Empty Room Syndrome – Intro

The phrase “Empty Room Syndrome” roughly refers to state of a man’s mind when he awakens to a special realization about communication patterns between women.  As I recall, the phrase was coined by one of my aunts, after hearing one of my descriptions.

In the December of 2005, I volunteered at a school that dealt with kids with special needs.  I subsequently joined as a special education teacher the following January. Here was an environment where like most schools in Singapore, the adult females outnumbered the adult males. In the situation I placed myself, it was nine female teachers to one male teacher. Now, I thought I was there to teach kids with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder).  What the situation taught me, was something completely different. Up to that point in my professional life, I had been working in the engineering and logistics lines, where the working atmosphere or culture was largely male-centric. In this new environment, I noticed things I had never seen before as patterns of behaviour seemed to be largely exaggerated . When I clarified with my wife on some of the dynamics that I had observed, I was given a picture that I had never seen before. From there, it sparked my interest to want to know more. After leaving this organisation, I maintained contacts with people in the organisation. I had even recommended a friend of mine to the organisation as she seemed to be a better fit than me.  A month after leaving the organisation, I happened to chat with one female ex-colleagues on the phone.  In our conversation, I inquired after the status of the friend who had joined shortly after I had left.  It was from hearing her remarks about this friend of mine that I had an epiphany.

It innocently started with “Oh! You mean the angry one?”, which was what I thought to be a peculiar remark.  It was from there, when I clarified why such a label was being used on this person, that more of this mystery started to unravel.

As there is considerable literature already on male behaviour and male group behaviour, I have not spent much time explaining what guys do or how they behave except in cases where a contrast between behaviours (of males & females) is being explored.

Part 2 – Alliances

Alliances are groupings that serve multiple functions.

Definition from Wikipedia: “An alliance is an agreement or friendship between two or more parties, made in order to advance common goals and to secure common interests.”

In the context of human relations between same-sex groups, there is a different dynamic that is at play.

Within groups of men, the alliance is congruent with the definition above. This seems to be because men tend to be concrete, and what you see is pretty much what you get. Men tend to also deal with other men at only a superficial level, so the alliance doesn’t permeate very far. For example, if men are allied by a formal military treaty, then the alliance relates only to the military aspect of their relations.  It has little or no bearing on how their families work or what kind of food is eaten.

Women, on the other hand, form alliances differently. Alliances are formed one member at a time by another member.  Once the alliance is formed, communication between individual members is at multiple levels. In this way, the breaking of alliances is a very complex process, because it involves severing of ties at different levels. Alliances, for women, serve multiple purposes. The bigger the alliance, the wider the sphere of influence of its members. Alliances are functional things, and the function of the female alliance is not to conquer other alliances, but to incorporate new unaligned members. Membership in the alliance is by personal selection. Existing members of the alliance invite other women to come in. Sometimes a women who is not a member of the alliance may seek entry into the alliance, however she can only gain entry into the alliance if “sponsored” by another alliance member.

Alliances of women also have male members, however, males are completely unaware that:
1) they belong to the alliance, or,
2) have any control over the workings of the alliance.
By and large, male participation seems to be honorary and utilitarian. However, as males are unaware that they belong (in a possessive sense) to an alliance, they may violate some of the communication and behaviour rules of the alliance. When they do this, women in the alliance may see this as a betrayal, because they too are unaware that the male is unaware of the violation (and indeed of his membership in the alliance itself).

Women see the boundaries of alliances everywhere. As such, they tread carefully because the repercussions of crossing an alliance can be severe. Men see nothing of this and behave as though they see nothing of this too.  Often, when a man is confronted by a woman for the “violation” of the alliance, he is just so confused.

Part 3 – Group hierarchy

In mixed functional groupings, there is an interesting dynamic that transforms the manner in which the group’s information is discussed and disseminated to other groups.
The assumption (largely held by men) in paternalistic societies is that the men are in charge.  However, an observation of families as well as people in organizations where there are at least two women in the group points to something else.

When groups are made of men and women, the top down structure seems to be:
1.Elder woman
2.Elder man
3.Younger woman
4.Younger man

Essentially, the women take control over the group especially if they are an alpha female of a particular kind [to be discussed later].  The elder woman trumphs the younger woman in that she has had more years to hone her craft.  When this person is highly skilled as a manipulator, she is not seen to be directing anything.

The men take second and also last spot.  The elder man’s sphere of influence extends to manipulation of the younger women and younger men in the grouping.  He is largely defenceless to the manipulation by the elder woman though he may sometimes have an awareness that he is being manipulated by her but without suitable strategies to deal or challenge her manipulative behavior.

