Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently by John L Locke

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Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently by John L Locke

Buy Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently by John L Locke at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A highly readable romp through the academic study of linguistic differences between males and females, a persuasive hypothesis that these are biologically determined.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 252 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0521887137

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Locke's subtitle Why Men and Women Talk So Differently might lead you to think that this is just another self-help Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus tome. It's not. Rather than focussing upon what we all know from experience – that men and women do not communicate very well because of some fundamental difference in their respective approach to verbal expression – the New York City University Professor of Linguistics sets out to explain WHY that might be.

His thesis is that there are biological and evolutionary imperatives that have led men to talk the way they do to other men and similarly for women to talk the way they do to other women which have led to two very different styles or mechanisms of communication, but there is no similar imperative that would or could have led to a third language (in the broad sense) for use in cross-sex conversations.

A word about 'sex'. Locke makes a very specific distinction between sex and gender. Sex is purely physical, gender is partly physical, partly psychological, partly cultural. As he puts it: you can look at a newborn baby and tell in seconds what sex it is, but the answer as to what gender it is can only be: it's far too early to tell.

This matters because he believes that the evolution of male duelling and female duetting (as he terms their different communication styles) is tied not to gender, but to sex. It is physical and inborn. Specifically it is related to testosterone levels. In fact, he goes further and asserts that many of the 'gender' traits (roles, preferences for specific types of toys) are similarly hard-wired and nothing to do with observed behaviours or parental preferences.

Day old infants, apparently, differ in their preferences before they've had chance to learn this. At that age females will look longer at a human face than at an animated mechanical object. Males do the reverse. Moreover this differential isn't restricted to humans. Experiments with vervet monkeys saw them reflecting the same preferences for toys as did human children in terms of which attracted the males, which the females, and which showed no bias.

Although he does tie this little interlude into the overall debate about language, it's really no more than a bit of background to the research. I might call it padding, but for the fact all of the anecdotes, asides and only marginally relevant research that he manages to pack in are interesting in their own right, and serve to make the book more readable.

Back at the main event: it isn't possible to start arguing a case for why we speak differently without first looking at what those differences are.

Men duel. When I first mentioned the book to my boyfriend, before I'd managed more than a couple of sentences he chipped in with: of course. When a man is talking to another man, or among other men, everything is about making himself look better. Playing up your own strengths or putting them down. Always.

From the horse's mouth you might say, as this is precisely the line of argument Locke produces. He takes us through the historical evidence of this from the ritualised settings of the Old English/Celtic flyting and the Icelandic mannjafnadr through to the modern Yo mama Soundings or Dozens played by the black inner city youth of North America today. The rules have not changed.

Ritualised insulting served and continues to serve many purposes. It's not just about bolstering your own ego. It is used to cement friendships. Laced with humour, an insult is a common greeting between male buddies, in a way that just doesn't occur between girl friends.

The crucial one though is about raising your standing. The duel is virtually always public. It is not just a fight; it is also a display. It serves two functions. When played for real (i.e. away from the ritual, when there is something at stake – food or females usually) then it can avoid a physical confrontation that would be more costly to all participants, win or lose, and could prove deadly. Secondly, where there is an audience (in the case of the ritual or the fight-avoidance posturing) it is to prove quick-wittedness and intelligence to those watching. This will hopefully impress other males, who will want to be allies, and females who will want to be mates.

Why do women want to mate with quick-talking men? Biologically speaking females want two things from males: healthy robust offspring and the resources to support it and her. Verbal display is a good indicator of intelligence. It implies memory skills, learning skills, quickness of thought. All of which are vitally important in any kind of society, be it stone-age or space-age.

Intelligence is the prime determinant of access to the goodies: food, land, power, and as a result a longer life-span.

In at least one study intelligence has been correlated with the number, concentration and motility of sperm. Whilst early human females would not have known this, they might well have spotted that the intelligent guys produced babies quicker than their slower cousins.

Men will debate and duel over anything. They will do it purely for the fun of it.

Women generally don't. Historical records show that when women argue, it is generally for real and always personal. It isn't about avoiding a fight, it's about having one. Reputation is important for men. In the days of financial dependence, it was crucial for women. Women could easily be literally destroyed by a word. Physical violence did and does happen, but it is rarer than in males.

Women invariably argue over men. Nothing else, down the ages, seems to provoke the same kind of aggression.

This difference Locke argues is biological. Males have a genetic interest in mating. Females too, but females also have a genetic interest in keeping the mated male around in order to support the rearing of the infant, which is not an imperative for the Male. He can go off and mate as often as he likes. He can, in effect, play the numbers came. Biology determines that there is a finite and relative small number of offspring a human female can produce, when compared with the male potential.

Birth biology doesn't just impact on women's jealous natures however. It has another major effect on how they relate to each other and in particular the need for co-operation. When early humans became bipedal and much more upright in stature, this had the unfortunate effect of narrowing the birth canal and making birthing more difficult, protracted and dangerous. Evolution allowed a compromise by delaying some brain development until after birth, thus allowing the pre-/neo-natal skull to be smaller and easier to deliver. The downside to the comprise is that it results in a much more dependent infant.

The combination of these factors means that women tend to need help to give birth, much more than other species, and that they need or crave support immediately afterwards. The natural result is the development of mutually supportive activity among groups of females initially to cope with this particular life event (and in one of those charming asides a tale on the derivation of the word gossip) but then expanding into a more generalised way of relating to each other.

Women's talk is supportive rather than competitive. They do not cut-&-thrust in conversation. When one interrupts, the original speaker pauses to allow the contribution, and will weave it in (whether in agreement or not) into a common tapestry of discussion. Women interrupt each other not to disagree, but often to agree, pre-empt and supplement. Men rarely interrupt unless to disagree.

Women duet, rather than duel.

These broad statements are fleshed out with research from around the world, much of it done with ""primitive"" cultures in remote areas, some using other primates as substitutes for our early ancestors. Whether Locke's biological causation is right or not, there is certainly remarkable consistency across the globe and down through time. The various studies are quoted only in summary, but Locke gets to their essence in a few words and tells them with humour and well-argued relevance.

Where historically men have gathered for debating societies, women have come together for intimate conversation or for singing games. The latter range from the childhood clapping-&-rhyming games common around the world, but only played by girls, to the Inuit katajjaq or the Ainu rekukkara throat-singing games. The point about these games is that they are barely competitive. In all of them, the one who breaks the cycle technically ""loses"" but there's no score keeping only laughter and starting over.

Another distinction is that men talking about things: objects, places, events. Women talk about people: themselves, each other, common acquaintances. It is a cliché that women talk about feelings and men do not. Few clichés are false.

Having established the differences and proposed a biological rationale for them, Locke seeks evidence that supports his theory. If the driver is biological, he argues, then it must pre-date language itself. If it is the nature of men to compete and women to co-operate then they did not learn to speak differently in order to do that, language would simply have evolved in a way that supported the pre-existing tendencies.

To consider how pre-verbal humans might have related, studies turn to our near cousins in the modern primates. There is a correlation across species. The males tend to ""speak"" loudest and (from the researchers' perspective) more aggressively. The females tend to vocalise more quietly and more often in confined groups rather than to wide audiences.

It's hard to say whether ultimately Locke proves his hypothesis, but he certainly produces some persuasive arguments.

Produced by the Cambridge University Press, Duels and Duets is a serious work, but don't let that put you off. It is a fascinating read. Chock-full of snippets of bizarre facts and, as one reviewer put it ""wry historical observation"". Not so much one for the self-help brigade and as a must-have addition to the QI bookshelf!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sendng a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion for more linguistic cogitation try: How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystall

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