Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Female Friendships

A psychologist’s reply to some feminist boasts

Feminists quite routinely hold their friendship structure up as an example to men. They say that females have supportive friendship networks that men lack and that they are emotionally stronger for it. They see men as incapable of the intimate friendships that women have and see this as a weakness that explains many of the problems that men have. They say how much they value their friends, how often they talk to their friends and relate how helpful friends have been to them in times of crisis.

This is in fact, however, only one side of the story and overlooks both the different evolutionary role of men and the full reality of female friendships. In her book Lip Service, American feminist author Kate Fillion notes part of the downside in female friendships: The difficulty women have in being honest with one another. If a woman’s friend is wearing a ghastly dress or hairstyle that does not suit her at all, it is almost impossible for her friends to tell her that. The nearest the friend can go is to say something like: “You’re looking well today”. The friend is supposed to note that she and not the dress was complimented and draw the conclusion that the dress is awful. As nobody wants to receive or believe negative messages about themselves, however, the import of such extremely indirect criticisms is often missed and woman carry on gaily looking awful when honesty might have helped them. So emotional support is given but realistic help is withheld. Men, by contrast, are much more used to giving and receiving criticism and have nothing like these severe barriers against it.

Another problem with female friendships that seems often to be conveniently overlooked is that female “friends” can often be extremely bitchy. If one female seems to be getting ahead of the pack in any way, that female will tend to be put down. If, for instance, she is a sexually attractive older woman who dresses in a way that shows her attractiveness, she will be told that, “You don’t want people to say that you are mutton dressed up as lamb, Dear”, in an endeavour to get her to dress in a more dowdy way. Great stuff! Really helpful!

It also takes a woman to really rip a woman to shreds. When I read in a newspaper an article about some woman that really tears her into small and odious pieces, I know what I will find if I look at the byline: It will be written by another woman.

The bitchy and trivial-minded nature of female friendships seems to be the major reason why there is in fact a considerable minority of women who have little in the way of female friendships and prefer the company of men. Attractive women, in particular, often remark that they prefer the company of men as they get much more ready acceptance there and much less trivial conversation.

There are however undoubted differences between men and women in their emotional makeup. Men do have their “mates” (Australia) or “buddies” (USA) and these friends do help in emotional crises. They do so differently, however. They do not try to help by listening for hours to a repetitive outpouring of problems, for instance. Women seem to believe that repetition has almost magical powers but men are much less enamoured of it. If a man is “having troubles with his Missus”, his mates will, for instance, “take him fishing to get his mind off it”. Men are interested in solutions to their problems. They seldom find it helpful just to talk about their problems.

This appears to be connected with differences in the male and female brains. Recent work in brain physiology suggests that (as would be expected on evolutionary grounds) a much larger proportion of the female brain is devoted to emotional processing. Male emotional processing, on the other hand, tends to be connected to “fight or flight” brain centres. So emotional problems will first be worked on in a practical way by men but if that is not successful, the problem will be dealt with by the man “leaving the field” (either physically or emotionally) rather than by worrying further. So males and females find different things emotionally helpful but that is about all you can say about it. Claiming that the female way is better is simply dogmatic.

It does seem true, however, that many men do have few or no close male friends in later life. This is due to the different sex-role specializations that men and women have. Women are the socio-emotional specialists (specialists in emotional relationship maintenance) as part of their biological role as mothers and men are much more task-oriented as part of their biological role as providers and protectors. In later life, these roles are well set for men because they have by then committed much of their life to their generally competitive role as breadwinners. In an endeavour to provide for their families they have developed the competitive side of their nature and neglected their emotional relationships—in the expectation that the woman in their life will look after that side of things. This is a perfectly normal example of specialization of roles—and it is role specialization that is mankind’s great trick, a trick that is a large part of the advantage mankind has over the other animals. At times of marriage breakups, then, it is little wonder that many men in later life suffer much more emotionally than women do. The specialization of women tends to leave them with friends whereas the specialization of men does not.

Even there, however, while men may have greater emotional difficulty from breakups in the short term, it seems to me that it is women who have the long-term problems. A breakup does not usually cause men to “leave the field” where it very often does for women —particularly if the breakup occurs while the woman is in her 40s. Men tend to keep trying to form a new relationship after a breakup (even with a Filipina if nobody else is available) whereas women quite commonly give up on men entirely after a divorce. They are in fact often severely damaged emotionally by a relationship breakdown of any sort and react by tending to avoid future relationships. They may eventually come out of their withdrawal but only after years alone. They let one bad experience put them off life, in effect. They are often seem to be so fragile emotionally that they cannot stand just one disappointment. After one man is “bad” to them they overgeneralize frantically about the desirability of all men and say to themselves and to others: “That’s it! I’m off men for good. Never again. Men are just no good.” Not all women react that way but very many do.

