I'm not married to the idea that there are differences between men and women. Essentially every domain, there are more differences within men and women than there are between them. In this great meta-analysis, they found that almost all the studies of gender differences find less than a 10% difference.
Michael: Most of them find less than 5% differences.
Michael: And people are not only their genders. If you have a person in front of you and you're trying to figure out how talkative they're going to be, it would be really reductive to be like, “Well, you're a woman, so you're going to talk more.” Because there's no such thing as, like, a woman. It it's also a Protestant, a middle class, a raised in the south, a college educated. There's all these other traits that also theoretically would make somebody more or less talkative.
Michael: And so at a certain point, rather than doing this eight dimensional calculation of, like, “Okay, she's white, so she's going to talk more, but she's a woman, she's going to talk less.” Like, you can just treat people as individuals, and in10 minutes of a conversation, you can be like, “Oh, this person's more talkative than average.”
Michael: At the end of the day, you're still going to have to treat people as individuals and move forward on that basis anyway. I think it's great to study this stuff. I think it's really interesting. But ultimately, it's really not that useful.
Peter: Even if you drill down to the biological level and you're looking at the brains, you can say, okay, there are median differences between male and female brains, but there are also areas where they overlap such that you can hold two beliefs at once. One, there are median differences. Two, gender exists on a spectrum, trans people are real, etc.
Peter: You don't need to hold on to this binary of there are differences between men and women or there are none, it's all fake. But at the same time, it feels unnecessary, where it's just like, just try to be nice, treat people like people.
Michael: I mean, this kind of gets us to the last section of the episode. I mean, there's more of the book to talk about. He has, like, a whole kind of advice, really bad advice, toward the end of the book.
Peter: I can read it on my own while I'm just sweating out my autism in my hot bath.
Michael: [laughs] We could easily dunk on this stuff. He says, “You should organize your relationship as, like, a point system.”
Peter: Yeah, that's healthy, for sure.
Michael: Whatever, qualitatively, it's like, okay, we all hold other people in esteem. This doesn't have to be that bad. And then he actually lists the actions and how many points to award.
Peter: Oh, hell yeah.
Michael: It's like, "Okay, fuck this guy." I mean, I was deep in, like, fuck this guy territory by the time I got to that part.
Peter: How many points do you lose for disappearing for two days on your wife and children?
Michael: [laughs] Well, it depends on how she asks. But then to get into the sort of legacy and the aftermath and the impact of this book, it comes as part of this huge wave of men and women are different bestsellers that we had throughout the 1990s. Almost every single author of every one of those books talked about it as, like, forbidden knowledge. John Gray in interviews, he said, "Oh, you couldn't even talk about men and women being different at that time. And then I came out and said this controversial thing." He describes this, and the other authors describe this as basically a reaction to the excesses of feminism, because the feminist movement says that men and women are identical in every single way. What we're doing is we're reclaiming the idea that men and women are actually different. And no one says this.
Peter: First as tragedy, then as farce, except the farce, I guess, then repeats for 30 more years at the very least.
Michael: This is like the bench apparel thing of being like, “Oh, men are taller. You can't even say that anymore.” No one was saying this in the first place. It is interesting to me that this book finds popularity in 1993, which is after what is perceived to be the year of the woman. There's an infamous time cover because in late 1991, we had the Clarence Thomas hearings in Anita Hill. And in the 1988 and 1992 elections, we had unprecedented numbers of women elected to Congress. In the early 90s, there was this huge spike in the visibility of gender equality as an issue. This book, and I think a lot of these other books, are part of a backlash to that.
Peter: Reactionary talking points repeat themselves over time, and when you look back, it always looks a little more absurd. The idea that in the early 1990s, you couldn't talk about the differences between men and women. Are you fucking kidding me?
Michael: Finally, we're talking about it, finally.
Peter: It's like, no, what actually happened was that it's been, like,10 minutes since someone mentioned that maybe we're talking about the differences between men and women the wrong way, and you're freaking out.
Michael: This is a podcast about the most harmful books of the last 50 years, and the harm of this book is very difficult to track, because what it's basically doing is it's repackaging this idea that has been floating around the culture and many cultures for hundreds of years as some sort of forbidden knowledge. And it's packaging it in a way that is very digestible.
Peter: I think it's, like, easy to look at the book in and of itself as trivial, like giving tips to middle aged dorks who don't know why their spouse is grumpy. But it is part of this architecture of gender essentialism. Once you believe that there are these very clean and specific delineations between male and female behavior, it becomes harder to accept that gender exists on a spectrum that it's largely performative and not see that not too far downstream from that is like, trans people aren't real.
Michael: Also, as soon as you start thinking about this stuff, it immediately motivates you to argue that we should go back to a time when there were clearer roles for men and women, because if men and women are fundamentally different, it's like, "Well, then she should be in the kitchen, and he should be worried working." It immediately takes you to another thing we see in health grifting all the time, which is like, we used to be this great traditional society, and we've fallen from that. We have too much blurred lines between men and women and all this stuff.
Peter: Right. The irony being that this book is a great example of how miserable everyone was in that place.
Peter: This is his story of not even being able to comprehend the basics of human communication with his wife. But here he is, 25, 30 years later, reminiscing about that time as if it were better and simpler, etc. I mean, it feels like he constructed an entire metaphor about alien races from different planets, instead of just taking a single sociology class.
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