Men Are Not Women With Chest Hair (part 1)

Men Are Not Women With Chest Hair
Terry Odell

Men are not women with chest hairLast week’s post by Elaine Viets reminded me that the different ways (clichés or not) we describe men and women might have some basis in how we’re hard wired. The following post  is based on workshop presentations by Eileen Dreyer and Tracy Montoya.

As a writer of romantic suspense, one genre expectation is that stories are told from both the hero and heroine’s points of view. Writing characters outside one’s gender—and this isn’t restricted to the romance genre, or to major characters—is a challenge. As the title of this blog points out, men aren’t women with chest hair. There are some hard-wired differences, and understanding them can make characters ring true for readers.

Although we know that someone with the XX chromosome set is female, and the males are XY, it’s not ‘either-or’. During gestation, at about the 6-8 week point, the fetus undergoes a ‘hormone wash’, which may be highly loaded with estrogen or testosterone. This overlays brain development and influences brain function. So, there’s really a continuum of sexuality.

And – all of these points are generalizations. There will always be exceptions. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m sharing my workshop notes here.

There are definite differences in brain structure in males and females. Differences are noted at 26 weeks of pregnancy. The brain develops differently in males before sex hormones are produced, so part of the sex differences in the brain is genetic.

Now, cutting to the chase: Humans started out a long, long time ago. Changes in the brain are nowhere near catching up. So, we’re basically hard-wired to survive, but not in this century. Traveling back to the days of early man…

Males are hard-wired as hunters. They have better long range directional skills. They’ve got a better spatial sense. They focus on single tasks, on procreation, they focus on things.

Females are hard-wired as protectors of the nest. They’re communal, have more finely tuned sensory skills, are multi-taskers. They’re non-verbal communicators. They can process and integrate input faster.

Some differences (and remember, these are generalizations)

  • The male resting brain is 30% active.
  • The female resting brain is 90% active. (So, yeah, it’s hard for us to ‘shut down’)
  • The male brain is logical.
  • The female brain is emotive.
  • The male brain is left hemisphere dominant, with the exception of the spatial area.
  • The female brain is more multi-hemisphere, with a thicker Corpus Callosum.
  • When men speak, only one site is active. (Right—they talk OR listen.)
  • When women speak, both the hearing and speech centers are active.

The hard wiring is evidenced at a very early age. Little girls want to fit in. Little boys like to be the boss. As women, we grow up wanting to be part of the group and don’t like to make waves, whereas for men, it’s about the hierarchy. Girls share secrets, like to connect. Boys want to be higher up the ladder and use language to one-up each other. If that doesn’t work, they may resort to physical means.

Which is why men don’t ask for directions — it puts them ‘one step under’ the person they’re asking for help. And it helps explain why men don’t apologize. That also puts them in a subservient role. Or if they do, it’s more like, “I’m sorry if you feel that way…”

These observations are built around our culture and our language, and are broad generalizations. Patterns, not rules. Regional background, age, and birth order also play a part.

Here’s a real life example of how little boys play the game. Three little boys in a car. One says, “We’re going to Disneyland for four days.” Boy #2 says, “We’re going to Disneyland for FIVE days.” Boy #3 says, “We’re MOVING to Disneyland.” The driver was the father of Boy #3. He was about to step in and admonish his son for lying, but his passenger, Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics, stopped him. She explained that they’d just established the pecking order, and his son came out on top. The boys all knew it was a verbal battle, and they knew nobody was moving to Disneyland.

And, on a lighter note (with apologies for the poor video quality):


Heather's ChaseI’m pleased to announce that my upcoming Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available for preorder at most e-book channels. Note: in honor of my daughter, I’m sharing royalties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

(If you’d like to see some of the pictures I took on my trip, many of which appear as settings in the book, click on the book title above and scroll down to “Special Features.”)


