Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014
The world of relationships
It is useless for us to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he has never been reasoned into.
Noticing small details
I had a male friend to stay who seemed reasonableness itself. When my mother was ill and I was visiting her twice a day in hospital, he would shepherd my son around from football to friend to local show and his level of understanding was infinite. In my tiny bathroom, I have two towels that I like to keep folded to make them unobtrusive and neater by blending into the surroundings. Each time I went into the bathroom after he had been in there, it was to find the towels ruffled up and replaced just anyhow. I would then unruffle them and the cycle would start again. I noticed what was going on but I am not sure that he did. Eventually I mentioned it and he couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
Misunderstandings like this have echoed down the ages and through different cultures. This is not about laziness, or unwillingness to help in the home, but about different ways of seeing. By now, the reader will probably have spotted the roots of this familiar conflict with women more likely to spot details and to see things in the context of the surroundings and men less likely. So, women’s greater field dependence will mean that the coloured cushions that are not arranged in the correct sequence will upset them while men, with their greater field independence, will see objects out of context from their environment and not notice. So he does not really see the ruffled towel, and the cushions do not even register.
Stories like this one are legion. A lady I was chatting to at work confided some of her frustrations to me one day over coffee. “I’ll come home and the house will look as though it has been burgled. It drives me mad. Cushions are everywhere and my seven year old son will have dropped his jacket on the floor. My eight year old daughter doesn’t do it nearly so much. The thing is I need to have order at home before I can do anything. It is a priority for me. My husband is organised at work — he’s an optician — but nobody could describe him as neat at home.”
A similar theme emerged from my Danish friend Anna, speaking of the breakdown of her marriage. “I’ve been with him for nearly twenty years, and I wouldn’t have stopped it unless he had.” Next time we met, she told me of a positive aspect to the break-up. “My house would also be reasonably tidy and then David would return home and leave a trail of clothes behind him. You could literally follow his tracks by following the line of jumpers, shirts and socks that he left behind him.” She confided that she found this irritating and that it disturbed her visual landscape. David, on the other hand, noticed no disruption to the surrounding visual scene.
While putting the finishing touches to this book, I holidayed with friends and their three children and while we were clearing the meal (the husband had gone off to a local shop to get a special dessert), the wife reminisced about their early days together. “Shortly after I met David,” said Sam, “I decided to clear his bachelor pad kitchen. When he returned, he stood in the kitchen door and kept saying that it looked twice the size but he was mystified as to what had occurred since it didn’t register that I’d cleared away the clutter since he’d never noticed it anyway. There had been a newspaper covering a used plate and the date on the paper suggested it had been there for more than a week but presumably this disappeared into the background.”
We returned to this subject again after dessert. “I remember when we moved into our house thinking how awful the bright yellow on the walls was. I painted them a neutral colour which was much more restful to live with. Just recently, I reminded David what it used to be like and he seemed to have no recollection of the previous colour so it obviously had had little impact on him.”
We were staying in a rented holiday cottage and, after putting her children to bed, she picked up where she had left off: “I like everything to match and so will take care to make sure that when I set the table, everything looks harmonious. David will sometimes say how nice it all looks but he’ll usually have no idea why it looks so pleasant.” By this stage, David was back from his shopping trip and the conversation took another turn. By that stage, I’d heard enough to make me realise that Sam and David had approached visual issues in rather different ways. They had established a modus vivendi with Sam taking most of the important decisions.
Decisions in and around the home
Given the private nature of the home, a surprising amount is known about it. In Britain, the National Association of Estate Agents undertook research in 1996 that showed that it was only in 9% of cases that men had a decisive say in the purchase of a house. According to the survey, over three quarters of estate agents in the survey agreed that women were the key decision-makers in house purchase decisions.
As to what goes on inside the house, the Henley Centre in Britain were commissioned to carry out research for Laing Homes in 2001 and reported that the volume of space per person per household was increasing and leading to clearly defined ’his and hers’ rooms. ’His’ room would typically be a study, or bathroom with TV screen and state of the art gadgetry, while ’her’ room would be a super new kitchen. What about common areas? According to the report, women do not want technology permanently displayed in common areas and men “would not be allowed” to have their computer in the main living room! We should not be too surprised by the fact that women have overall control over what does and does not happen in the home. Research in 1996 highlighted the extent to which lack of consensus is the norm in joint decision-making, and research two years later established the extent to which this conflict is managed by the female partner “to ensure that the outcome follows her expectations.”
