Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.
Just a few weeks ago, an interesting and lengthy paper by a pair of sociologists from New York University made a lot of noise in what I suppose would these days be called the community of short men – a community to which, as it happens, I rather inarguably, one might say entirely, belong.
Its subject was what is called assortative mating – the way people divide themselves up, two by two in that ark-like fashion, for life. It was one of those wonderfully solemn sociological papers in which the utterly self-evident is systematically recast as the cautiously empirical.
The authors point out early on in their report that “social psychological research suggests that attractive people are favoured in numerous situations” (a thing you would not have guessed without social science) and soon after we learn that attractive and physically fit men report going on more dates and having sex more frequently than others.
But the conclusion of the paper, once one has weeded through, is striking and well documented. It is simply that short men make stable marriages. They do this in circumstances of difficulty and against the odds and consistently over ages and income groups, and they do it with the shorter women they often marry, but also with the taller women they sometimes land. Short men marry late but, once they do get married, tend to stay married longer and, by social science measures, at least – I assume this means they ask the short men’s wives (I hope so anyway) – they stay happily married, too.
Many assertions about the assortative can be put forward to explain why this is so, but trust me, it is not hard to figure it out. There is a simple reason short men make stable marriages. It is because short men are desperate. Short men live in a world of taller men and know that any advantage seized is better kept. Desperation makes short men good husbands. We know the odds instinctively, and knowing that we have lucked out, intend to continue playing a good thing.
It is not, I should rush to add, that short men are desperate to please. One of the most interesting findings of the study is that short men actually do less housework in a typical marriage than tall men do – though the study points out delicately, this may be because with tall men, “the nature of their housework is different”.
In other words, we are too short to reach the tops of closets where the heavy house cleaning equipment is kept. No, short men do not make stable marriages because they are desperate to please. It is because they are desperate to prevail.
An instinctive sense of the odds, born in schoolyards and playgrounds, tells the short man to redouble his efforts in every area of life – the office, the motorway, (God forbid) the golf course.
This is of course called the Napoleonic complex, but in truth it is not so much that short men become Napoleonic as that Napoleon was typically short – in his ambition, his drive, his uxorious devotion to his wife Josephine, whom he left only because he wanted to leave the French with a male heir. Hers was the last name on his lips, in the last sentences that he uttered, dreaming of that old stability.
How tall was Napoleon?
Contemporary accounts state that Bonaparte’s height was 5ft 2in, but at that time, the French measured 13 inches to the foot (Napoleon himself oversaw France’s conversion to the metric system). Given this discrepancy, Napoleon’s height would have been 67 inches, or 5ft 7in in modern measurements – about the same height as the current French president, Francois Hollande, and taller than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
For the prime of a short man’s life – Napoleon is the model here again – his shortness is not thematised at all. On horseback in the paintings by David or the Baron Gros, or enthroned by Ingres, Napoleon may look moon-faced, and the little ringlet that dangles above his eye may seem dandyish, but the last thing he looks is short.
It is only later on Elba and St Helena that his diminutive stature becomes part of his self-knowledge. The true Napoleonic moment is when age and circumstances conspire to remind the short man of his stature. It was when the emperor had lost the last battle that the truth returned. I am no longer an emperor. I am merely a short man on a lonely island.
So, short men learn early this essential truth – that long odds make for good lives. A man’s mate should exceed his height, not to mention his little grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
It is not an accident, I think, that the great periods of civilisation tend to follow on and then appear not in moments of abundance alone, but of renewed relief.
They come shortly after some disaster that has given an entire community the same sense of having made it by the skin of their teeth that a short man feels, looking gratefully at his wife in the early morning.
Renaissance Florence appeared in the wake of the black plague that halved its population. The Paris we love most, that of the impressionists and the Belle Epoque, rose with the smouldering ruins of the Franco-Prussian war still visible in its centre.
They were reduced – shortened, one might even say – but they clung to pleasure. Entitlement and its disappointments make wars. Desperation and gratitude build cities.