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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36 thoughts on “Men Are Not Women With Chest Hair (part 1)

  1. I noticed this when I was teaching high school drama. My play needed two spinster birdwatchers. I didn’t have enough girls so I used 2 9th-grade boys. Though funny, their comedy was somehow off. I finally realized it was in their posture. Though dressed like women, they walked into all the funny parts crotch-first, and didn’t even realize it. A woman would never lead with her crotch!

    • Funny! Brings back memories of my 5th grade teacher who sang opera and was moonlighting in a production of The Bartered Bride. She played a man and would talk to us about the little differences. When women sit, they tend to smooth the back of their skirts (back when we wore skirts), but men would lift their trousers at the knee. I’m not sure how much of that is hard-wired, but it’s interesting.

      • The scene in HUCK FINN where Huck is dressed as a girl, but blows it within seconds of sitting down with his legs spread wide. It’s the woman, of course, who notice this.

  2. Today’s topic reminds me of advice from a friend on a story moment I wrote several years ago, set in 19th century Arizona featuring an army major. He was treating a wound and I wrote about him pulling out his handkerchief to fastidiously clean off his hands. My friend argued that first of all, he had lots of other responsibilities so he wasn’t going to be worried about meticulously cleaning his hands at that moment, and second that he’s a guy–that he’s not going to be dainty about hand washing (not to mention we didn’t have the germ knowledge then that we have now).

    That advice has stuck in my brain and I try to be careful to write my male characters as they would be likely to act, and watching for those times, like the hand-cleaning, when I unconsciously try to inject my own behaviors into their actions.

    • When I wrote my first male POV scene, I asked the Hubster to read it for “guyishness”. First thing he said was, “He needs a bigger truck.” Then, about 20 minutes later, he hovered in the doorway to my office and said, “That part, where she tucks her legs under her on the couch? He’d have looked.”
      I confirmed that with a few other trusted male friends, and it was “that’s a no-brainer” from all of them.
      I also think you have more leeway in a romance-themed book, because the readership is likely to be predominantly female, and they want the male characters to behave the way they wished they’d behave, not necessarily true to the XY set.

  3. Thanks for this post, Terry! It comes at a great time for my WIP which is heavily in the POV of my male lead. His developing brain didn’t go through a “hormone wash” but rather was soaked for a long time in a testosterone marinade.

    “we’re basically hard-wired to survive, but not in this century.” True!

  4. Interesting and useful info, thanks. I love the story about the three boys and Disneyland. I remember my youngest son, at age five, engaging in that type of conversation with a boy he barely knew: our car is bigger than yours, nicer, faster etc. (It wasn’t.) When they ran out of adjectives, my son ended it by saying to the other boy, “you don’t even have car.” It has never occurred to me it was a male domination trait.

    • I have three kids. Firstborn was male, the second were twin girls, three years younger. They shared a bedroom for a long time, so toys were both dolls and trucks, etc., all available to the three of them. Although they played together, the girls went for the “girlie” toys on their own more often than the more ‘boy’ choices.

  5. I once had my male protagonist say, “Except I won’t risk my heart.” It was in response to something the heroine says. My agent (who was reading it for me, commented: I wish my husband would say something like that.)
    I immediately reworked it and had a female character to accuse him of not risking his heart.
    I don’t usually make those kinds of mistakes, maybe because when I was a kid, I was such a tomboy. Instead of dolls I always got toy guns for Christmas and once a Lionel train for my birthday.

    • Nice that your parents accepted your toy preferences, Patricia. Maybe you got a little extra testosterone during the hormone wash. 😉

  6. I’d watched that video while studying this very subject, Terry. Hilarious and informative. When I create male characters, I use the men in my life for inspiration. If they wouldn’t do this or that, then my male characters won’t either.

    • I totally agree that having males to run things by is helpful. Back when we were involved in my husband’s marine mammal organization, he’d steer clear of me during the cocktail hours when I’d be doing my XY ‘research.’

