Last weekend the zip on my jacket got stuck and I spent several unsuccessful minutes trying to release it. Eventually, my partner grew frustrated at my display of ineptitude and took the garment from me – well, she is a mum, therefore well qualified and experienced at solving all clothing malfunctions and failures.
No, she couldn’t free the zip either. After a few minutes she gave up and went to do something more interesting and useful (and there are lots of things that are more interesting and useful than freeing a stuck zip).
I took the garment back, had a second look at the problem – and managed to get the zip working again in a few seconds.
“Sometimes I am a genius,” I announced.
“Freeing a zip doesn’t make you a genius,” responded the teenager who had been observing the proceedings with a mixture of amusement and perplexity.
“Yes, but I took a man’s approach to the problem, and it worked,” I replied.
What did I mean? Is there really a difference between the way men and women tackle problems?
Well, yes there is. I don’t mean this in any sexist way, but men and women will generally approach problems in different ways – and neither is better than the other one.
In a nutshell, a woman’s approach will be to fix the problem as quickly as possible whereas a man will investigate to see what is causing it. Depending on the circumstances, either approach can be more effective. The best problem-solving techniques use both: first, stop the problem getting any worse, then prevent it from happening again.
In this case, my investigation discovered that the jacket was inside-out and/or upside-down. In our attempts to move the zip we had actually been pulling it tighter. All I had to do was pull it in the opposite direction and the result was … well, sometimes I am a genius (“only sometimes though” – the teenager’s comment last time I uttered those words).
Time and Place
I was reminded of this difference in problem-solving a few years ago when staying with a friend. The host warned me of an occasional problem with the toilet cistern where water continued to flow into the bowl after flushing. “Pressing the flush handle again stops it,” I was advised.
Sure enough, when I went to the loo the water kept flowing into the bowl. Being a man, my first reaction was to lift the lid of the cistern and try to see what was going wrong. But then the female side of my brain took over: “What are you doing you idiot? It’s 3 am – you know how to stop it – just pull the handle and go back to bed”.
What is your favoured technique?
So, do you approach problems using a “male” or “female” technique? Here’s a two-part test you can try out on your friends and family over Christmas. Ask your guests to write down their first reaction (don’t let them spend too long thinking about it – it’s the first thought that’s important) to the problems, but not reveal them until you’ve asked both questions.
1) You are in a pub sitting at a four-legged table that has a wobble. What would you do?
2) You are in a pub sitting at a three-legged table that has a wobble. What would you do?
The response to the first question will typically be “put a beer mat under the short leg” or “move to a different table”, or something along those lines. It doesn’t really matter – it’s just to set the scene for the second question.
For the second question, most women would also want to do something to stop the wobble (solve the immediate problem). Most men would realise that it’s a trick question because three-legged tables can’t wobble (analyse the problem).
But note that word “most” – it’s very important. I’ve known women to spot the flaw before the question has left my lips, and men to argue till they are blue in the face that there are circumstances in which a three-legged table can wobble.
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