Recently, I wanted advice from interior designers about a house renovation project and asked them whether they came across discord between men and women about choice of decor. Both the women I spoke to mentioned that men generally conceded to women’s choices since they realised that decisions about home decor mattered to them more than to men. The fact that, in their experience, men are prepared to follow women’s lead is a bit of a relief since the potential for “lack of consensus” is otherwise enormous from the choice of kitchen, utensils, floor coverings, curtains to furniture, accessories and wall colours!
Often, the discord can be kept under wraps. A talented interior designer, Michelle Chesney, told me that she was planning the interior of her flat with her partner and some differences of opinion were looming into view. In the bedroom, he wanted to retain the square black headboard and also had his eye on a new sofa that was square-shaped and even had square-sided feet. She managed to reach a compromise on the headboard by agreeing on a neutral oatmeal colour set on a rounded headboard, decorated with buttons. The jury was still out on what she would do about the sofa.
Sometimes the differences just erupt. My good friends were choosing a new mixer tap for the kitchen and at first Nina said she would leave the choice entirely to David. However, when he returned from the shops with a minimalist techno metal mixer, operated by slick vertical levers, she realised she did care about what the tap looked like after all. Her preference was for something more rounded, and white. A major domestic stand-off ensued. This couple, who normally hardly ever argue, were horrified at the depth of emotion these taps had stirred up.
Stepping into the garden
The potential for discord has the potential to extend to the garden as well. Recently, I had new turf put down in my front garden since the old one was beyond repair. This was a busy time of year and I did not have time to supervise the work but one day, on returning home, noticed that the new turf was in place. I suddenly realised that something was not quite right and, after some reflection, realised that the sharp lines formed by the new grass was what was bothering me. I gently asked the gardener whether he could add create some softer, more curved lines and the dissatisfaction evaporated as the grass formed curved edges with the flowerbeds.
In the following summer, my near neighbour, Dr Luisa De Giorgi, was showing me round the garden which is her pride and joy. “When I arrived at my house, the garden was a complete wilderness and there was no lawn and no flowerbeds. It took me years to get it the way I wanted.” She gives the same rapt attention to her garden as she does to her patients and, as she guides you round, you notice the circular beds in the middle of the lawn and curved edges on the perimeter beds. “I like these shapes and would hate to have straight edges,” she comments. At around this time, I had my own front garden landscaped by an excellent gardener from the Czech Republic, Libor Zapletal, and one of the things that he did was replace the rather mangy grass with something more pristine. In doing this, he formed a straight edge to the new grass so that the three large clusters of evergreens which faced you as you came through the garden gate emerged from behind a straight grass edge. I had worked hard to shape the earlier grass so that the edges curved in front of the plants but Libor’s efficient work left the area with a fine straight line. Feeling a tad uncomfortable with this shape (and reluctant to engage in a discussion on gender aesthetics!), I purchased some turf and reinstated the curves!
Another feature of Luisa’s garden is the variety of flower species, all tenderly nurtured from seed or cuttings. One year, I had interviewed the head gardener of one of the oldest gardens in London, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and asked whether male and female gardeners have different styles of gardening. The answer was unequivocal: “Women are more interested in adding a border with different varieties of plants whereas men are more likely to use a block of a single plant and branch out to landscaping.” It seemed that Luisa’s style might be typical of her gender.
You can see these differences in all sorts of plant-based design. Gertrude Jekyll (1843—1932), who created over 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America, revolutionised garden design by replacing the parterre of repeating flowers (’bedding out’ schemes) with planting ’in drifts’ where the same species and colour is planted in small sections. Jekyll is also well-known for the use of ’garden rooms’: gardens with a formal layout of pools, sunken gardens, pergolas and summer houses, divided with hedges, pergolas and walls into a number of enclosed spaces. This sense of enclosure gave each ’room’ its own personality and style and this, together with the drifts, served to break up large expanses of space, something well in line with the female idiom.
