Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Support Where You Need it the Most! (part three): Men vs. Women

Remember when I put up that really weird-o picture of a bra made out of veggies? Well, I'm sparing you another one but, for this week's But Not Unhappy Science Friday, I do want to return to the idea of support.

I originally planned for this to be a two part series (you can read part one here and part two here), but Breakdown's comment really got my attention. He said:

I have no problem asking for help. My problem is often that I can't get anyone to help me when I need it. Home teachers, friends, family. For the most part I usually find myself fighting my own battles. I do all I can to help anyone that asks but when I need it it usually seems like I have to pull teeth. Now, it's not all the time. I have had some good people help me from time to time, just there are those times when I really need it and nobody is there to help. It's a bit discouraging.

Now, there are a lot of unknowns here. To be honest, I don't know any specifics about Breakdown's life (but I love his comments! Thanks dude!). But as I pondered his statements I began to wonder if his experience encapsulates one of the many stereotypical differences between men and women. After all common wisdom holds that women are "wired" for community building. In psycho-speak this is sometimes referred to as a "self in relation" (as opposed to an autonomous self, which is stereotypically more masculine). My experience, in many cases, tends to back this assumption up. Women like to talk. A lot. Men, for whatever social/biological/possibly screwed up reason, don't talk as much. Well, maybe they talk but they don't seem to emote as much. Men are wired for competition and conquering, not hugging. Right?

So now that I've laid out the stereotype, how true is all this? Cue the science. Check out this study: Gender, culture, and social support: a male-female, Israeli Jewish-Arab comparison. After all, what can we learn from the Israeli Jewish-Arab conflict if not insights into social support systems? (Actually, because of their physical proximity yet independent cultures, the Israeli Arabs and Jews present an ideal population for this kind of research. Surprise!)

The study was actually a phone survey in which participants were asked to rate their likelihood of asking for help in different difficult scenarios (such as depressive episode, job loss, or financial hardship). The study looked at culture and gender and compared their findings with evolutionary, social, and psychological theories about the role of gender and culture in developing a support system.

Okay, now that we got the science out of the way, what does it all mean to us? It means exactly what we already knew: culture and gender do define who we ask for help and how we build our support systems.

The study said, "Culture influences people's perception of appropriate behavior and thus how and when they seek, obtain, and enact supportive behavior, and studies show that social support is constructed within a specific cultural context . . .Indeed, gender roles promulgated by culture were found to influence how men and women seek, obtain, and enact supportive behavior in stressful situations".

Israeli Arabs ended up fitting a more masculine profile ("A masculine culture is characterized by such masculine stereotypes as assertiveness and competitiveness, whereas feminine cultures are characterized by feminine stereotypes such as warmth and collaboration") and as such tended to ask no one for help. The study conjectured that this was because Arab cultures believed that their lives were dictated by outside forces (like God and/or fate) and that problems should be handled within families first in order to avoid embarrassment. The study also pointed out that because of the patriarchal nature of the Israeli Arab culture men were less likely to have an emotional support system.

This really struck me because the Israeli Arab view seemed remarkably similar to the way I have heard people describe men in the LDS culture. We do believe that our lives are determined by God--although for us God is not the same as fate. We always have a choice as to how we will react; God will never take away our agency. Also, we believe problems should be handled in families first. When a person needs financial help they are to look to their family first, not the Church, right? Those two ideas can isolate us. I don't think they have to (I think it's the first lesson of bishop-ing: tell them to call a therapist!), but they can.

I also wonder how the idea or priesthood leadership and of a man being the steward of the family makes men feel like they have to be invincible. I remember what an epiphany it was when a lit. theory professor pointed out that chauvinistic patriarchal societies are as limiting for men as they are for women. After all, in a typical (not LDS) patriarchy men aren't allowed to be weak. They must always dominate. That has to get tiring.

Of course, our LDS concept of male leadership is not chauvinistic or traditionally patriarchal (at least not in the way feminists use the term). Men are not supposed to be Peter Priesthood Ken dolls. They are sojourners on this earth like the rest of us and entitled to failures and the resulting relationship with Christ just like all of us chicks.

I don't know. I've gotta ask the men, how have these issues played out for you. Have you struggled with the worldly definition of what it means to be a strong man and what the Church's definition of a strong man is (i.e. you SHOULD ask for help!)? Is it different because you are a man? I hope all my male readers will respond because I really do want an answer :)


Charlotte said...

Well, I'm not a man but seeing as my husband and I had an argument about this very subject this morning, I'm going to chime in anyhow. While I do think it is true that I don't necessarily look for the same signs that help is needed in men as I do in women, I *do* pay attention. When it is a family connection, like my husband, I find that not only do I have to be very tuned in to his needs but also be more adept at ferreting them out because he's less likely to ask for help in the manner I am accustomed to with women. HOWEVER, if the man needing help is not in my family things are trickier. I think it is more appropriate for men to ask their bishop or home teachers or guy friends for help than female friends. Esp. in our church where we emphasize "avoiding the appearance of evil" I know I've been reticent to step in and help a man where I could see an obvious need because it didn't feel appropriate to off that level of support. So to all the men out there who are seeking help but not finding it, I encourage you to keep asking. And to make sure you are asking the right people:) Great post, Lou!

Charlotte said...

And that should be "offer that level" not "off". Sheesh.

Unknown said...

I really couldn't admit to myself I was depressed, let alone my family. My work had to drag me in. My wife was gone on extended vacation with her family when it happenned. When I told her about it, she was shocked and upset. "why didn't you say something?" She asked. I didn't see the point of burdening her. In fact, now when I am struggling it weighs on her as much as me. She asks when it his her turn to be overwhelmed. This is not a great invitation to invite me into her confidence.
This is fairly typical for residents. For doctors out on their own, it's the spouse dragging them in. I can only imagine it's the much the same for most husbands, assuming the wife is strong enough to do it. I suspect depression is behind a lot of abuse.