Why Men Can't Find Things

Our pantry is a mess. I'll admit it. My mom helped me organize it over a year ago when she came to help out when Gulliver was born. And it was wonderful when it was clean and organized. And I've cleaned and organized it myself a few times. But right now it has deteriorated into a giant, unorganized mess, most likely filled with food we will never, ever actually eat.

So tonight, Murray decided he'd like to make us some tea. He admits to being an herbal tea man. He likes chamomile honey tea.

He was searching the pantry for tea. It's been a while since we've had tea. And he couldn't find the tea. So I got up to help.

As I stood in front of the pantry, I decided to explain to him the finding process, hoping that perhaps he could learn something. I said, "Want to know a trick? Sometimes I just look up through the bottoms of the shelves, because if what I'm looking for is on a shelf, I can see it from the bottom!" I said this, and lo and behold, I located the tea in less than 10 seconds. It was not, in fact, on the bottom of a shelf. But in putting myself at that odd angle, I was able to see it at the very back of a shelf, sitting atop a pile of other miscellaneous food boxes.

And then I asked Murray a very important question: Why is it that women are better at finding things than men are? At least this didn't come from an accusatory standpoint, since I was identifying this as a failing of an entire sex and not just him. Here is a not very faithful, but generally true transcript of our conversation:

Me: Why is this a problem for men? And I know it's all of you. Because we women talk about it. And because even when I was a kid, my mom would ask my brothers to find something in the pantry, and they couldn't find it, so she'd send ME, and I'd always find it, no problem. So why is this a problem for you? Because you want to know what we women think? We all think that the problem is laziness, and that we are enabling you because then we step in and find the thing.

Murray: No, that's not it, because I can honestly say that I really didn't want you to have to get up and find it yourself. I feel like I understand men enough to say that it's a situation where women are just naturally better in this area, maybe because of evolution. It's like, in the old hunter-gatherer days, men would go and hunt for the food and bring it back to the cave. And it was up to the women to put it somewhere. So the men's obligation at that point was no longer to think about the food or what they brought back, and they were reliant on the women to remember that stuff.

Okay, I can't remember any of the details of the middle part of the conversation, so I'll skip to the end...

Me: So let me tell you what is going through my mind when I'm looking for something. I have in my mind an image of what the tea box looks like. I think, "Tea box! Tea box!" and I look everywhere for that shape and that box. I know what the tea box looks like, so everything registers "not tea box not tea box not tea box" until I find the tea box!

Murray: Ah ha! That's interesting because that is NOT what goes through my mind. See, when I'm looking for it, I'm thinking, "the 'tea box'!" Not "the tea box!"

Me: [Blank stare.]

Murray: So what I see in my mind is that specific tea box, even down to the fact that it's honey chamomile. So when I'm searching for it, I'm looking for that particular tea box. What it sounds like what you're doing is searching for a broad idea of a tea box, and even getting down to the shape. So that kindof made me think, maybe there's something there!!

I'm still not so sure I get it. The tea box? The "tea box"? Are you kidding me?

What are your thoughts? (And please remember to be kind to the hunters.)


--r said...

my husband openly admits to subscribing to the idea that "if i can't see it, it doesn't exist." hence, if he cannot see it without moving anything that might be blocking the view, then it must not be there (which baffles me when it comes to the things that are not hiding behind anything—like something sitting at eye-level in the door of the fridge).
it's a small frustration with an otherwise wonderful, stellar guy. and luckily, i don't see it very often, so it mostly doesn't exist. :)

Nemesis said...

I have no idea. But I know that if GH opens a cupboard and the item is not immediately noticeable, he just assumes it can't be in there and that there's no point in searching further. (Of course, it's okay for ME to get up and find it for him.)

Bean said...

I think it goes with the whole you can't be subtle when talking to a man...and the tea box, since isn't screaming HEY! I'M TEA AND I'M RIGHT HERE! gets lost in all the other things he may see...chips, bread, soup, and then perhaps he/they get distracted and think yum, chips, mmm bread...with butter...now what was I looking for?

And my husband will willingly admit he never remembers where things are.

Sarah said...

I think its because we women understand how to organize a kitchen (whether it is "organized" or not). If I was trying to find a hammer in my dad's tool box, I would look for an hour, come back, ask him - he'd find it in 3 minutes or less. Then send him to the kitchen and the roles are reversed. I think we just have different things that make sense to us.
My husband is really bad at finding all things household -- before even looking he asks, "Where's ___?"

AzĂșcar said...

Murray's explanation clears up a lot for me. See, we're sorting by the general idea of something, while they are searching for the exact object. So if I'm looking for a party invitation a friend sent me, I start by looking for something that could be visually similar: rectangular, white or off-white color, torn edges on the envelope, possibly two pieces of paper, one the envelope with a different paper on top and slightly askew, based on my previous experience with invitation location.

My husband, and presumably Murray, need a an exact description: they're looking for the same invitation and if something doesn't automatically fit the mental image, even if that mental image is incorrectly remembered, the item is immediately sorted into "discard." I'm sorting by possible similarities, and he's sorting by exact match.

And also, yes, if they have to move something out of the way, the item probably doesn't exist. I wonder if this is a different way of viewing the scene: are women more spatially conscious and seeing the scene as 3D while men are snapping a mental picture and seeing it as 2D?

I'm sure both are evolutionary skills. A female gatherer would have had to have searched for plants that were similar to their last experience of plants, not necessarily the identical plant they used the last time (the identical plant would probably have been harvested.)

dalene said...

i love you, too. and i love this post.

it's also likely--at least at my house--that i the gatherer was the last person to see/use said object to fetch (maybe even the last four or five times)--and i will suggest a handful of places where it might be. and i will see said object in my head in each one of those places.

and then when the hunter returns empty handed i will go and as soon as i walk in the room my head will show me a vision of said object in some place completely different. you know, the sixth place where i might have seen/used said object.

so it's really my fault.

daltongirl said...

THAT explains SO much. Wow. Where was Murray ten years ago when I started being baffled about the tea box?

Amen, Dalene.

Sarah said...

I am an exception to this theory. I am the WORST at finding things. When I need something found, I call out for Dan's help and he finds it right away. I don't know why this is . . . I can't explain it, but I think I am the only female like this and he is the only male that finds things perfectly.

jeri said...

Sarah has a really good point. If I'm looking for a box of tea, I have a vague idea where it might be and what it looks like - because I probably bought it, use it and put it there! I know what I'm looking for and can probably narrow it down quicker than he can. But if Joe sends me out for a needle-nose plier or a fine-tooth hack-saw or a snub-nosed whatsit, I don't know what I'm looking at or for. Plus it will be in a location that makes sense to him and not me.

That being said, I think he still doesn't know where the dishwasher is. I've even made posters.

KJ said...

it's mostly just laziness. if it's not smack in front of his nose (and even sometimes if it is!) he gives up and assumes it's not there. another part of the equation is that most men tend not to put things away in the same place twice. Mr. J needs a specific tool? it could be in any of 7 different locations, none of which include his tool box or even the shelf on which his toolbox rests.

annie said...

voltaire agrees with you... http://www.zazzle.com/11_x_14_voltaire_multi_poster-228762365142639402

Cicada said...

Annie, that is AWESOME.