Are men really from Mars and women from Venus? Are the differences between the sexes best explained by their separate planet heritage? Is it really that simple?
The 1990s saw the rise of the ‘Mars-Vs.-Venus’ notion. The theory formed the basis of John Gray’s New York Times bestselling pop psychology book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. In an attempt to explain men and women and the relationships between them, as well as the communication that so easily breaks down, Gray posited that the reason for the differences was that men and women come from very different planets with unique customs and distinct patterns of communication.
Gray goes on to explain that while the Martians and the Venusians are able to communicate and get along in a rudimentary way, there is a fair amount that is lost in translation. Men are identified as thinkers, more solitary, and in need of large chunks of time in their man cave in the absence of relational or emotional pressures. They derive their worth from feeling needed and their decisions are driven more by reason than emotions.
The Venus-dweller, however, represents the Martian’s polar opposite. She is highly relational and emotionally guided. She desires frequent contact with and expressions of love from her mate, she feels the needs of others deeply, and derives personal security in knowing that her partner is someone she can trust and depend upon in practical ways. She is easier to get along with, excels in communication and conversation, and places a high premium on relationships. She is more likely to be a verbal processor than her male counterpart who prefers to think things out and resolve them on his own.
From the success of the book (it sold over 50 million copies), it would appear that Gray had landed on the Rosetta Stone of the genders. Finally we would be able to decode the mystery of the sexes.
Or maybe not. While millions bought and read the book, not everyone could square with Gray’s description of how all men and women think. Could the entire population of men and women be reduced to these characteristics and motivations? And what if you were a man and a highly relational, deeply empathetic, verbal processor? What if you were a woman who was logical, driven, decisive and introverted? Then what?
What the book fails to account for is the role of personality. Anyone who found themselves frustrated or misrepresented after reading the book can attest. Perhaps the differences are not so much related to gender stereotypes as they are to our personalities—specifically the dimension of personality known as Agreeableness.
Agreeableness has been identified by personality psychologists as one of five major personality factors. Agreeableness describes a person as they relate to people in the world around them.
A better and more accurate explanation, then, may be to say that people who are easy to get along with, empathetic, helpful, and relational are that way not because they are women (or men who are confused about their gender), but because they score high in the personality dimension of Agreeableness. Those who are cooler, more solitary, authoritative, and ready to take decisive action regardless of relational consequences are that way not because they have a Y chromosome, but because they are, in speaking of personality dimensions, more Disagreeable individuals.
Rather than feeding into the gender stereotypes and trying to figure out why so may of us don’t fit the mold, looking to the personality dimension of Agreeableness provides better insight and explanation for the differences we see in people and their ability to get along with others.
We can’t conclude that women are all Agreeable or that they are always more Agreeable than men. Likewise it would be unfair to assume that all men are Disagreeable. While statistically women score higher in the area of Agreeableness, this is not gender-determined, nor does it mean that all women are highly Agreeable, or that if they are not, there is something unwomanly about them.
The same can be said for men. Highly relational, altruistic men are no less fulfilling their gender role than the man who retreats to his man cave to work out his problems over a football game or the building of a birdhouse. Masculinity is not defined in authoritarianism or the ability to make rapid-fire, unemotional decisions. Nor in hostility, misanthropy, or a tendency toward psychopathy, which can also characterize highly Disagreeable people.
Rather than looking at how personality determines relational and communication patterns, the book overemphasizes gender stereotypes. It should be noted that there is a reason these stereotypes exist; they are commonly observed in the general collective experience. But that does not make them definitive, all-encompassing, or a reliable model for resolving conflict.
Using personality psychology to describe individuals, however, is more accurate and removes the need to perpetuate the battle of the sexes. A woman can be Disagreeable, an internal processor, and a whiz at wielding power. And a man can be highly Agreeable, a mediator of conflict, and a promoter of harmony among people. It is their personalities that determine these tendencies, namely their level of Agreeableness, not gender.
In short, assuming that women are more Agreeable than men or that the differences between individuals is determined by gender over individual personality misses the mark and leaves quite a few men and women wondering why they don’t fit the mold. Personality psychology and the Agreeableness continuum provide a more accurate classification and explanation of why we are the way we are in relation to others.
How well do you get along with others? How high is your EQ? To see your capacity for altruism, relationship-building, working in professions in which you serve others, and generally going with the flow, take our How Agreeable Are You? quiz.