Here’s a phrase new to me — although certainly not the behavior it describes — male answer syndrome. This weekend, the NPR show On The Media will examine this habit of answering a question with great certainty even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Girls and women generally don’t do this. Most of us loathe looking stupid. We also learn the odds are good that when a woman speaks out loud and clear she’s going to be ignored, shouted down or challenged — depending how testosterone-soaked the atmosphere. So before you open your mouth, you want to be fairly sure you know what the hell you are talking about. Fact-checking on your Blackberry mid-sentence, in my view, is lame.
The point of confidence is putting it out there and seeing what happens. The underlying assumption — am I right? (she asked in a female sort of way) — is that no one will challenge you if you bluster hard and loudly enough. An air of utter confidence can tend to intimidate many people.
I’ve seen it in its most toxic form, thanks to a con man (ex-felon) I dated a decade ago; “con” is short for “confidence”, both that which they so successfully radiate and cultivating their victims’ crucial confidence in them and their usurious schemes. You don’t reap the harvest without a healthy supply of seeds.
He started out in Chicago, handing out business cards covered in fancy acronyms, pretending to be a doctor. Anyone who actually knew medicine — and he chose his victims carefully — would know in a heartbeat the guy was a total liar. But so persuasive was his act that he got a local sports car dealership to send over (!) a vehicle on approval, got a bunch of women to agree to marriage thanks to the glittering CZ he slapped on their gullible fingers, then moved to New York and started all over again, this time pretending to be a lawyer.
From its first iteration, a piece by Jane Campbell in Details, 1991:
ut Male Answer Syndrome (MAS) is by no means harmless, as my friend Pauline discovered at the age of 8. She had found that eating icecream made her teeth hurt and asked her father if 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 own 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’ current whereabouts. In reality however, he is an expert at only one thing: making a 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 facts.
It took me a while to notice a variation of this pattern, most evident in my ex-husband, a medical student when we met and who became a psychiatrist. When he didn’t know the answer to something, he’d say, “I’m not sure.” He was sure, all right. He didn’t want to admit ignorance, so the dreaded words “I don’t know” never passed his lips, at least in his private life. While few patients want their doctor to say “I don’t know”, it’s a useful phrase when it’s actually true.
“Are we out of milk?” is a fairly safe question, for example. A simple yes or no would suffice.
Gentlemen, is this part of your verbal repertoire?
Ladies, what do you do, if anything, in the face of it?