The poor dears! Cutting themselves off from love just because of one or two bad men! It seems like weak character to me. How foolish to let just one bad man put you off life, love and relationships! If that is not letting the bad guys win, I do not know what would be. I suppose all I can say in extenuation of such folly is that perhaps such women have never had a good relationship and therefore do not know what they are missing.

There are of course plenty of red-blooded women who are going out with men again within weeks of a big disappointment (I have known some of them) but I have also met lots of women who have had an unhappy divorce and then deliberately avoided relationships for ten years or more —mostly during their 40s. How do I know that? Because they tell me. Why do they tell me? Because eventually (particularly around the 50 years of age mark) they do tend to change their tune and seek out relationships again—when the prospect of a lonely old age is looming before them. How foolish can you get? Fancy missing out on the joy of a loving relationship for a significant fraction of one’s life. That sounds a quite disastrous and irremediable loss to me.

So the idea that women withstand later-life relationship breakups better than men do seems to me to be only very partly true. In the long-term most women (particularly women after 40) seem to deal with relationship breakups very badly and maladaptively. Men after 40 may be more distressed initially by breakups but divorced or separated women in their 40s tend to have attitudes which lose them a lot more when looked at over their life-spans. They would therefore benefit themselves greatly by being less supercilious and more generous in spirit to the men about them. I was once at a party for single over-40s when a very attractive woman I know said to me, “Where are all the men?”. I pointed out that there were roughly as many men as women at the party. She replied: “No, not THOSE men!”. Since she went home with me, however, I couldn’t really accuse her of being too fussy.

Monday, June 27, 2005

A spot of ethnography: The Parsees

I have had quite a bit of contact with Parsees in my personal life and think highly of them. In part for that reason I have done survey research among them both in Australia and in India -- research that did get into the academic journals. (See here and here). So I thought I should perhaps give a bit of background about them

Sometimes called “the Jews of India” (though India does have a few real Jews) the Parsees are descendants of Zoroastrian true-believers who fled the Persian empire at the time of its conquest by Muslims about a thousand years ago.  They took refuge in what is now the Indian State of Gujurat and have Gujurati as their native language to this day.  Perhaps because of their typically Iranian energy or their very un-fatalistic religion, they have prospered mightily in India.  They founded India’s steel, nuclear, computer and airline industries and one of their sons (Rajiv Gandhi) even became Prime Minister of India for some time while another (Sam Manekshaw) headed the Indian Army.  Other distinguished Parsees could be mentioned.  Two even sat in the House of Commons as representatives of British constituencies many years ago.  Such achievements for a population of only 90,000 people out of 900 million Indians are truly staggering.  It certainly shows what a small minority can do both to maintain itself and lead the larger society.

So in spite of India’s generally abject poverty the Parsee living standard has long been more or less at a Western level.  Their over-representation among the upper strata of Indian society makes any eminence that Western Jews have achieved seem puny by comparison.  If “jealousy” is the reason behind the persecution of Jews, the Parsees should be the most persecuted minority on earth.  Yet amid the seething hot-bed of religious, racial, caste and communal hatreds that is India, the Parsees have remained unscathed.  They are, in fact, somewhat popular.  How do they do it?

The answer is rather simple.  The Parsees have always been grateful to the host community that gave them safe refuge from the Muslims. Instead of regarding their hosts with fear and reserve, they actually tend to appreciate their hosts.  They certainly make great efforts not to offend their hosts (e.g. they tend to avoid eating beef and pork not because Zoroastrianism forbids it but because one offends Hindus and the other Muslims).  This has beneficial results at many levels, not the least of which is the interpersonal level.  The level that is most visible, however, is the ultimate level when Parsees are deciding what to do with the fortunes that many of them accumulate.  Such fortunes are almost always used for charitable ends.  Parsee charitable foundations are in fact legendary.  Such foundations usually have as their first duty the succour of any needy Parsees but as the Parsee community is very small Indians generally are also major beneficiaries.  The Parsees, in other words, not only say “thank you” but say it very nicely and very convincingly.  There is nothing in Zoroastrianism that tells them that they are “chosen” in any way.  They are quite endogamous (though a lot are pretty brown so past intermarriage has been considerable) but this is normal and understood in India.  In fact, their endogamy seems Indian rather than Zoroastrian.  Zoroastrianism teaches that the help of all men is needed in the fight against evil.