  7. Terry, thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

    You have answered a 32 1/2 year-old-question for me:

    “Why can’t he just say he’s sorry?” 🙂

    Now I see it’s because he’s, well…a man. Not that all men have a problem with making an apology-as you say, these are broad generalizations.

    But at least now I have that to fall back on so I can stop trying to pick him apart and put him back together in my own image. I can shrug and think, “it’s just a man thing.”

    Whew! Moving on…

    Truly interesting stuff. I did a search on Corpus Callosum. More than I ever knew about the mammal brain.

    • The biology student in me (and spouse to one with a PhD in same) loves information like this. Glad it wasn’t too far outside the realm of a writing blog.
      When we were early in our marriage (51 years next week), I had convinced the Hubster that he ought to pre-apologize for all the things he was going to do. Notes, cards, flowers, etc. Maybe I should reinstitute that policy. 😉

  8. Hi, Terry

    While, as Deb noted above, these are broad generalizations, they’re accurate generalizations. While I see myself as somewhat of an outlier in terms of these, some of them are indeed hardwired in me, like most males. Working in a largely female culture at the public library tended to emphasize my outlier aspects of listening, being willing to apologize, valuing empathy and being able to work on multiple things at the same time. That said, like most men, I have plenty of “guy” aspects 🙂

    I’d add that men fear being humiliated. Of course, “humiliation” to a large degree is in the eye of the beholder, but tends to be a default for men, especially in our American culture.

    My first two series both feature 1st person female leads. That’s been a good opportunity for me to grow, but an unexpected challenge has been depicting men from my leads’ POVs. Your post and the previous one are both helpful reminders. Thank you!

  9. So interesting. We can’t deny our own biology!

    Wasn’t’ it Achilles who was disguised as a woman and lived with the daughters of some king in order to avoid getting into the Trojan War? Odysseus foiled the plan by bringing a load of gifts including jewelry, clothes, and a few weapons. Achilles gave himself away when he reached for the shield!

    I wonder if it’s significant that most responses to this post are from women.

  10. A science fiction writer of my acquaintance spoke proudly of how he’d written his book then tossed a coin for each character except the hero to gender them. He saw nothing wrong with this.

    He also spoke a long time of how emotional the hero’s quest to find and rescue his father was for him and his own relationship with his father. In that scene, the two spot each other during a gun battle. “Dad!” “Son!” One of the bad guys then kills the father. I’m not kidding. That’s emotional cluelessness beyond gender or genre.

    Years ago, an academic geek created software to analyze fiction, and he put out a request in author groups for people to submit samples of narrative as a test. I put in samples from a science fiction novel and a category-romance novel. According to the software which wasn’t genre specific, a man wrote the sf novel, a woman the romance. Gender voice and bias, it’s not just a character issue, it’s a genre issue.

    • Good stories, as always, Marilynn. I recall similar (or maybe the same) software and input two scenes, both from the same book, so a romantic suspense genre. One scene from her POV, one from his, and the software said I was female for the “her” scene, and male for the “his” scene. Made me happy.

  11. There must be something terribly wrong with me according to these “hard wire” attributes. I’m logical to the point of being Spock, and I have never once been a joiner of groups (at least not in-person groups). My poor mother decked me out in a Brownie uniform and I went maybe twice. And that was that. However, my favorite color is pink so maybe there’s hope for me after all. 🙂

    • Well, when I was a kid in grade school, my dad owned a service station in our town.

      I didn’t play with dolls.

      I had discarded car parts and toy guns under my bed, with a bow and arrow set, and stacks of books.

      Still that way a bit, except no car parts under the bed. 🙂

    • My mom was the scout troop leader, so I joined. She wanted to get me out and amongst people because I preferred to hang around “with my nose in a book” as she put it. I confess I’m feeling little pain from the isolation of the pandemic. I’m even avoiding Zoom meetings as too much socializing.

