I am always wary of making generalisations about gender. Any sentence which begins ‘women want’ or ‘men think’ should be treated with radical suspicion.

I used to do this of course, because nobody’s perfect, and because it’s a whole lot snappier than saying something like: ‘One could conjecture that the majority of women are more likely to....’ At which point the reader loses the will to live and the argument dissipates into the ether.

Now, I see the complexities and subtleties. There does seem to be such a thing as the male brain and the female brain, but the confusing thing is that they do not always fit neatly into male or female bodies. Also, just to add a little more nuance to the mix, they are on a spectrum. Interestingly, non-academics intuit this empirical fact when they say things like ‘he’s in touch with his female side’, or ‘she’s a very girly girl’.  Despite this, the columnists and the headline writers still make absurd statements about all women loving shoes or every last female wanting to lose the magical half stone, as if those desires were wired into the very atoms of the lady self.

The Scottish hills from yesterday, when the sun was shining.The Scottish hills from yesterday, when the sun was shining.
Despite this, and with all these caveats ringing in my head, I stride out over the treacherous terrain of gender difference. This morning, two women were standing in a chill Scottish field. The sky was the colour of doleful pigeons and the last leaves were falling from the trees. Both women are in that stage of middle life when they face what Trollope called ‘the little daily lacerations upon the spirit’. It is the usual complication of ailing parents, financial worries, career frets, the general demands of family life. Nothing operatic; nothing fatal; just the constant existential bash bash bash. These are the things which are usually managed, with a certain degree of stoicism, until one straw too many falls, the camel’s back is broken, and you end up shouting at the dog.

The women discussed this. They spoke of the days when it all got too much, when they feared they were going nuts in the head, when they felt they were hanging on by their fingertips.

Neither one judged. Neither one offered a word of advice. They mostly looked at each other, and shouted with laughter, and said, ‘Oh, yes, yes, I know that one.’ They were in what I call the Me Too zone. It’s a kind of empathetic offering of the small failures, the daily frailties, the quotidian shames. They both had the voices in the head which were telling them they Should Do Better. Once they had admitted this, they could see the absurdity, and the thing became a joke instead of a burden.

Perhaps I should confess that I was one of those women. Afterwards, I thought: that is something most men would not do. It’s not just that they would not stand in a muddy field baring their souls, it’s that the male tendency is to offer a ten-point plan. I generalise wildly, but I think the man hope is to fix everything right up. If you put tab A into slot B, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. There you go, now the engine is firing. You’ve just got to do something.

What the female needs is the balm of shared experience. She does not necessarily want a ten-point plan. She wants someone to say, yes, I know exactly what that feels like. She wants to know she is not alone. Then she can breathe a gutsy sigh of relief, square her shoulders, and go once more unto the breach.

It is a very general point, and it’s only a theory, and it may need more work. But I think if there is a discernible gap between the female and the male it has nothing to do with car vs shoes, or counting calories vs reading maps, or any of the other asinine markers which the media cannot resist. It is empathy vs solutions. My suspicion is that as a woman navigates the choppy waters of middle age, the words she most longs to hear are not high-flown romantic sentiments about beauty or love, but the very earthy, heartfelt, simple: ‘Me too.’