So the Parsees show pretty plainly that a prosperous and dominant minority can have both earned their position fairly and have done no harm in doing so.

A fuller ethnography of the Parsees than the few notes given above is to be found in Kulke, E. (1978) The Parsees in India: A minority as agent of social change New Delhi: Vikas.  There is an oldfashioned but informative article about them here and there is more than you will ever want to know about them here

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A quiet night out

All those who grumble about how multi-ethnic their environment has become could do worse than emigrate to Australia—Brisbane in particular. Last night I dined at what the English would call a working man’s club—the Yeronga RSL (the RSL is our veteran’s organization). I go there often because they have a brilliant Dutch chef who does magic to everything he touches.

The dining room is large and was pretty full—as befits the talents of the chef. And all the people there were conservatively-dressed, quietly spoken in English, mostly older and pink-skinned. There was one very stylishly dressed Chinese girl there but she was apparently the girlfriend of a certain young blonde-haired male diner.

And I was there with Judy—who has an ethnic and cultural background virtually identical to mine. So I was able to speak broad Australian with her—which is a relief after all the standard English I write on blogs. I was able to say things like: “I’ll give it a burl” (translation: “I will try it”) and be instantly understood. So if you want to dine on first-class food in a pleasant modern ambience among other diners who will not bother you for a moment, I recommend the Yeronga RSL! I guess the environment was not as Anglo-Saxon as England in 1065 but it would not be far off.

My other regular dining spot is overwhelmingly Chinese and that is a delight too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A shared culture

Culture is an amazing thing. And it’s particularly amazing in Australia. Judy and I grew up roughly 2000 miles apart (Melbourne versus Cairns) and yet it was as if we grew up in the same town. We speak the same slang and have very similar recollections of our early years. The hymns she learnt and still loves from her Methodist church past overlap mightliy with the ones I love from my Presbyterian background. We are both total unbelievers now but it is still a great pleasure to reminisce by singing the old doxologies and hymns.

And I hope I share that delight with Protestants everywhere: Bunyan’s marvellous Pilgrim hymn (“Who would true valour see, let him come hither”); the great seaman’s hymn set to Sibelius’s “Finlandia: (“Eternal Father strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave”); Blake’s incomparable British Israel hymn “Jerusalem” (Did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green.. “); Rock of Ages, Be still my soul, and much more.

I hope everybody reading this knows what I am talking about. Anybody who has missed that great communion with our emotional past has been robbed of a mighty heritage.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

What we were

There are two stories (both true) that I like and sometimes tell:-

The first is from the autobiography of Robert Muldoon, National Party Prime Minister of New Zealand for many years. I liked Muldoon’s feisty character, which is why I bought his book. His policies were just Tory socialism, however. Anyway, there was a time during his Prime Ministership when Maori radicals were particularly unhappy with him (though many Maori gang members loved him) and there had been bomb threats made against him. So a police guard was mounted on Vogel House, where N.Z. Prime Ministers live. This being New Zealand, however, the police knocked off at 7pm and went home! So about 10 pm one night there was a knock on the door at Vogel house and there was nobody there to answer it but Muldoon and his family. So what did our Rob do? He answered the door personally! When he did so he found three big Maoris standing there. Were they there to assault him? What did they say? They said: “Rob, we saw your light on so we just dropped in to wish you goodnight.” They then all shook hands amid smiles all round and went off waving goodbye.

That story still makes me misty-eyed. It does show something of Muldoon’s guts but to me it mainly makes me mourn for the civil society we might have had and which New Zealand perhaps once was.

Another story in a similar vein is about England just after World War II. A Central European refugee had been given asylum in Britain but was in a category where he had to have some sort of residence permit which needed renewing from time to time. There came a time, however, when he inadvertently let his permit run out. So he got a visit from the local Bobby (policeman) early one morning. This of course struck terror into him. Under both the Nazi and Communist regimes he had known, having your papers out of order led to immediate jailing at the least. So a policeman was terminally dangerous. The conversation went something like:

BOBBY: “Mr X, I have come around because your permit to stay in Britain has expired.”

MR X: “I beg of you to forgive me. It must have slipped my mind.”