    • Haha. I can relate! Though I can’t stand pink. Never played with dolls, either. When my mother bought me Barbies, I’d strip ’em, cut off all their hair, then pop off their limbs and head and “bury” them in my closet. 🙂

      • My friend and I used to make parachutes for ours and fling them off the roof of her house! Barbie (mostly) survived a great deal of “disasters.”

    • I can identify. I enjoyed climbing trees and playing baseball when I was a child. My favorite toy was a blackboard. (Maybe we should form a club for all us non-joiners! 😊 )

  12. There’s a new phrase out there that I don’t fully understand: toxic masculinity. Okay, I lied. I don’t understand it at all, but I’m told that most men of my generation suffer from it.

    I’ve never thought of much of this being hard-wired, but rather cultural. Okay, I lied again. I’ve never thought about this much at all.

    I see some of these differences in the way I interact with friends versus the way my wife does. I’ll go out to dinner with a buddy, have a great time, and when I get home, the lovely bride will ask something like, “So, how’s he doing since he lost his wife?” or “Is he dating again?” When I truthfully answer that I don’t know, she gets frustrated. I always figure that if people want me to know personal details, they’ll tell me.

    Guys who are friends can have arguments that escalate to shouting, walk away, and then end it later with, “You can be a real sh**head sometimes.” There’ll be a shared laugh and it will be over. I’ve seen women in my life agonize for days over perceived affronts, wondering what they did wrong and actually *caring* that they might have offended the other party.

    That said, recalling my emergency response days, I never hesitated to wade into fights between men to break them up. Fights among women, on the other hand, are the most brutal I’ve seen.

    • Thanks, John. Yes, guys can have a knock-down-drag-em-out fight, then they go to the bar for drinks afterwards. Women hold grudges.

      And if I’ve made you think, even just a little, then I’m satisfied.

    • Very true at my house, Nancy. Thou shalt not interrupt someone looking at his email to ask a question. Or Facebook. Or anything else.

  13. On the subject of “hard-wired” differences, has anyone noticed the difference in the way men vs women prepare for bed?
    Caveat: Please understand that I’m NOT man-bashing. Like other women here, I’m really quite XY myself in many ways. My husband portrats many wonderfully XX traits! This is a genuine observation. it’s a stark difference that I’ve noted in parents, my husband, my girlfriend’s husband, and other friends.
    When (most) men get ready to turn in for the night, they get in bed and goes to sleep.
    A woman might do a dozen or more tasks before ever reaching the bed…and that’s without children! Personally, my list includes: turning off the TV, turning out light in that same room, making sure both doors are locked, prepping the coffe maker & turning out kitchen light, laying out clothes for the next day.
    It might also include feeding cats and letting one in or out for the night, clearing away dinner mess, collecting items to be dealt with on a To-Do list the next day, taking out trash….
    You get my point. I’m not implying that the men are in any way lazy. They’re simply wired differently. All of those things could technically be done in the morning. Their minds are focused on “sleep” and so…they go to sleep. It’s fascinating, really!
    Thanks for the informative discussion, Terry. I’m interested in checking out some of those links now!

    • We have those pre-bed chores split at our house. What bugs me is how he just goes to sleep. I have to read myself into oblivion to avoid obsessing over curing the ills of the world, something that’s usually repeated one or two times a night. Thank goodness for e-readers with adjustable fonts and lighting.

  14. I spent a lot of years as one of maybe a dozen women working with 100+ cops, the great majority male. (Helps a lot when writing male characters!) But relative to your post, Terry, when I first started as an emergency dispatcher, I was the first and female in that job at that department. What was fascinating was the reaction from the guys who were use to having another guy on the other end of the radio–they were wary. The ones I got the most support from were the ones who had worked somewhere else where they were used to female dispatchers. And they were delighted. I asked several of them about it, and the answers all boiled down to, “You worry about us more.” One of the big differences in a nutshell, I thought.

    • Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. And I think a lot of what’s been commented on today will show up in part 2 of this article.

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