Simon Kelner: The offside rule, and other male-female stereotypes

I have a memory of a comedy sketch in which the impressionists Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona were playing Sven Goran Eriksson (who was then England manager) and his girlfriend Nancy Dell’Olio.

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They were at a restaurant table, and Nancy, by moving salt and pepper pots across the table, was explaining how the offside rule works to Sven. She became increasingly exasperated as her practical demonstration met with bemusement. It was a brilliant reversal on the common perception that one of the fundamental differences between men and women is the ability to understand the offside rule.

I thought about this last weekend when I was in the same position with my daughter, explaining the injustice of Sunderland’s injury time winner against Manchester City. I used figures from Cluedo as props. So if, at the moment the ball is played from Professor Plum to Colonel Mustard, he is standing nearer the goal than the opposition players (represented in this case by the candlestick, rope, etc), then he is offside.

Simple, said my daughter. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was an entirely straightforward concept, easy enough for the young female brain to assimilate. Blimey, I thought, perhaps men and women are not so different after all.

But hardly had this idea taken root before a survey, published yesterday, claimed to prove that, beyond doubt, the sexes have different characteristics.

Can you blinking believe it? Yes, that’s right, a study of 10,000 people concluded that the average man and woman share only 10 per cent of their personality traits, and that while women showed more sensitivity and warmth, men are usually more emotionally stable and prone to dominance.

Leaving aside the fact of why they needed to ask 10,000 people – in my experience, a survey of two would probably have reached the same conclusion – and accepting the fact that psychologists at Manchester University have to do something to fill their day, there were some significant findings.

For instance, men have greater rule consciousness (so maybe the stuff about offside is not a canard, after all) and women are more self-reliant (I have always believed this, so it’s nice to have it proved). Dr Paul Irwing, who co-wrote the report, acknowledged that some of the findings may be stereotypical. But it is the scale of the differences between the sexes, he says, that is significant, and explains why different professions (nursing and engineering for example) have a very different gender profile.

Frankly, I don’t know where any of this gets us. I have always thought that, while men and women are not quite Martians and Venusians, the rhythm of a conversational exchange can appear as if we are on different planets. How was your evening, asks the woman? Fine, says the man. And what did you talk about, says the woman? Oh, this and that, says the man. And so it goes. The man returns to studying his biography of Steve Jobs and the woman continues to watch Come Dine With Me.

Isn’t it good to know that, in this complicated, fractured world in which many of the old sureties have been demolished, you can still peddle stereotypes and get away with it.