BOBBY: “That’s all right. I have to come by here on my way home tonight so give me your old permit and I will drop you in a new one on my way past tonight”. As the Bobby rode off on his bicycle, funny helmet and all, Mr X still could not believe his senses.

That story makes me misty-eyed too. How much we have lost! I doubt that such a thing would happen in modern-day Britain. In modern-day Britain (and Australia) we have “welfare” workers raiding homes to seize children from their parents on the basis of mere speculation. Truly abusive parents, however, are routinely allowed to keep control of their children. “Social Worker” and “Gestapo” seem to mean much the same thing nowadays. Evil, of course, normally needs to drape itself in the cloak of good intentions. Wise people judge the intentions by the behaviour, however: “Deeds, not words”. The desiccated old bags (mostly unmarried) who generally seem to run government Social Work activities one way or another are just arrogant and self-righteous Leftist busybodies who hate normal families. The young social workers who are their front-line troops are generally harmless enough, however. I have happy memories of two of them.

A final story that also tends to brings on the mistiness is one John Howard told in his victory speech in the 1996 Australian Federal Election. Howard said that like everyone else that day he had had to line up in order to cast his vote. (Casting a vote in Australia at the time did often require some patience. A 20 minute wait was not unknown, which is a lot by Australian standards). He found himself standing in a line behind a man whom he saw holding a Labor Party “How-to-Vote” card. The man turned around, saw the future Prime Minister standing behind him and said, “Hello. Nice to meet you. But I am still not going to vote for you”. John Howard then said on national TV that that incident typified for him what Australia is all about. I have to agree. In how many other countries would a future Prime Minister find himself in that humble and humbled position AND BE GLAD OF IT? It also showed John Howard as a sensitive and thinking man in being appreciative of the civil and yet “no nonsense” society we have here in Australia. He deserves his victories.

Sunday, June 5, 2005

“Society”, social climbing and the individual

I am in a reflective mood today so, being a psychologist, I thought the following brief reflection might be of interest:

Social climbing is widely condemned but quite a lot of people nonetheless seem to want to do it. If we understand what it is and why it is, it may help one to succeed at it but I think it also shows how pointless it usually is. I will use a little personal anecdote to set the scene:-

I once met in London a very nice young woman who was a minor member of the British aristocracy—the granddaughter of an Earl. I did not know that at the time and she did not tell me. Although my origins are proletarian Australian, we got on so well that she became my girlfriend. In other words, despite the “social” gap between us (which I was not even aware of), the other affinities between us still caused us to get on well and enjoy one-another’s company. That is the first lesson: It is the individual person that counts—not the group to which they belong. Finding people who are similar to oneself in outlook, attitudes and values is much valued but one may at times find such people in all sorts of places.

The second lesson stems from a time that the same lady introduced me to her uncle. He initially gave me that frozen reception which the British upper class give to anyone who is not one of “them”. I, however, just kept on contributing to the conversation in a relaxed manner and discussion of the events of the time immediately led to political issues. I expressed my political views without rancour but as plausibly as I could. (The once common advice that one should never discuss religion or politics is simply a confession that one is incapable of rational, moderate and amicable discussion of the events of the day). His views, not entirely accidentally, were similar to mine. More to the point, I was defending very plausibly causes that he believed in. He loved it! Now what do you think his attitude to me was by that time? Was it still frozen? Far from it. After knowing me for just 15 minutes, I honestly believe that he would have nominated me to his club if I had wanted it. The freezeout had totally vanished. I was now a “sensible young chap” or some such in his eyes. So the second lesson is similar to the first: Similar outlook, values etc. is the key to social “getting on”. Where two people have that, an awful lot of other differences can and will be overlooked: Not all differences, however. If I had had a Cockney accent, that would have been insurmountable! (The English tend to fudge their description of who a Cockney is so I should tell you that Cockneys are simply working-class Londoners—the most cheerful group of people I have ever met).

The fact that all people tend to group themselves socially, however, has as its concomitant that people are more likely to find others of similar attitudes and values within their own group. So my experience was somewhat unusual. But it does show that WORKING at social “advancement” will usually be pretty pointless. If you do not share the outlook and concerns of those you aspire to join, what is the point? Do you intend to conceal your real views and concerns and live a lie? Is that really how you want to live? If you do, one can only pity you.

