Men Offer Appreciation; Women Offer Attention

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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7 Responses to Men Offer Appreciation; Women Offer Attention

  1. Julia says:

    Hi Dave, you asked for …..First i think the whole appreciation/attention thing is not new, i remember reading about them in materials from 1940 up. And i think it is not bad at all, it is kind of healthy to seek appreciation/attention, although, as always, if you seek it too much it becomes unhealthy.I can say i really appreciate you (and your blog) specially this new phase (well maybe i am the only one who thinks you´re in a new phase, anyway i like you much more now). About attention, i have a fixed IP, so you can check my attention coefficient :-)And i totally agree with your corollary, and i believe if people dont realize it, many problems may occur. For example, i am the kind (female, 25) that gives lots of attention to people, like if there is someone i fell is not feeling part of the group i am always worried in making the person fell better. If someone is sick i am taking care, and so on … and the problems is, i somehow expect everybody to act just like me, and if they dont i start thinking bad things about them (from unpolite to selfish and blind).I really want attention from the ones i love, and when they are males, usually what i get is appreciation. Not that i dont like appretiation but i also want attention. I believe the opposite is the same, i see some boy-friends for who i give lots of attention and what they really want is appretiation, and though i really appreciate them, i just, somehow, dont let them know.

  2. Yule Heibel says:

    A rose is a rose is a rose, …maybe. But attention is not attention is not attention.Your categories are overwrought because you suggest they have a deterministic biological evolutionary basis. Humans are far too malleable, fickle, and versatile for this — why else do we have patriarchal religions if not to find ways to constrain and bind the versatility of behaviour? So: dump the pseudo-Darwinian speculations, for otherwise you might as well suggest that the modern marketplace is “feminised” because the latest buzzword is all about attention. As in:

    Exchange: I want to know you are paying attention to, without you paying attention to me. The PG version is The X version is What gets surfaced is that two people share interests, what they differ, when the others browse. Check out other people based on their attention. Ibid.

    Attention, like appreciation, gets instrumentalised (cannot stay static) — it gets sucked into the “game”:

    Once you have your readers’ attention, Christian explains, you can capitalise on that in all sorts of ways: “Because there’s such an abundance of content out there, the value lies in how you categorise it, how you add value to the content through aggregating it as something that is of interest to you, the reader. So, many of these models are built around learning about your preferences, and creating trusted networks.”(…)…”The creative industries will die if they don’t change. You will wake up in a world where you won’t have a competitive environment.(…)” [See Payday for the free internet]

    Ask yourself this: appreciation or attention — to what end does someone / something get noticed? Can I (or anyone else) take some man’s “insights” about men and women (especially about women!) seriously if the underlying marketing-based impetus, which remains fully under patriarchial control in terms of its value-dissemination, isn’t junked a priori? Other than to predict or generalise (and hence control) behaviour, why would you assume that your definition of “attention” is somehow purer or better than the market-driven definition of “attention” given above, and why would you assume that women might agree with your assessment of the behaviours you define around “attention,” or that they would even agree to call whatever it is they seek or offer as “attention,” much less that they parse their seeking to women and their offering to men? It makes my gendered head spin to think that perhaps I should be checking in with my admiring or attentive self next time I speak to or with another man or woman…

  3. Reverend says:

    What people seek is tolerance of their beliefs. If everyone was more informed of the ideologies of others the world would be a nicer place to live. You can learn about these at and spread the knowledge and tolerance of others everyday.

