Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It's not a moral question, it's a simple impedance mismatch

I was talking with my girlfriend about housework the other day, when I came to a realisation I think explains a lot of the common niggling disputes between men and women (especially men and women in relationships, or who cohabit).

I should probably emphasise first that what I'm discussing here are general trends I've noticed in the genders - when I refer to "men" or "women" I'm discussing these general trends, and nothing in this post necessarily applies to any specific individual or small group of them.

I should also emphasise that my girlfriend is a wonderful, caring, kind woman, and nothing about this specific issue should in any way reflect on her character. Despite our odd little disagreements she's challenging, intelligent and awesome, and I'd hate to imply otherwise.

Moral questions vs. impedance mismatches

Briefly then, my girlfriend always used to get annoyed that our two flatmates (both male) rarely did the washing up - she would get endlessly pissed off that they "were happy to use clean plates where they were available", but always "left it for her to do" when it came to actually washing them.

Now, I know from times when she's been away that they're perfectly happy to do the washing up, but - being slobby, single young guys - they'd rather let a whole load mount up over the course of three of fours days (washing up individual items if required during this time), then tackle the whole lot in one go a couple of times a week.

Basically, my girlfriend prefers a clean kitchen as often as possible (a "little-but-often" strategy to washing up), but because my flatmates aren't bothered by dirty washing next to the sink they prefer to minimise the frequency of washing up they have to do, even if it means doing more when they do do it (a just-in-time washing up strategy, combined with a "rarely-but-a-lot" strategy that occasionally clears the lot).

From my girlfriend's point of view washed plates were "clearly" objectively good and dirty washing up was "clearly" objectively bad, so they were selfishly taking advantage of her and using her as a washing up skivvy, and (as the apparently aggrieved party) she understandably got quite annoyed about this.

However, from my flatmates' point of view clean or dirty plates were both relatively neutral prospects, so by making an arbitrary judgement and then trying to pressure everyone else into doing what she wanted, my girlfriend appeared (being uncharitable) to be an obsessive-compulsive nutter who was constantly cleaning, then getting all annoyed and frustrated with them because they weren't as "unreasonably obsessive" about it as she was.

The key thing here is that neither party was right - rather than a moral or objective right/wrong issue it's a simple impedance mismatch between two different styles of housekeeping.

As long as you don't leave food on the plates to rot and you have enough crockery/cutlery to use there's nothing morally, scientifically or legally wrong with leaving the washing up for a couple of days, then doing it all in one go.

My girlfriend was choosing to tackle the washing up every evening because she "can't relax properly in a dirty house" then essentially blaming the flatmates for not being the same type of person as her.

My flatmates were leaving the washing up, because they're the kind of people who can only relax when they don't have an hour or so's washing up hanging over their heads to be done later in the evening. And as a result they were allowing my girlfriend to do more than her fair share.

To their credit they didn't tend to see it as a value judgement either, so (unsurprisingly given their less-than-fair workload) they didn't tend to judge my girlfriend for her irritation with them. They were more puzzled and confused as to how and why she thought she was entitled to the moral high-ground (especially when there was none to be had) than offended.

In many relationships this mechanism generalises to much/all of the housework, and appears to be a common cause of domestic friction in couples and families.

Another example - should the toilet seat be left up or down?

Another example is the perennial and endless inter-gender wrangling about whether the toilet seat should be left up or down. A lot of women I know see the toilet seat as the same sort of moral issue/value judgement, and request or require that the man put the seat down when he's finished peeing.

When asked why, the most common response is "it looks nicer down", but most men honestly don't care either way, so it looks pretty much the same to us. Moreover, we reason, if it looks nicer with the loo seat down then surely it looks nicest of all with the lid down as well... and yet very few women will make a point of doing that.

The first point suggests to us that it's just an arbitrary, amoral preference rather than a real moral issue, and the second makes it look like an arbitrary and irrational preference at that - regardless of the reasons claimed, women as a group seem to just disingenuously prefer the most convenient option for them, rather than the genuinely nicest-looking one which would put us both out equally.

This is the root of a common objection by men - "well, fair's fair," we think - "the most convenient option for us is to keep the lid up, so why don't you put it back up when you're done?" This is an (admittedly ham-fisted and ill-expressed) attempt to highlight that mere convenience is an inadequate rationale, because it cuts both ways and cancels itself out.

We're trying to explain that we see it as an equal, arbitrary choice with the other party unfairly imposing their choice upon us, rather than the irrational resistance and stubborn attempt to achieve victory that many women apparently see it as.

Since I first noticed this dynamic with the washing-up issue, I've come to realise that this mistaking of simple impedance mismatches for objective moral value-judgements is an incredibly common source of inter-gender friction.

So next time you find yourself in one of those clich├ęd wrangles, try considering this model, and see if you can isolate and explain the impedance mismatch to the other person instead of merely following the script and getting nowhere.

As I said, lest anyone jump to conclusions my girlfriend is a wonderful woman, but all relationships have these sorts of little niggles, especially when you begin cohabiting. Ever since I realised and explained this process, we've found it much easier to both accommodate the other's desires - she doesn't get so wound up about perceived "taking advantage" of her, and I (and my flatmates) don't mind pitching in and helping out more with the washing up, because we understand now why she was so insistent about doing it so regularly.


Coda - a plea for assistance

Finally, I'm acutely aware that the two examples above both involve the female partner jumping to make the moral judgement, and not the male. I certainly don't intend to imply this is typically (or even mostly) the case, but I've had a hard time so far coming up with examples of "men" as a group commonly doing it... though it's entirely possible that I'm fundamentally unqualified to do so, by reason of my maleness!

However, I really hesitate to lay the "blame" for these issues generally on the female half of the couple, so I'd be fascinated if any commenters could offer any examples from the female perspective - things that you (or "women generally") really don't care about, but which men tend to instinctively assume is some sort of objective or moral value-judgement.

If so, please do drop me a comment and let me know. ;-)