Men fight for survival, dominance, and personal gain, but they also fight just for fun. Anthropologists have found that the more conflict is culturally condoned, the more boys and men tend to fight, roughhouse, and engage in arguments simply because it feels good. Why? Because making fun of or wrestling a friend is easier than telling him you love him, and it sends a version of that same message.
“Boys and men tend to participate in ritual opposition more than girls and women,” says Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell. “Girls will fight, but not for fun.”
Ritual opposition, or fighting for sport, is a popular activity among males not only across cultures but also across mammalian species. The behavior tends to begin in early childhood, affecting how young kids play. Girls tend to be more verbal, whereas boys tend to socialize through activities like sports and roughhousing.
Even when boys talk, they’re more likely to engage in verbal sparring (and more likely to do so without hurt feelings). In a sense, this is just using words to engage in the same activity: playful fighting. This behavior often leads to gendered conflict. When a boy pulls a girl’s pigtails, she may interpret it as an attack whereas he sees it as an invitation to have fun together. (Obviously, boys need to be aggressively dissuaded of the notion that assaulting girls is a good idea.)
The tendency to fight for fun doesn’t go away as boys grow up. Ritual opposition finds its way into the workplace in the form of verbal opposition, which people can interpret as a threat if they’re not accustomed to it. It’s common for women in the workplace to realize that their male colleagues like and respect them only after wondering about the source of perceived anger. For men, sparring is often an act of inclusion.
“It’s more common for men to use fighting as a way to explore ideas. The adrenaline kind of sharpens their mind,” Tannen says. “Whereas women who are not used to that, the adrenaline can kind of shut them down.”
In other words, men use conflict to their advantage, leveraging the dynamic for social and intellectual gain. What might be outwardly understood to be anti-social behavior (and it can certainly tip over into that realm) is, in fact, the opposite. To the degree that acts of aggression aren’t acts of transgression, fighting for men is a way to bond at speed while triangulating their own identity and sharpening their decision-making.
It’s important to note that although these gender differences are supported by data, behavioral trends represent tendencies, not absolute rules. Girls and women exposed to more aggressive communication styles tend to adapt to this kind of roughhousing and teasing. Likewise, some boys are extremely conflict-averse.
What constitutes an extreme — either in terms of animalistic aggression or trepidation — is culturally determined. American joking doesn’t play super well in Japan. Australian joking doesn’t always play well in America. Almost everyone is more sensitive than someone else.
For men, it’s important to understand that ritual opposition can create communication problems with women and children, who they might confuse or unnerve while trying to be friendly. Ultimately, context is king, and socially capable men tend to excel at reading the room.
“The ideal would be to develop an awareness for the parameters by which conversational styles differ, so that when you sense things aren’t going well, rather than trying harder or doing more of the wrong thing, you can back up and try something different,” Tannen says.
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