Item Subject: Male Answer Syndrome
MALE ANSWER SYNDROME
(reprinted without permission)
Why do men talk about things they know absolutely nothing
about? Because they can...
In the animal kingdom males tend to exhibit what is known
as "display behavior" in order to attract females and to
ward off rival males. They thrust out their chests, ruffle
their plumage, and generally try to appear more impressive
than they really are. As nature shows, this is comic, too,
when it shows up in its more obvious forms among humans:
the guy in the Camaro with all the gold chains, say, or
Vanilla Ice's haircut. Lately, however, it has been dis-
covered that display behaviour is much more common among
humans than had been previously believeed.
Have you every wondered why:
Men who have never been west of Kentucky can tell
you about the mentality of the Japanese?
Men who can't pay their credit card bills have a
plan for dealing with the national debt?
Men who aren't on speaking terms with their families
know how to achieve peace in the Middle East?
Men who flunked high-school physics can explain what
went wrong at NASA?
Men who haven't had a date in six months know what
women really want?
Try an experiment: Ask my friend Jeff, who spends his
weekends fixing up his Harley and watching female mud
wrestling how he thinks political autonomy will affect the
economies of the Baltic states.
His brow will furrow; he will purse his lips thoughtfully.
"It's interesting that you mention that..." he will begin,
and then he will come up with something - probably nothing
remotely feasible, but something.
This behaviour - the chronic answering of questions
regardless of actual knowledge - is known as Male Answer
Syndrome. The compulsion to answer varies from person to
person, but few men are happy saying "I don't know." They
prefer "That's not what's important here."
They try not to get bogged down by petty considerations,
such as "Do I know anything about this subject?" or "Is
what I have to say interesting?" They take a broad view
of questions, treating them less as requests for specific
pieces of information than as invitations to expand on
some theories, air a few prejudices, and tell a couple of
jokes. Some men seem to regard life as a talk show on
which they are the star guest. If you ask, "What is the
capital of Venezuela?" they hear, "So tell us a bit about
your early years, Bob."
Sometimes this expansiveness is appealing. If you ask a
woman "Why does Mary Hart wear those sweaters?" she will
shrug helplessly, acknowledging that some things are simply
unknowable. A man, on the other hand, will come up with a
few theories (she's related to the designer? color-blind?).
Men have the courage and inventiveness to try to explain
But Male Answer Syndrome is by no means harmless, as my
friend Pauline discovered when she was eight. She had
found that eating ice cream made her teeth hurt and asked
her father whether Eskimos had the same problem. "No," he
said. "They have rubber teeth." Pauline repeated this
information in a geography lesson and found herself the
laughing stock of the class. That was how she learned that
a man, even if he is your own father, would rather make up
an answer than admit to his ignorance.
Later in life women run into the same problem: men can
speak with such conviction that women may be fooled into
thinking that they actually know what they are talking about.
A woman who finds herself in the midst of an impassioned
argument about glasnost may suffer from an eerie sense of
displacement. Has a weird time-space warp landed her in
the Kremlin? No, she's in the mailroom with Dave and Bob,
who she knows for a fact read only the sports pages.
My friend Jeff (he of the Harley) is full of expertise on
subjects as diverse as global warming, and Elvis's current
whereabouts. In reality, however, he is an expert at only
one thing, making very little knowledge go a very long way.
For him answering is a game, and not knowing what he is
talking about just adds to the thrill.
Expressing skepticism can be highly inflammatory. Even
mild-mannered Abe Lincoln types may react to "Are you sure
about that?" as a vicious slur on their manhood and find
themselves backing up a ludicrous assertion with spurious
It is important to understand that not all answering is
symptomatic of Male Answer Syndrome. If a woman asks
"What's for dinner" or "Where is the bathroom?" then
"Spaghetti" or "To the left" is a perfectly acceptable
reply. In such circumstances anyone who screams "Men!
You think you know everything!" is completely out of line.
Strangely, however, many women actively encourage male
answering behavior. There is in the female a correlative
condition known as the "Say Wha? Complex". Women who
behind closed doors expound eloquently on particle physics
may be found, in male company, gaping at the news that the
earth is round. Savvy brunettes with I.Q.'s of 190 do
convincing imitations of Marilyn Monroe in 'Some Like it Hot':
they giggle breathily and suck on a little finger if asked
so taxing a question as "What do you want to drink?"
MAS tends to be mild until puberty; boys begin to speak
with authority on matters of foreign policy at the same
time as they start to grow facial hair. And there is a
growing consensus among scientists as to how MAS developed:
since killing woolly mammoths and attacking enemies with
rocks are now frowned upon, and since shirts open to the
navel are not appropriate in every social situation, men
prove their masculinity by concocting elaborate theories
Growing awareness of MAS has led some to call for a mora-
torium on all male-female conversation. This is alarmist.
But care should be taken. Women must remind themselves that
if a man tells them something particularly interesting there
is a good chance that it is particularly untrue.
Jane Campbell doesn't believe everything she hears.