The younger man remains oblivious to the manipulation by the women (all of them).  Unfortunately, he does this to the point of delusion.  It doesn’t even occur to him that his behaviour is being manipulated. For example, when manipulative efforts direct the younger man to do something on behalf of, or for the group, he thinks he is being chivalrous and “willingly” does it! It is the same situation when as an adult, the younger man does what his mother tells him to do.

Part 4 – Multi tasking

When it comes to higher cognitive functioning, this is a capability that all women have, to different degrees.  If you think of everyone positioned on a spectrum, then some women will be at the higher end where they process multiple things in the split of a second and some might be at the lower end of the spectrum where they seem to think almost like men – i.e. a bit more simplistically.

Men unfortunately cannot multi task to save our lives!  Let me be specific and then let me present an example to illustrate this.  First, this applies to things that require higher cognitive functioning and parallel processing.  For things that require lower cognitive processing, yes, we can roughly handle

To cope with multiple complex tasks, men do something that seems like multi tasking, to the untrained observers (aka women) but, obviously isn’t.  We work like single-processor computers and we “time-splice”.  This is where we do one activity, pause, then another activity, pause, and get back to the first activity, pause and so on.  Some men are more skillful than others such that we can shorten the pauses so that it seems to be a seemless process of handling multiple activities.  However, we are never truly multi tasking.  We are just switching really fast.

A way to highlight or see this process at work is to disrupt it. When you attempt to disrupt a man in the middle of his process stream, the rest of the processes get derailed too and he becomes very lost.

Now an example to illustrate. After reading the scenario below, think about who comes to mind and more importantly, who does not.

Imagine a scene in which a person is sitting on a couch, feeding a new born, intently watching a program on TV, talking to a friend on the phone and, supervising a child in the background.
Now, who comes to mind?  Ask yourself, “why did I think that?”
Next, consider who did not (for the most part) cross your mind and why.
Instinctively, most will say, of course it’s a woman or mother or someone female.
Well, of the 1000+ people that I’ve questioned since 2007, all but a handful of people have ventured that a male could do it!

At which point, I present what I think is a plausible effect if a male tried it:
– the baby would not get fed,
– he’d completely miss what was going on, on the TV,
– his friend at the other end of the phone would have by now got fed up with him and,
– the child might have run away from home, without him noticing it.

I should clarify that not all women would be able to handle all the 4 complex tasks efficiently but, they’d fare better than any male I have thus far observed.

Now, it has been pointed out (by many men) that in this scenario, the 1st task seems more of a perceived maternal role so I could be skewing the result towords women. However, even when the 1st activity is excluded, respondents still respond the same way!

The tasks that I’ve chosen are everyday activities.  Realistically, I conceptualize that just about anyone could perform any of the tasks in isolation without much problem.  I’ve described these tasks as complex as each require understanding, observation, knowledge and action.  For example, in feeding the baby, only so much liquid formula or milk can be ingested by the baby before it needs to be burped.  The volume is equivalent to the size of the baby’s clenched fist, roughly equal to the size of its stomach.  Failure to observe how much liquid goes into the baby results in that liquid backing up and spilling onto the person feeding the baby.  It’s complex when you consider it this way.

Is it possible to teach a male to multi task complex activities?

I remain hopeful though I have yet to see it.  Also, research I have been doing so far seems to suggest otherwise. Some males will disguise this inability to multi task in the domestic setting as “women’s work”. Now, that’s just a coping skill.

Now, if women can multi-task and men cannot, then it would appear that women would always trump men. However, there are a lot of situations where the opposite seems to be more prevalent.
Multi-tasking seems to come with a unique disadvantage too. The women cannot stop multitasking.

Part 5 – Cultural Projection

As individuals, we instinctively project our unique culture onto others when we meet people.  After which, what we think about the person is determined in part by how they compare to our standard of things.  This is an effortless and automatic process, for most people.
It is generally when people fail to meet our expectations that we then start to question why.

Looking at the psychology of culture shock, I theorized that males and females within any cultural group could also be thought to be belonging to two sub-cultures that constantly interact with each other.  When each sex deals with same sex communication, the underlying cultural norms are similar and ideas and attitudes are exchanged.

Using a very simplistic model to explain culture, males tend to be individualistic while females veer towards colectivism [explained in alliances].  When males and females communicate, it is as if people from two different cultures are talking and consequently, each may project on the other an image that is not congruent with the model of themselves.  When this happens, each person then misinterpretes the signals sent back and forth as the difference in culture has not been taken into account.

For example, a woman looks at a man and thinks to herself, this guy is really together as he can do so much (i.e. multi-task) and keep it all together.  Well, is that really true?  It could only be true if the culture and thinking patterns of both parties were similar, as in the case of one woman remarking the same thing onto another woman.

