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One of the big problems in talking about gender is that there are just too many people.

“Men” is 3.5 billion people. If one assumes that most people talking about gender in English on the Internet are only intending to talk about the Anglosphere and not men in Saudi Arabia (which seems right), men is still 225 million people. That’s a lot of different people. That’s a hell of a lot of diversity.

And yet most of the time when people talk about ‘men’ and ‘women’ they aren’t basing it on survey data about those 225 million people. They’re talking about, well, their personal experiences. Over the course of their lives, they’ve met a few hundred, perhaps a thousand men. That’s not a lot. And the sample is systematically biased in a whole lot of ways. Of course, there are the obvious ways: my sample has way more trans people and way fewer black people than would normally be expected. But there are subtler things too.

Here’s an example I happen to know from my personal anecdotes. In high school, I was friends with some frankly entitled nerdy guys. They were universally under the impression that they were Nice, as shown by their willingness to pay for dates and buy their girlfriends flowers on Valentine’s Day, and that it was sheer injustice if a girl they were interested in said ‘no’, given that they were Nice. Girls more attractive than I was would occasionally find themselves subjected to severe social pressure to go out with whomever had a crush on them, and labelled a ‘bitch’ and isolated if she continued to refuse.

Right now, I’m friends with a bunch of nerdy guys who are scared shitless of women. They have never asked a girl out because it is too frightening, and when girls flirt with them they tend to radiate terrified body language which makes the flirting girl assume that she is being crushingly rejected. Many of them feel that, simply by having a crush on a girl, they’re doing something wrong; their sexuality, being male, is burdensome and creepy, and they should avoid ever letting a girl know about it.

Now, by luck, I happened to be in both groups. Imagine if I had only known entitled nerd guys: every time one of the scared guys was like “I am afraid of doing something wrong when I ask a girl out!”, my instinctive response would be “well, maybe you are doing something wrong, you fucking creep.” Or imagine if I’d only known the scared nerd guys: every time someone complained about the entitled guys pressuring them into dating them, I’d be like “Christ! Nerd guys have it hard enough! Knock it off! You’re just unfairly stigmatizing socially awkward people.”

As it happens, I’ve been in both groups, so I have a fairly nuanced viewpoint on the subject. But there are lots of cases where I’ve only been in one group, and I don’t know which ones. I can’t make my thoughts more nuanced when I don’t even know what ways my samples are distorted.

So whenever I say something about ‘men’ or ‘women’, take it as ‘this is the pattern I have noticed among people I have happened to interact with, which may or may not be similar to people that you have interacted with.’ And when you get into arguments with people about whether men are sexist or women can’t communicate, have as a hypothesis “both of us are telling the truth about different groups of people.”