By the way, what really is social “advancement”? Largely, it is a fiction. “Society”, as it is called is mostly an illusion fostered by certain middle-aged and aging matrons in order to give themselves a sense of importance. Among the British aristocracy there is some reality to it but elsewhere it consists simply of a small group of people who are united chiefly by a belief in their own importance—an importance that would not in general otherwise be obvious. Even among the British aristocracy, there are many groups and sub-groups and by far the most important thing there is which individuals you know and get on with.

Saturday, June 4, 2005

South African notes

I have never been one to keep a travel diary but I jotted down a few notes and reflections about my first trip to South Africa some years after the event and, given the notice that the world has taken of the place, I thought my notes and reflections might be of some interest to others. Here is what I wrote:-

I think it was in 1978 (during the Apartheid era) that I went to South Africa for 5 or 6 weeks. The University paid my way so I could do a survey there. Rather unoriginally, I was interested in surveying white attitudes to blacks etc. It was at that time an amazingly well-kept and affluent-looking place—at least in the white areas. Cheap black gardeners, I suppose.

The South African Indians were very interesting. They tended to live in big, opulent-looking houses and drive quality cars. Standing on the kerb in Johannesburg you saw dark men with European-type noses going past driving BMWs and the like. You also saw dark men with flat noses hanging out of dilapidated and overcrowded buses. The nose (race) seemed to make the difference. Apartheid discriminated roughly equally against all sorts of dark people but the Indians found the basically rather petty restrictions little problem (they did not, for instance, want to intermarry with the whites anyhow!) and were in fact at that time the richest Indian community in the world. They were averaging an income about 80% of the white average. So it was not Apartheid that explained negro poverty in South Africa. The sad fact of the matter is that Negroes are poor, violent and generally at the bottom of the heap wherever they live. And South Africa was the only part of Africa at that time where they did not from time to time have to face systematic mass-murder and famine. There was still a lot of sporadic black-on-black (tribal) violence and dire poverty among them but the South African border police were still there not for the purpose of keeping the South African blacks in but to keep foreign blacks out!

I took a drive through the notorious black township of Soweto with Leon Louw (a leading local libertarian). We needed no pass, suffered no restrictions and were even shown around by any government employees we approached. Blacks who saw us passing by waved. Most of Soweto comprises 4-room brick houses that are undoubtedly overcrowded but also seem solid enough. Water is laid on but I think they were just getting electricity (at the hands of WHITE electricians!). All Soweto houses had a yard of their own but I saw no greenery in any of them. As far as I could see, in Johannesburg it was only whites who were growing vegetables to save money! Isn’t that worthy of Ripley?

Incidentally, where does the name “Soweto” comes from? It sounds pretty African does it not? In fact it is simply an abbreviation for “South West Township”. Quite English, really!

I discovered some good foods in South Africa—particularly a type of curried Kebab called Sosaties. There was a mass-marketed Stout produced by S.A. Brewing that was very good too. The best I have tasted. And one of the Cape wines is unlike any other. It is a hybrid grape called Pinotage. It produces superb wines in South Africa but no-one else has much luck with it. Thanks to the moronic policy of several Australian governments it was for a time a prohibited import here. The best brand of South African wines seemed to be K.W.V. (translates to Co-Operative Wine-growers Union). All of black Africa drinks Cape wines when they can afford to.

White South Africans must at that time have been the most hospitable whites in the world. I know—from the doorknock surveying I have done. Only in South Africa was I regularly invited in when I knocked on people’s doors. They would answer my questions even if they were having Sunday dinner at the time.

After doing my door-knocking in Johannesburg, I took the train down to Bloemfontein. It was a slow steam-hauled train and rather took me back to my childhood train trips in Queensland. It was slow to minimize damage due to possible derailment (by black terrorists) and steam-hauled because there was at the time an embargo on supplying South Africa with oil. We passed a lot of shacks with blacks living in them on the way. It was notable that the corrugated iron roofs were always just held down with rocks rather than being fastened in any other way. When the train came by, the blacks would come out and wave to it. Lovely!

I stayed with Dr. Patrick Heaven (Yes, that really is his surname!) and his family in Bloemfontein and was amused when he introduced me to his fellow Afrikaner academics in the Psychology Department. They were all wearing ties! You would never see that anywhere else among psychology academics to my knowledge.

My trip to South Africa was in December so Patrick was kind enough to invite me to a family Christmas party when that came around. At the party a dear little Afrikaner girl (about 10) asked me: “And what do you think of our language?” I was delighted to be able to say (in complete sincerity): “I like the way you say “Dankie” (thank you)”. She seemed pleased with that.