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How Men & Women See Each Other

Updated on February 25, 2010

It never fails. If a man walks into a restaurant with a woman, whether the man is dressed up or just waking up, they are immediately seen as being somehow more attractive to other women. The sight of a man and a female companion elicits a seemingly conditioned response from the women in the room. They check her out. They check the man out. They check the couple out. They possibly check the man out some more.

As much as men would like to attribute the attention to some qualities of their machoness, it's the woman the man is with who really seems to matter. If she's attractive, it only appears to increase the man's worth all the more. And even if a man is with his girlfriend, that is, even if they're in demonstrative couple mode, it has little effect. It might only ratchet up the attention.

On the flip side, men are far less interested in a woman who enters with another man than in a woman who's alone. If she's with a guy already, what's the point? I also don't believe many men take the time to assess her companion and draw any conclusions about her. It's not that men can't recognize other attractive men (of course we can, we know what we wish our bodies looked like, for example); we just don't. It doesn't even occur to most of us.

All of which raises the question: Why? Why do the two sexes have such differing reactions to ostensibly the same situations? What might explain this stark contrast in styles? Are men and women really that different?

Well, sort of. The first explanation, I think, has to do with what men and women seek in that moment of gazing at someone. For men, especially in social environments like a restaurant or bar, a lone woman represents the opportunity for, well, "conquest" puts a negative spin on it, but that's not far from the case. However you term it, most men are thinking about sex in some way when they see that solitary attractive woman. That's not to say that we can't also be thinking more romantic thoughts, but sex is almost certainly on one of the front burners.

Women, by contrast, seem to be interested in more abstract or long-term qualities. As a woman I know put it, "If he's with a woman, that could mean he's dating, which means he's not afraid of relationships." (Never mind that if he is in fact involved with his companion, any fantasy would require that he leave her, which would make him the kind of guy who cheats or at least has a wandering eye.)

There also seems to be a secondary, subtler, force at work. As the stereotype goes, women are more collaborative. They work well in groups. They seek consensus. However, the other edge of that sword (insert choice of metaphor joke here) is that women need the group's approval even when the issue at hand is by definition individual. In other words, even when a woman is deciding whether she herself is interested in a man, she's more likely to conclude that she is if other women are as well.

Part of that is human nature. You could even call it economics. When there is greater demand for a single thing, that thing increases in value. However, this phenomenon is mostly specific to women. For reasons I don't pretend to fully grasp, women do seek out and work well in groups. The best example may be in middle school, when so many of our tendencies are on display, unfiltered by self-awareness or age.

If you observe a group of say, fifth-graders at recess, you'll notice that while the boys mostly go and play sports (where the teams might shift daily, or where there might not be teams at all), the girls are often involved in the gripping social drama of who is "in" and who is "out." The criteria for acceptance aren't spelled out. Certain girls lead, others follow. But almost all of them crave group acceptance. They dedicate their free time to pursuing it. Will this dynamic ever change? Perhaps slowly. Certainly as more girls get involved in sports, it will ease some of the adolescent group tension, because at least on the field, the rules for winning and losing are clear. And over time, as women continue to push the envelope sexually, perhaps more of them will see men as conquests as well.

But in the short term, little seems likely to change. In other words, men: If you're having trouble finding a date, bring a woman along next time. And women: If you're alone at a bar, you're still going to get hit on (like you needed me to tell you that). More importantly: If you're trying to decide if a guy's cute, just imagine that every woman in the room wants him. He'll never have looked so good.

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