  4. kerry says:

    Hi I’ve been noticing something recently on the sites and blogs I read. There are so many comments suggesting that “people are like this or people are like that” and that “i agree but humans never will do this or that”. Isn’t that a little schizophrenic? I mean, we tend to be so quick to say “yes I agree, but others won’t”. How on earth can we debate what other human beings will do unless we are able to recognise that a. We are also one of them and b. Whatever we (or I) am capable of doing then so is another. Recognising our PERSONAL role in each and every moment is the key to understanding all of human nature and gaining both respect and empathy for others. We don’t need to understand other people’s idealogies, we just need to understand ourselves and our own true nature, cos it really is all the same, regardless of the differences that we try to create to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

  5. says:

    Aww, Dave. You are being too hard on generalizations. Without them, we’d never get out the door in the morning–paralyzed over trusting the weatherman’s “assertions” and, even then, after a sleepless night of Time-between-failure worry over cheap digital alarm clocks.But, wow. Interesting post. On the gender thing, how’s this: Males’ narrow-focus, single-channel wiring lends to proficiency at packeted, sequential tasks. If I’m hunting, I’m all in, full attention. In this, there is an inefficiency due to primacy of focus–false choices of priority are made not due to cost-benefit, but rather, due to skill levels and inherent interest in pursuing certain choices over others. In females, I agree with you: a broadband or broad sweep setup is most effective, allowing the search for sustenance, scanning the landscape for other useful materials simultaneous to keeping an eye out for offspring and attending to the interpersonal relationships with sister females to assure their continued collaborative support whether with those kids, physical labor, medicine, knowledge. Ineffiency here comes in reducing range of reach — 360 degrees, 24/7-on, means your enregy can only radiate so much coverage. In the end, Nodes are from Mars, Networks are from Venus. Or something like that.I’m curious about the change element in self-regard in your chart. As creatures of nature and nurture, the keys of nurture I think have changed most, and I suspect led to the most impactful changes in us. (“Nurture” covering cultural norms, the bathe of media, messages and assertions, the instantaneous hyping of unneccessary alarm such as the over-emphasis of risk, i.e.: toddlers down wells, amber alerts, terror in Wyoming, crime in general, etc.)Okay, so with all that foreshadowing how are the tools of civilization now changing us instead of the other way round, and what’s next? Your chart shows a fatalist inertia I can’t disagree with in fact, but I wonder at the cause and therefore the inevitability — are these innate urges or self-protective responses?We’ve noodled this some at our office in tying to trend out workspace and community design.

  6. Meg says:

    Well, Dave. I have a fair amount to say to this entry, but I’ll keep it to the following:My relationship with my parents was just the opposite — my dad and I are both writers, so he used to edit and critique my work. He is also much more the lover of fashion, so he’d offer me more honest assessments of my outfits than my mother would. My mother is a hugger, appreciator — constructive, too, but an appreciator at the core.I think you are reinforcing stereotypes (and you knew you were, so that’s not news.) Plenty of women can handle an answer other than, “You look great!” and plenty of men can offer more in response. Women are not so insecure as to consistently occupy the dichotomy of always giving, and never taking criticism. I am very affirming of my friends in simple ways at times — affirmation that has nothing to do with attention, and just simple approval and delight. I get the things you’re talking about, and yes, I’ve seen those patterns repeated. But why perpetuate it? Why not issue this as a challenge, rather than as a statement of the standard?My family ditched it, as have several of my boyfriends and the vast majority of my female friends.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm.. some very interesting points here — thanks (I’m not being ironic) for the attention and appreciation. Although I warned about this being a generalization upfront, maybe I should reassert that observations like this, while admittedly risking reinforcing stereotypes (regrettable but perhaps unavoidable) can be useful and actionable. If these patterns don’t apply to you and those you love and work with, that’s great — you are lucky or enlightened or both. But I witness this divergent behaviour every day, in both personal and business relationships. I think there is value in recognizing it for what it is, for two principal reasons: (1) In business, I think it plays a significant role (a) in the oppression of (individual) women and their ideas — women who fail to compliment men and pay attention to women will be unfairly criticized or ignored by both — and (b) in the lack of innovation in business (when mainly male bosses expect and reward sycophantic behaviour and punish even attentive, observant, imaginitive criticism). (2) In personal relationships, what can easily evolve is a codependent and dysfunctional relationship where the man is dependent on attention (and will seek it elsewhere if it ceases) and starved for appreciation (which will manifest itself outside the relationship in several neurotic and self-destructive ways), and where the woman is dependent on appreciation and starved for attention (which will manifest itself inside the relationship in several neurotic and self-destructive ways).

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