Part 6 – Receiving and Processing stimuli

This section is to provide some biological insight into how the male and female brain differ in the processing of stimuli.

Let’s consider hearing.
Women hear in stereo as both ears operate at the same time.  Men hear in mono as our ears operate one at a time.  This finding was arrived at through the use of an experiment where two similarly sounding words were uttered a quarter of a second apart.  The women heard both words while the men only heard one word.

With improvements in brain imaging, it is possible to map out which parts of the human brain are activated when exposed to different kinds of stimuli.
For instance, take how sound is perceived by different parts of the human brain.
Some parts of the brain handle complex or creative tasks while other parts handle basic or rudimentary tasks.

In an experiment involving how human voice is processed by brain, male and female adult participants were exposed to male and female voices and their brain activity was measured.
The results were:
– For males exposed to male voices, the rudimentary brain was activated.
When males heard female voices, the creative brain was activated.
– For females, exposure to either male or female voices only activated the rudimentary brain.  Curiously, with the female group, the creative brain was not activated to process human speech.

The implications of these finding are numerous as in real life as we are never exposed to just one sound or one voice.  There is a chorus of voices out there!

However, what we interprete depends on which part of the brain is active in a context and how it is loaded.  We are cognitive misers – i.e. we take short cuts to lessen the thinking load, else we have to think deeply about everything.  However, with the differences in the way our brains are wired between across the sexes, each sex then adopts coping strategies.

For a male:
– when the rudimentary brain is used, concurrently performing multiple but simple tasks seem to be a possibility however, speech may be inhibited to making rudimentary grunting like noises.
An example I like to use is the kind of ‘speech’ a guy who has been woken up in the morning, can muster when his spouse asks him a question or two.  Seems to be that grunt like noises prevail.
Once he’s more awake, his creative brain goes to work and his responses are more lucid.
– when the creative brain is active, intense focus on a complex activity is possible provided distractions are minimized else this can disrupt his entire process.
– Having to decipher a female voice and focussing on a complex cognitive activity works out to 2 complex tasks. [and he either gets angry or shuts down or both]

For the female:
– since the rudimentary brain is only required to process speech, the creative brain is freed to attend to other cognitive tasks, unhindered.
Does this help to unravel why women can multi-task?  Perhaps, but I suspect that it isn’t the only factor.

Part 7 – The empty room

Up to now, you have been presented with this picture:
Women multi-task and men don’t.  In multi-tasking individuals, communication is spread between the different levels – like the levels of a house; some happen at ground level and some happen below or above ground level.

With women, it seems to be that there is active control of how much communication effort is spread across each of the different levels.  All the time, all levels are active.
When the situation calls for it, they have the ability to channel more effort on one level and less effort on the other levels.  This situation might be for an instance where they have to focus intently on a particular task.  While this seems like a good mental structure to have, the limitation is that they cannot switch off a communication layer.  At best, they can only minimize it for it will still be in their active thoughts.

With men, we operate in single storey houses and are oblivious to the fact that other levels even exist.
Then one fine day, we see what looks to be an outline of a door in the kitchen and wonder if it had always been there.  The curiosity gives way to action and we turn the handle, open the door and see that it leads to a room in the basement.  We walk down to the basement, turn on a light and see an empty room.  At this point, we have become aware of another level of communication in our mind.

What causes this awareness of this room?  I don’t know.  For me, it happened around the time I turned 40 when I had the epiphany about how male and female communication patterns were culturally different.  Age certainly seems to be a factor but it’s not the only variable as I have observed and interviewed older guys who still don’t see anything.

Being guys, we start to fill this room with stuff.  First goes in the six pack – as it’s cool in the basement, then comes the pool table and the entertainment unit and couch and before very long, the room is packed with stuff.

You’re now wondering where I’m going with this.  Well, consider the guy who’s just married and has his mother on one side and his wife on the other.  Both women are using multiple communication channels and are sending messages back and forth to each other all the time.  However, much of the communication is unseen and not felt by the guy and the women may also not realize this.

Consequently, guys feel nothing of the subterranean shock waves that one women is sending the other and vice-versa.  From the guy’s perspective, you’re both women [and he doesn’t understand either] so if you have a problem, talk it out and settle it.  Yeah.  That isn’t going to happen.

Younger guys don’t see the door and aren’t aware of the empty room as they are just discovering parts of the house, on the surface.  When a usually more mature guy has just discovered the empty room but it is still empty, his reaction is understandably the same as the shock wave sent by one woman to the other, doesn’t cause anything to vibrate.

