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July 27, 2009

Ask-o-logy: The Squirmy Gender Question (Part III)

La Roxy walks into a bar.

She's stranded in a distant land and in dire need of:

1) the antidote to the venom of the snake that just bit her
2) an emergency loan to buy a tire because she has a flat and only 47.50 foofis (about $18) to her name
3) honest input, because she's really aching to find out if she has lettuce in her teeth but lacks a reflective surface to investigate

Who should she ask? The woman in the black v-neck smiling into her phone, the avuncular man downing ouzo in the back corner, or the teenage couple with matching mullets nuzzling by the pool table? Or, should La Roxy bring Mr. A in from the car and ask together, if that would help her chances?

A dilemma otherwise known as:

1) Who should I ask when I am alone versus accompanied?

The results of my year of asking show that the druncle wins, hands down. Men were much more willing to respond well when I asked alone, and mixed groups were much more willing to respond well when I was asked with a friend or family member. Women were most consistent (i.e. reacted most similarly when I was accompanied and alone).

Of course there are other factors at play here -- different people respond differently to different motives. So it would be unwise to draw conclusions. Instead, let's delve deeper into how people of each gender responded and see what that yields.


When it came to how people reacted to my tone or attitude (explained and analyzed here), many of the results made sense -- people were a lot nicer when I was nice and meaner when I was mean. (By that I mean they gave in more or less to my requests.)


What I found baffling was that people resisted when I used a tone I considered to be "direct." I didn't bark the requests. But I didn't incant them in lyric verse either. My attitude was straightforward, competent, efficient, brisk. Neutral. I just approached the individual or made the phone call, said hello, asked, and waited for a result. I asked this way when I was pressed for time and seeking something straightforward. Likewise, when I was sorting out logistical/administrative/practical issues: Would you mind moving your car over so we can both fit into this space? Can you extend my hold on these library books over the weekend, since I can't make it today?

Turns out that people rather disliked this approach. Of the six attitudes, I was more successful being really nice -- but also hostile!! -- than neutral. (67% success rate for the neutral approach, compared to 71% for hostility.)

Now, it could be that my "neutral" is most people's "rude." If so, that would explain these results. But if not, if my "neutral" really is what most people would consider "neutral," then what gives??

Maybe it's the Virgo in me, but I just don't get it. Why would people not appreciate my direct, practical and to-the-point approach for simple questions?

Actually, it turns out that some people do: women.

2) Which approach did men, women and mixed groups prefer?

(Click to magnify)

Women were least inclined to give in to hostility. Instead, they preferred me to be direct (more than 80% success rate). They were least impressed when I was wimpy. Finally, of the three gender groups, women were most willing to say yes when I was acting commercial or businesslike (W 'n' D).

Men were most easily swayed when I was sweet or extra sweet and, like women, least impressed when I was wimpy. Of the three groups, men were most likely to appreciate aggression, as in when I stuck up for myself or demanded better treatment or results ("hostile"). But that was by a small margin.

Now this is interesting: While women were quite ready to say yes when I was nice, the success rate drops a bit for "extra nice." Could it be that my extra friendliness was judged by women as fake? Could it be that women interpreted it as BS or were more skeptical? For whatever reason, women were around 22% less likely to give in to extreme friendliness than men were.

3) Can we be sure gender is the reason for these differences?

When the values are close together, it's really hard to know if those tiny variations are meaningful or just random. Plus, even for wider variations, since I've only isolated for gender and approach, it's hard to know if gender is the cause. It could also be that when I was nice I tended to ask people in the restaurant industry, who happened to be men, who very often tried to accommodate me. Maybe it's just a correlation, even a coincidence.

However, looking at the biggest spreads between how genders reacted (when I was direct, extra nice, and meek) does offer some potentially valuable insights.

a) Groups Dislike Bluntness

Men and women were almost equally likely to say yes when I was "direct." Women more so, but it's not a massive difference. Groups, on the other hand, were least likely to appreciate that approach, by far. Perhaps when I was direct with an individual, it was seen as efficient, but with people who were socializing, that came across as rude? The data do suggest that groups would have preferred more banter, since their success rate jumps up for "Nice."

I also think it's significant that of the six approaches, directness was the favored approach of women. They were most inclined to say yes when I got to the point and just asked. Yes, men and women preferred it about the same -- around 80% -- but this value is more relevant if we compare it within the gender category: men preferred nice or very nice, while women preferred practical. This is backed up by the next graph, which shows that women weren't fans of extreme friendliness, while men were.

b) Men Love Sprinkles

While men seemed inclined to give in to my extra friendliness (ok, fine, flirting), women and groups were far less charmed when I laid it on thick. What's interesting is that groups were eager to say yes when I was simply nice (see the very top wavy graph) -- but that rate falls for extra nice.

If we start to put these results together, it seems that groups were less keen on interrupting their discussions or activities to help someone who seemed to be "working it." It's also possible that the dynamics of those mixed groups resisted the interjection of an extremely friendly outsider seeking help. Maybe I was bothering one member, or seemed threatening or suspicious, or who knows what.

These are my vague interpretations, but if you have any other ideas, I'd be curious to hear them.

c) Groups Pity the Meek

If mixed groups resisted my efforts at being very friendly, they were total suckers for my most pathetic requests for help. Men and women were almost equally put off by my meekness, but that was by far the most effective method for asking mixed groups, both by gender and by approach.

And now to tie it all together:

4) So what can we posit with any confidence about the responses of each gender to my various approaches?

This is too limited a data sample to support any generalizations, and that wasn't my goal in the first place. It is, however, to ask questions -- and figure out how and what to start asking, in the future!

What I do know: requesting help, a favor or a discount requires the giver to like you -- or be persuaded by you. Even a little bit. So when I didn't try to be pleasant (i.e. I was merely neutral or "direct") people responded coldly. But I have to wonder if my gender had anything to do with it. Did people assume that being curt and direct is not "ladylike"? Was being nice rewarded because women are expected to be that way? If Mr. A had asked for the same things I did, in the same way, to the same people, would the results have been different?

While groups responded well to my meekness, would people be less willing to help out a solo man? And what factors lead groups to react well to a shy woman, men to react well to a friendly or single woman, and women to react negatively to a hostile woman? Can we attribute these reactions to latent and explicit beliefs about assertiveness, competency, competition, and/or collective and individual responsibility toward who one perceives as weak or empowered? Are the results due to trained behaviors and reactions from those who interacted -- or are their interpretations due to trained ways of seeing data and patterns? Where does coincidence stop, and where does meaning start?

What do you think?? Leave a comment below -- any reaction is welcome!
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