Stephen Hawking’s death provoked a flurry of interest in everything he ever did and said, and one of his most popular quotes these days seems to be the one on women. Hawking reportedly called women “a complete mystery,” while answering a question on what intrigued him the most.

While the answer may or may not have been in jest, it is interesting to note that the world’s most famous cosmologist chose ‘women’ as the subject that most confounded him, reinforcing the stereotypical male notion that women are complex creatures almost impossible to understand. The more important question is: why did a scientist whose understanding of the universe far surpassed that of the average person hold such views on women that align entirely with the average man?

The answer to that question lies in the single biggest difference between analysing a human being and analysing everything else in the universe. A human can communicate verbally with other humans. There exists absolutely nothing else in the universe that can converse with human beings and offer its own opinion. To a certain extent, animals can communicate with humans—through sounds and behavioural cues. But the effectiveness of that communication rests solely on the human analysing and interpreting them correctly—which is also what we do for pretty much everything else in the universe. Human beings will observe their subject of study, conduct research, analyse the findings, do the necessary calculations and formulate theories — based entirely on their own understanding of the subject, supplemented by prior research and contemporary literature — by other humans only, of course. In other words, the planets, the stars, the black holes and everything else in the universe cannot communicate with you directly, cannot refute your findings, cannot state that you’ve been entirely wrong in understanding them. At best the flaws in your theories can be pointed out years later through further research on the same subject—again by another human being.

The fundamental difference between this and understanding people is that people can talk and contradict you. So an added crucial skill for understanding human nature is the ability to listen.

The key to understanding people is to listen carefully to what they think and feel, not just depend upon your own analysis of them. It requires you to respect their thoughts and opinions as well.

Unlike planets and stars, women are humans with minds of their own. That’s what makes them so difficult for men to understand—particularly those men who depend solely on their own conclusions, lacking the ability to be effective listeners. And this is the ability which enables women to understand not just other women but also men. The ability to listen, focusing on the other’s thoughts instead of your own opinions.  The study of human beings —whether men or women —requires a different skill set because the subject is supposed to be an active participant, not just a passive object under the microscope — or the telescope.

But then again, the very phrase “understanding women” or “understanding men” equates entire womankind/mankind to a homogenous mass lumped together — every piece of it sharing the qualities of the whole. The assumption is hugely flawed in itself, for each person is unique and despite certain common traits shared by the species each human being can only be understood individually for her/his distinctive qualities. Understanding other people is a work in progress— for even in their lifetimes humans change and evolve.

Understanding the people around you, therefore, is not a destination that you arrive at. It’s a continuous journey where each day your understanding grows a little more. The crucial skill, however, remains the same. Learning how to listen.

Zehra Naqvi