With a six-pack in the room, the same shock wave now causes some rattling and him discomfort and he starts to build a connection between this new feeling and the presence of his mother and wife in proximity of each other.

When the room is now packed with stuff, that same shock wave feels like an earth-quake as things rattle around, fall on the floor and this causes him major discomfort!  His reaction?  Flee!
He flees as he’s in great discomfort and while he now knows what’s causing it, that’s his only viable strategy.

Part 8 – Alpha females

The term “alpha” is used to distinguish a person that is at a higher level than another in a group – like an authorithy figure. With groups of men, the alpha male may generally be the loud and boisterous person in the group.  Being loud tends to scare and intimidate the competition (other males).

In groups of women however, there are 2 distinct paths that alpha females seem to take.
Based on descriptions and labels that women that I’ve talked to have used, I call these two paths as:
1) The Royal Line and,
2) The Family Line

In groups or alliances, there will generally be alpha females in them. A group’s advantage over another seems to also depend on the types of alpha females in them and the size of the alliance.

The Royal line is comprised of princesses and queens.  In a sense, they chase power much like alpha males do and they may step on others who are in their way as they aim for the coveted top position.
The queens are on top of their game and have immense control within their alliance.  Women are always cautious when approaching a queen, even if they are a queen themselves.
Lower down we have the princesses who are sometimes queens in training and other times, forever in a transition state as they don’t seem to be able to master all there is to master, to be a queen.

The Family line is comprised of Mamas and Aunties.  They seem to strive for group harmony.
While Mamas hold a coveted spot in the family line, unlike the Royal line where the princesses are queens in training, Aunties are not necessarily Mamas in training.

Mamas seem to be females where the maternal role has been switched on and cannot be switched off.  They derive their power from the number of people they can influence and protect.
Protection is offered to their alliances and even to males who technically do not have voting rights in female alliances.

Aunties are different as they do not actively seek to expand the number of people under them.  Sometimes, they are seen as isolates or islands while other times, they may be in charge of a few people. When there is a need, they may temporarily step into the top role, be it a Mama role or a Queen role.
However, as this is not necessarily their element, they seem ill suited to occupy the role for long periods without suffering health breakdown.

Part 9 – Non-Alpha females

This comprises the general population of females.  Ages range from the very young to the very old.
All females seem to start out as non-alphas. Other women have described such people as chicks, like the young of chickens. While some will dominate others even from an early age, the alpha tendencies do not seem to appear till early adulthood. A combination of family of origin, the presence of other alphas in the immediate family, testing scenarios or a trial by fire seems to give the non-alpha the confidence to move into an alpha role.

Part 10 – Alpha interactions

This is where things get complicated, to say the least.  All women learn to be wary when meeting other women because alliance boundaries, alliance membership, the presence of alpha and non-alpha females etc are not easy to make out.

As alphas compete for dominance, there tend to be fights and stalemates. In stalemates, there is no clear winner and it is as if both parties have lowered their weapons and ceased fighting for that round of the battle.

Examples of possible stalemate interactions:
1. Queen versus Queen
2. Mama verses Queen
3. Aunty verses Queen

When alphas fight for dominance, things get heated and are sometimes publicly aired.
In conflicts, alphas who are a queen do not battle themselves.  Instead, they seem to use a similar strategy, in all parts of the conflict.

To exercise dominance, alphas will:
– first increase group size by drawing in non-alpha females and lower standing alpha females,
– resort to recruiting the very clueless, i.e. men, who are nothing more than pawns to be used as well,
– use lower level alphas eg. princesses to duke it out, while they selectively speak,

On the other hand, alpha females do not get drawn in though they may sit on the sidelines and laugh. At the end of the conflict, each goes their separate way and no female crosses the other’s boundary or alliance.

Such a situation happened in Singapore in 2009 involving the women’s group AWARE (http://www.aware.org.sg/). Try a google seach with “aware saga” to read articles written by various people. The gist was that one group of women tried to outmatch another group but both employed the same strategy during the conflict and after.

For the AWARE group:
– membership stagnant for many years at 300 people swelled to 3000 people in a month,
– women took to speaking out and challenging each other, issues unrelated to the struggle were aired,
– a few men spoke out about the unrelated issues, believing they could help and all the time remaining clueless about the alliance feud that was really going on.

Alpha females who could see the “true” reasons of the conflict, steered clear of it.

After the episode, the victors paid some lip service to reconciliation with the losers but it only that.
Had this been a group of men, post conflict, the victors might likely taken their spoils by subsuming some of the losers on their side if they saw a possibility of exploiting the talents of those people.

As this was women, really, there would be NO reconciliation AND, each side (and all the members) would be dead to the other.