By way of contrast, you could take the garden by Tom Stuart-Smith that won first prize at the 2003 Chelsea Flower Show: grey slate floor and only greenery, no flowers, in the earth. This show is the UK’s horticultural equivalent of the Wimbledon tennis championship, organised by the eminent Royal Horticultural Society. Tim Richardson, writing recently in the Society’s own magazine The Garden, complains that the judges for the Chelsea Flower Show are overwhelmingly male: “a group of middle-aged men in Panama hats” is his description. The main drift of his article is that modern professional designers are being let down by Chelsea’s rather parochial judging, but you could say that he is missing a vital point: that all-male juries tend to judge according to their own preferences for garden design.
Consider, for example, the gardens exhibited at Chelsea in 2012. Luisa had a spare ticket so I went along and jotted down notes of the main gardens on display and the prizes awarded:
Lands’ End: A Rural Muse; designer — Adam Frost. Long rectangular pond (gold).
The Brewin Dolphin Garden; designer — Cleve West. Has tall topiary, a grand gate and a well at back with a gaping hole (gold and best show garden).
Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust Garden; designer — Joe Swift (M). Four cedar wood frames (gold).
The Arthritis Research UK Garden; designer — Thomas Hoblyn. Rectangular pond with rectangular stepping stones (silver gilt).
M&G Garden; designer — Andy Sturgeon. The walls described in the programme as “monolithic stone walls” (gold).
The Laurent-Perrier Bicentenary Garden; designer — Arne Maynard. Long lines of copper beeches that follow a long path (gold).
The RBC Blue Water Garden; designer — Nigel Dunnett. Very linear path — rectangular shape with paths off on both sides. Turquoise water + preponderance of orange flowers and mauve (silver gilt).
The Telegraph Garden; designer — Sarah Price. Wild flowers. Big square pond but some meandering paths. Not formally laid out (gold).
Sarah Price’s garden might just as well have come from a different planet to the others and if you wanted a further contrast to the female idiom, you could take Edouard François’ “Tower Flower”, a ten-storey concrete apartment block in Paris’s 17th arrondissement. Edouard, an architect and urban planner since 1986, created the name “Tower Flower” himself although it is something of a misnomer since, rather than flowers, every storey has 380 giant concrete flowerpots with tall, vertical bamboo plants. He says that he is experimenting with what he calls “technique végétale”, a method that uses plants to attempt to soften the hard lines of buildings but whether the tall, slender plants achieve this effect is open to debate. “Would smaller, more colourful plants have achieved a better effect? Do the tall flowers emphasise the vertical?” my friend Rosy asked as she tilted her neck to see to the top of the ten-storey Tower. We thought with some nostalgia of Alpine chalets with their brightly coloured flowers and had similar thoughts in front of the greenery added by Patrick Blanc to the exterior of the Musée du Quai Branly, a short hop away on the other side of the river. The trend, incidentally, has crossed the Chanel and the long wall at London’s “Westfield” at Shepherd’s Bush has also been covered by a mass of green plants.
Ever conscious of the extreme controversy surrounding discussions of gender difference, I was eager to find out what garden experts thought. Did they think that you could distinguish male from female-designed gardens?
Garden experts speak out
Strangely, opportunities to pose this question arose shortly afterwards. I saw an advert for a talk by gardener and garden historian, Dr Catherine Horwood, author of Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present and posed the question during question time afterwards. “Women tend more to look at a garden as painting a picture,” she said. “They are less concerned with the minutiae of planting and more with the overall effect that they are seeking to achieve. That’s not to say that male gardeners aren’t successful in doing this but they approach gardening in a different way.”
The next opportunity occurred a few months later when some of the gardens in the area I live in, Hampstead Garden Suburb, were opened to the public. This was a chance to visit the garden of Marjorie Harris, ex-Chair of the local Horticultural Society and, although the area she presided over was relatively small, her seven years in office would have provided ample opportunity to experience men and women’s gardens. Asked the question, she was unequivocal in her answer. “Woman’s gardening is more cottage-gardening — everything melding together, colours for example. There is formality in that there is tidiness in having defined lines (the edges of the grass) but the beds have softer lines and ordered chaos like a billowing skirt.” She paused for a moment: “In fact,” she said, “you can tell immediately a man’s garden from a woman’s garden.”
“In what way?” I inevitably asked and her response was immediate: “Men’s gardens perhaps have more gaps and more repetition of things and flowers don’t meld into each other. Also, men might have straight lines rather than curvy ones, with often a square layout that is not as bendy as the one in a female garden. So their gardens have more scientific precision, are much tidier with a lot of one plant and they will tend to look at the whole in a more mathematical way.”
