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Spaghetti vs. Waffles: Gender Differences in Cognitive Problem-Solving

R. D. Langr is an at-home dad and entrepreneur. His background is in psychology and theology.

An examination of gender communication through the "spaghetti vs. waffle" analogy.

An examination of gender communication through the "spaghetti vs. waffle" analogy.

The Big "C" Word

When it comes to romantic relationships, communication is the "big C word" that everyone talks about but few seem to be able to master. Whether it's personality, familial, or gender differences, there always seems to be something standing in the way of perfect communication.

But hey, a relationship with perfect communication would be boring, right? Whatever your mastery of this skill may be, there is always more to know and improvements to make.

One of the most significant factors in communication differences is gender. Men and women naturally think differently, and while this can be examined from many perspectives, one that has recently caught my eye is the "waffle vs. spaghetti" analogy.

An example (the best I could find): "When a man asks a woman, 'Will you please bring me that stack of papers on the coffee table?' A woman will bring him the stack of papers, and a pen to write with, and notice the coffee table needs dusting, and that they should really get new coasters, etc, etc, etc. However, if a woman asks a man, 'Will you please bring me that stack of papers on the coffee table?' A man will bring her the stack of papers and that will be it."

spaghetti-vs-waffles-gender-differences-in-cognitive-problem-solving

Where Does the Spaghetti vs. Waffles Analogy Come From?

As far as I can tell, this analogy originally started with the book Men Are Like Waffles—Women Are Like Spaghetti: Understanding and Delighting in Your Differences, by Bill and Pam Farrel, so much of the credit for this article must be given to them. I will, however, add my own speculations later. Now let's be clear, I haven't actually read this book, but I have previewed it and I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's saying, and it's good enough for me to recommend to other readers.

The primary way this difference is manifest is in how connected our thoughts are. Basically, men compartmentalize and women interconnect everything.

If you look at a waffle it's all boxes (especially the square waffles) and each box is separate. This is the typical man's mind—everything separate and in its own special place. When he's fishing, he thinks about fishing, when he's at home, he thinks about home duties, and when he's at work, he thinks about work. There is little crossover.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the female mind of spaghetti. Everything is interconnected. While they are at work they are not only thinking about work, but about what to make for dinner, how to get the kids to soccer practice, and what style to get her hair cut and when. The true spaghetti woman is a cognitive multi-tasker.

My Speculative Additions

That's the gist of the book, for more in-depth explanations and examples, buy the book.

I've also seen this play out in other ways that I would like to share as well, and perhaps someday the Farrels will stumble across this and affirm my speculations.

Linear vs. Non-Linear Thinking

One way I've seen this play out in my relationship is that I (the man) tend to be a more linear thinker than my girlfriend. For example, when preparing to write and give a talk about dating vs. courting, my girlfriend and I had two different approaches. I, the linear thinker, prefer to start the first, most basic step--defining each term. My girlfriend preferred to simultaneously think about all the aspects of each type of relationship, how to present this information, analogies, and who should be talking about what and when. Quite simply, I was thinking about one thing at a time, in "proper order", and she was thinking about everything at the same time in every possible permutation.

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Goal vs. Process Oriented

The second way I've seen this play out is in goal vs. process orientation. I am goal-oriented, whereas my girlfriend is process-oriented.

Basically, those who are goal-oriented are focused on results and the finished product, whereas those who are process-oriented are focused less on the destination and more on the journey, the "how" you do it. For example, when shopping, the man might go in for the one thing he needs, not bothering to get distracted by other stores. On the other hand, the woman may shop knowing what she needs, but delights in the process of shopping, going from store to store, rather than making that final purchase.

spaghetti-vs-waffles-gender-differences-in-cognitive-problem-solving

The Problems

Obviously, differences in how people think can cause differences (and problems) in how they communicate. In this paradigm, this can be especially difficult when problem-solving. Because these cognitive characteristics deal with how we deal with new situations, communication issues can arise while dealing with new and challenging problems.

When dealing with communication issues, I often prefer to use the example of planning a trip, an activity which, while exciting, can be just stressful enough to cause tension often because of different personality and gender issues. You can extrapolate to other situations from there.

Connectedness

While planning a trip the waffle-man will start at the beginning and move sequentially to the end. They will plan one step at a time. Work on car details, then lodging details, then work on sightseeing. The spaghetti-woman will, of course, be interconnected, thinking simultaneously about who to leave the kids with, all the cities you want to stop in, what groceries you will need to pack, and what dress she should wear to the special night out. The man couldn't care less what he wears until he is actually getting ready.

Goal vs. Process

When planning a trip, the man will start with the goal. "Where are we going"? All other questions are a matter of process--good to know, but not necessary. The woman, however, will not necessarily care where you're headed but will be more concerned with what to do on the way. What towns will you stop at, what sites do you want to see, and how many days do you want to take to get there. While the man might want to just get to the destination, the woman may want to take her time in getting there.

Linearity

Again, when planning the man will be a linear thinker—he will start with the goal and then proceed with the most logical step. While this will most likely include planning the "process" of how to get to the goal, it will be much more organized and logical than the woman, who will try to tackle every detail at once in no apparent meaningful order.

How to Communicate Better

For better communication, follow these three steps:

  1. The first step is understanding. If you understand what and why your partner thinks and communicates the way they do, you are more likely to (at the very least) accept it.
  2. Secondly, remember that there are strengths and weaknesses to both types of thinking and that any problem is best solved using both methods. Two heads are better than one, after all.
  3. Finally, use the strengths of your partner. Women, appreciate the detail and specificity that comes with a waffle mind. Men, appreciate the interconnectedness of the woman's mind.

One thing to remember: these are not comprehensive profiles; they are meant as guidelines. While one male may be the perfect waffle and one woman the perfect spaghetti, overall this is a continuum. Many men have some spaghetti in them, and many women can waffle. This is merely a tool to understand the general parameters under which each gender operates.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 R D Langr

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