Caution: Outrageous generalizations ahead (but interesting, and perhaps useful).
One of the things I’ve learned about the human animal (that I neglected to include in my last list) is:
What people seek from others, more than anything else, is attention and appreciation.
I’ve observed that to be true in boardrooms, bedrooms and barrooms. You want to win over your boss, give him or her your full attention, and acknowledge his or her successes, without being a suck-up about it. You want to win over your audience in a presentation, make lots of eye contact, show empathy for their situation (which means doing your homework in advance) and thank them more than once for their attention and their awesome questions. You want to win over that attractive person next to you, make lots of eye contact, listen and feed back, and give lots of compliments (but sincerely — don’t try to fake it).
Now lately I’ve discovered a corollary to this maxim:
Men tend to offer more appreciation than attention (though sporadically); women tend to offer more attention than appreciation.
This may be a Darwinian thing, or it may be merely a cultural evolution, but it is now reinforced by our society to the point that, I think, it is more pronounced and culturally expected. A bunch of guys together are often focused on something other than themselves, but they are a ‘mutual admiration society’ — the ‘high five’ is a guy thing. By contrast, a bunch of women together are often focused on matters personal to them, and comprise a ‘mutual attention society’ — the ‘support group’ is a woman thing.
Watch a little girl performing dance or gymnastic moves in front of her parents: What she is looking for from Mom is attention (“Mom, you’re not watching!“); what she is looking for from Dad is appreciation (“Didn’t you like it, Dad?”). She (like all of us) is confused if she gets the opposite: If Mom is effusive in praise but doesn’t notice the small fall and suggest how to improve it, she’s not behaving in an accepted, expected way for a Mom; if Dad does notice the fall and suggests how to improve it, and fails to beam with unqualified pride, he’ll get the scowl for behaving ‘inappropriately’.
To some extent this ‘specialization’ in providing our deepest social needs makes sense. Generally, men are not very observant, so it’s not surprising they get selected to provide praise. Women are generally more muted and balanced in their expression of emotions, and more observant, so they get selected to provide attention.
Couples (traditional couples anyway) seem to follow the same pattern of expectations from others. Men look to their wives to pay attention to them (“Dear, your tie is crooked and it doesn’t go with that suit”), and while their wives (at least early in the relationship) are demonstrably appreciative, as the relationship matures men tend to get more and more of their needed appreciation from other guys (in sports, in bragging about a promotion at work, in card games and drinking competitions etc.)
Women, by contrast, look to their husbands for appreciation (there is only one correct answer when a woman asks a man “How do I look in this?”), and don’t expect a lot of undivided attention from men (learned from experience). When they want attention, they get it from other women, who actually notice things and sympathize. At one point we might have argued that this behaviour was situational (until two generations ago, the social roles of men and women were markedly different), but now that many men and women fill identical social roles, the perseverance of this ‘specialized’ behaviour suggests it may have a deeper, genetically-based cause.
Why are the majority of women more observant, more perceptive, more attentive than most men? This might be because, since women have had the dominant role in child-rearing, unattentive mothers lost their children to predators and hence selected themselves out of the gene pool. Or perhaps the explanation is more cultural than genetic — none of us can be good at everything, so it makes more sense to divide up the critical work of paying attention and giving appreciation, and at some point the culture evolved so that women were expected to do the former and men the latter. Whatever the origin, this system of specialization works, and we depend heavily on it for our psychological health.
What happens when a child is starved for both attention and appreciation? They start acting out, in aggressive ways. In serious cases it can lead to a psychosis — committing violent acts like arson or animal abuse to get attention, lying and cheating to get appreciation.
What happens when a whole generation of children is starved for both attention and appreciation, when their parents are too busy looking after their own selfish needs (perhaps because they themselves are starved for attention and appreciation) to provide psychologically for those of their children? You get an epidemic of bored, anti-social people suffering from “low self-esteem”, and thrill-seeking to get the attention of others. You get what Michael Adams described as the newly-prevalent (and growing dominant) behaviours in the lower right quadrant of the matrix above, to the chagrin of both liberals (whose nurturing/perceiving style, in Lakoffian terms, is more focused on matriarchal attention) and conservatives (whose strict/judging style, in Lakoffian terms, is more focused on patriarchal appreciation).
Perhaps what lies behind a lot of this bizarre and inexplicable (to liberals and conservatives) behaviour, this anomie, especially of today’s young people, is a desperate cry for attention and appreciation, followed (when that cry is ignored by us self-centred baby boomers) by an angry and resigned determination to wean themselves off the need for attention and appreciation (“Well fuck you, then, I’ll just look after myself”). Please note: I’m not saying we neglected our children or that two-income families are a bad thing — baby boomers so outnumber other generations that it’s not surprising we have always received the lion’s share of attention from everyone. I don’t think the cause is that important — I just want to know what we can do about it now.
Well, that’s all I have to say on this. All generalizations are annoying, including this one, but there is something important at work here, and it affects our psychological health at a time we all need to be healthy to face the great challenges ahead. Please jump in to the discussion –you have my attention and appreciation.
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