Theater & Ritual

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

Etiquette & Social Protocol

Where did the curtseys and bows begin? When did women’s averted gaze and men’s proud stance become the norm? Perhaps it’s the military traditions that have defined men’s disciplined posture and carriage. Perhaps the disabling attire women wore – tight girdles, large hoop skirts, teetering shoes and mile-high wigs – drove the need for help. Or the driving factors could be physical size and the carrying and nurturing of babies.

Whatever the genesis, our cultures make it clear what kind of behavior is expected from men and women.

Flirting or Social Roles

Men are often expected to be the initiator in relationships – asking women to dance or to wed. They risk rejection. Women are expected to wait and decide, possibly sending signals in advance to avoid uncomfortable situations.  They are constrained from openly pursuing relationships. And turning down a young man is not a pleasant task either.

Women who are more assertive, who feel comfortable initiating flirty relationships can be seen as a threat to the status quo – so other women may find ways to damage them socially. Rumors abound.

Awards & Ceremonies

Cultures love to reward behaviors that meet their expectations. Their heroes bring those expectations to life.

Boys often win kudos for strength, speed, athletic prowess or bravery – attributes associated with hunting or battle. Girls win praise for being pretty – or indications of youth, fertility and even domesticity. Yes, we’ve come that far.

Obliging the culture – giving it what it thinks it needs from you – is a strategy some follow with the belief that the world will feel sated and then let you veer in a different direction.

Controlling Emotions

Cultural expectations are quite clear related to the display of emotions. Girls who don’t demonstrate the right amount of softness or deference – and boys who don’t demonstrate enough control over their emotions – are often teased or shamed.

Having feelings is not the problem. It is about matching your display with the gender with which you identify. Too much or too little can bring pressure and marginalization.

Rituals & Ceremonies

Marriage. When it comes to love and commitment, old traditions live on. Think about the message in the Western tradition of asking the father of the bride-to-be for permission to propose. Fathers are the keepers, protectors and judges of who is worthy. The mother? Hmmmm. What does it say that the bride-to-be does not need the permission of the groom-to-be’s mother? Or father?  Of course people know this is just ceremonial, but there are aspects of this nostalgic action that reinforce old gender roles.

The proposal process still requires the “big ask” accompanied by an engagement ring, which serves as an indicator of the man’s financial status. Even couples who have informally committed to one another still want to formalize the proposal – to memorialize the event – to tell and retell the story.

Weddings also are highly choreographed, reinforcing cultural expectations of the marriage, even for non-conforming couples. Groomsmen and bridesmaids continue to be popular. Stag parties and bridal showers are almost universally celebrated.

Valor & Expectation

For millennia, men have been involved in the external world – hunting, defense and providing for the family. The risk may be high. Individual ambition and power are rewarded.

At the same time, women have been tied to the home world providing nurturing and care, tending the more intimate needs of the family. Women have needed to keep the family healthy and happy and that often requires putting their own ambitions aside. What is rewarded in women tends to be selfless, continuous care.

Of course the world is changing, but these expectations remain in our DNA. Women can still feel guilty for being ambitious and men can feel guilty for not being ambitious.

Family Trends

Mothers and fathers tend to coach and engage their sons toward the more masculine activities and chores, like playing sports or learning the basics of car maintenance – while encouraging their daughters toward more feminine activities like shopping, make-up and child care. These are hopelessly stereotypical – but I use them to illuminate. These roles are so deeply embedded that they are almost invisible to us.

Unless we don’t conform. Then we chafe under the expectations.

Coming of Age Rituals

Cultures from around the world celebrate a child’s coming of age.

In indigenous cultures, boys and girls go through challenges and experiences that bond them with the adults of their sex.  

Today, coming of age rituals are often associated with the family’s faith – and therefore conform to the religion’s definitions of gender. In some parts of the world, particularly in indigenous cultures, the ceremonies can be extreme – serving as harrowing transitions into adulthood. 

The World “Acts”

Babies are treated differently from the minute their sex is identified. People act differently, lower or raise their voices, hold them differently. The culture is preparing them for their assigned gender role.

We teach young boys how a boy is supposed to act – what he is supposed to do. And we teach young girls how to act like a girl. The world is alert to deviations. These role models can be hard to shake, even when a culture tries to introduce new expectations.  

We all can act. We all can learn and follow the protocol. Having predefined ways of handling situations can be good. It can bring order. But do we want to? Why should we? What’s at stake is belonging.


We all need time with members of our own sex. It begins early in families when the women and girls gather in one room and the men and boys move off to another spot. These warm and supportive gatherings help us see what being an adult really looks like. We feel their support for us.These connections can be strong and warm and fun – spanning generations. Young boys and girls get a deep sense of how the world works. The senior group helps – or at least tries to help. But, for those children who don’t conform to the norm, these gatherings can be fraught with anxiety. How much and how long should I play along with what the group wants? What will happen to me if I break with their expectations?