Without any prompting, this train of thought led her to speak about the annual garden competition: “One year,” she said, “all the judges were men and the women hated the winning entry which was very neat, straight and defined. Come to think of it, the male judges frequently select the male garden as the one they like best.”
You could imagine that this kind of partisan attitude could signal trouble on the home front, with turf wars on how best the garden should be designed. Fortunately, if a 2011 survey of 2000 people by Roundup Weedkiller is to be believed, men tend to do the more physical work such as digging best and taking rubbish to the tip, while women choose the plants and arrange the flowerbeds. This division of labour keeps the potential for disagreement to a minimum.
The potential for differences of opinion do not end there, however. According to a male interior designer, whereas women like to create a ’home environment’ men want to solve problems — his examples were a male client who did not want much of a kitchen because he didn’t cook, and another who bought a warehouse space and specified that he wanted an area for cooking, an area for making music, an area for eating. Thus a man likes to define a room by what it will do where a woman is more likely to define it by how it looks.
One spring morning, I did what I almost never do which is attend a breakfast meeting. This was not time wasted since I met interior designer Morwenna Brett there. Pitching for sales at that hour of the morning were neither women’s forte, and they were glad to subside into squishy armchairs with a cup of coffee. The conversation quickly turned to the different attitudes of men and women to design, particularly interior design.
Morwenna told me that she had just been commissioned by an interiors magazine to recreate some elaborate 18th century bed drapes in her own bedroom for a feature. Ruched curtains in historically accurate French Toiles de Jouy fabrics, covered in flowers and shepherdesses, surrounded the bed, all held in place with delicate antique brass fittings. After the photographer had gone, she had proudly showed the bedroom to her boyfriend. His only response was a puzzled: “but what’s it for?”
If only this was an isolated incident! Unfortunately, Morwenna went on to tell me how her friend Ros had decorated the matrimonial mattress with a gathered valance in order to conceal it but the valance kept shifting, and every few weeks Ros and her partner had to undertake the laborious, two-person job of lifting the mattress and shuffling the valance back into its proper place. Ros was in despair, and tried to devise ways of keeping it where it should be, but Phil’s instant response was: “Why don’t we just get rid of the thing?”
If the men are more able than women to dissociate objects from their surroundings, if they prefer straight lines to rounded ones, if women have better peripheral vision than men and better colour discrimination, it’s no wonder that decorating a home to both their satisfaction is a minefield. It’s no wonder that a couple’s first argument arises over something as trivial as the choice of a toaster. Given that many of us women are even prepared to suffer mild discomfort for the sake of aesthetic pleasure — and men will want, primarily, for things to work properly — it’s no wonder the new exercise bike parked in the middle of the sitting room floor becomes a major source of domestic friction.
Ironing out differences
When hunter and gatherer vision collide there can be a major eruption. You can understand why since you have the confrontation of two ways of seeing and two sets of values, the ’hunter’ and the ’gatherer’. Of course, a proportion of men and women will not conform to the differences we have described but a goodly proportion — as the evidence testifies — will. How can people ensure that differences of opinion are resolved and transmuted into decisions that both can live with?
This is a question that I put to three interior designers and they all took the view that men were generally happy to defer to the opinions of women. This may seem surprising but the points that consistently emerged were that women were more bothered about aesthetic choices than men and so men were happy to let women have their way; a further point was that many men felt that women were better at making aesthetic choices and so were happy to defer to their judgement. One can only hope that these designers have got it right since, otherwise, discord would be reverberating from sitting rooms all around the world.
Where the difference is, however, less easy to resolve, one can only hope that an understanding of hunter and gatherer vision will help ease things towards a solution. She doesn’t want the square sofa with rectangular legs so is a compromise possible, perhaps a slightly softer sofa with no legs at all? He doesn’t want to fix the decorative valance to the mattress when it falls off so can she take responsibility for this? In any event, this book will provide a language in which to talk about differences — trichromacy vs. tetrachromacy; field independence vs. field dependence; lack of detail focus vs. detail focus; functional primacy vs. aesthetic primacy — and so disagreements will at least have an educated ring to them and this, at least, will help to diffuse tensions.
So, reader, armed with information on the new science of perception, try and diffuse tensions and differences with this language of science. It might just take the conversation in a different direction!