Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently

Kerstin Hoge finds little to shout about in an evolutionary theory of male and female speech

August 4, 2011

Congratulations to Monash University students Victor Finkel and Fiona Prowse on winning the 2011 World Universities Debating Championships. Perhaps we ought to commend Prowse in particular, because, as John Locke informs us here, "verbal disputation appears to be something that few women seek or expect to enjoy". They lack not the ability but the disposition to engage in verbal combat, which Locke argues is "deeply rooted in male biology". While men are "duellers", eager to compare their verbal prowess at any given opportunity, women are "duetters", exchanging intimate human material - mainly thoughts and feelings - "in a context of closeness and trust".

The opposition drawn is familiar from popular science accounts of gender differences in communication: men's talk is claimed to be adversarial, goal-directed and focused on factual information and, as such, differs from women's cooperative, interpersonal and emotional use of language. Little wonder that men and women have difficulty in understanding each other, floundering about like two alien species meeting for the first time.

One strand of this "Mars and Venus" literature attributes the differences in men's and women's verbal behaviour to biological influences, and Locke aligns himself with those authors who trace gendered behaviour to sex differences in brain organisation, which in turn are linked to the role of prenatal hormones and genetic factors. Hard-wiring of the female brain for empathy (as proposed by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen) "provides the psychological framework for duetting", and evolved from prehistoric woman's need for affiliative sociality to better the survival rates of children and coordinate efficient food gathering.

Locke thus adopts the view of the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar that language both conferred a reproductive advantage by enabling social cohesion and played a role in sexual selection by enabling men to "self-advertise" their virility. He further suggests that men and women made different contributions to the evolution of language, crediting men with "the complexity of utterances at all levels" and women with developing "narratives and meaningful discourse" - a proposal that echoes Baron-Cohen's distinction between systemising male brains and empathising female brains.

By their very nature, evolutionary accounts of patterns of linguistic behaviour are speculative. Locke attempts to motivate his idea that "evolution shaped men's speech to men and women's speech to women" by surveying linguistic practices and rituals across cultures and time. The picture that he paints is one in which men and women perform consistently different verbal acts: duelling rituals (verbal or otherwise) involve males only; "human grooming" and harmonic vocal games such as Inuit throat-singing are the domain of women. However, by elevating culturally conditioned practices to indicators of biological traits, Locke risks the charge of circularity, using the explanandum as its own explanation. (What explains the lack of female duelling? Biology. Why biological rather than social causes? Because women, unlike men, do not participate in verbal duels.)

What is more, Locke's claim appears to be false. It has long been noted that verbal duelling is practised among African-American women (although mostly in private rather than public). In fact, the book's premise that men and women talk differently because they are men and women is best described as a resilient myth, belied by meta-analyses of putative male-female differences in speech and research on how our linguistic behaviour is influenced by the societal and conversational roles that we assume.

Locke's search for evidence of linguistic complementarity between the sexes does not convince and prompts a number of platitudinal assertions that are equally offensive to men and women. Much like its cover, the book peddles outmoded conceptions of men and women's differences.

Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently

By John L. Locke

Cambridge University Press 200pp, £14.99

ISBN 9780521887137

Published 25 August 2011

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