September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Men don’t have to be from Mars or women from Venus to have different ideas about when to stop the spacecraft and ask for help. “I’m the perfect example,” admits Professor Bernd Jurgen Warneken, a sociologist at the University of Tubingen in southwest Germany. “I hate to ask directions. That’s something only my wife does.”

Warneken and his colleagues Franziska Roller and Christiane Pyka have spent the last two years trying to figure out why men and women differ so profoundly on this fundamental question. After a state-government-funded study based on some 250 interviews, 500 questionnaires and their own firsthand observation of directionally challenged men and women, the sociologists have concluded that men and women not only see the world a bit differently, they often aren’t even looking in the same direction. Warneken recently spoke with PEOPLE contributor Karen Nickel Anhalt.

What, exactly, is a sense of direction?

Actually, there is no such thing. A sense of direction is just a bundle of senses and abilities we use to find our way, including the ability to read maps or train schedules, signs and the landscape. Some brain researchers say women are better at using the half of the brain that is responsible for reading, while men are better at spatial thinking, but even if this is true, it isn’t relevant to getting around in the city, because you need so many abilities.

Do men and women have different kinds of abilities?

Oh, yes. We asked our subjects for directions to a distant point. The men were extremely exact and detailed in their descriptions. If they needed to describe 18 traffic lights and 43 intersections, they would do so. Men are pseudoscientific; they try to sound like experts. Women painted a more vivid picture, like “Turn right at the green house.” They also tended to describe the first part of the way, then said to ask for help again.

Our interpretation is: Men want to give detailed directions so you don’t have to ask again along the way, while women, because they are less bashful, assume it will be no problem for you to ask for help a few more times before you get where you’re going.

What happens when men and women try to travel together?

Men usually feel compelled to take the lead. In a previous study of couples, we saw that men walked an average of nearly eight inches ahead of the woman. And when they’re in a car, even women who enjoy driving relinquish the steering wheel to their men.

Generally, when the man drives, the woman navigates and reads the map. In effect, the man gives up some of his leadership to her. But when they have trouble finding something, the man will reestablish his leadership by pulling over and demanding to see the map himself. Men want to act like leaders to confirm the femininity of the woman they’re with, and to confirm their own masculinity.

Is this true in every society?

Not necessarily. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we learned that men and women on the eastern side of Germany tended to walk at the same pace. They seemed more equal in their relationships, probably because women in East Germany had been more independent. More than 90 percent of them had jobs outside the home, while in West Germany approximately 50 percent of the women had jobs.

Are there situations in which men don’t take the lead?

When there aren’t any women around! And when it comes to shopping, men don’t question the woman’s competence. When their wives aren’t around, married men are often as helpless as little children. Most of them don’t know how to iron a shirt or where to put the socks away. But we don’t have any plans to study this.

What about you? Are you the kind of guy who lets his wife drive?

Of course. Women cause fewer accidents.

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