It has long been known that men and women talk differently when conversing with members of the opposite sex. This has never been explained, but insights emerge from same-sex conversations where, free of the need to accommodate to each other, deeper differences between men and women readily bob to the surface.
In Duels and Duets, I claim that modern men and women talk differently because our male and female ancestors followed different evolutionary paths. Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill. Verbal duels also provided a way for me to display the fitness information that women needed in making their long-term mating choices.
In a number of traditional societies, anthropologists have encountered various contests, from song duels to drum duels, poetic duels, and sung poetic duels – all fought with words, and all fought by men. By itself, this is intriguing, but the underlying disposition to duel also leeches into the speech of men in modern societies, even when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends. In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.
Today, many men see themselves as performers, seeking eloquence where it could attract favorable attention from women and men, and portraying themselves as heroes in the stories they tell. One trial lawyer, so theatrical in the courtroom that someone said he should have been an actor, responded, “What do you mean ‘should have been’?”
For reasons I describe in the book, women have tended to compete with other women indirectly, through mutual friends, and they have enlisted a more harmonious way of talking to build their relationships. In these duets, women create feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves. Gossip, the name we give to conversations that impart information about others, derives from “god-sibs” – originally “God’s siblings” – the 15th and 16th century women who gathered in bedrooms to witness new births but, while awaiting the natal event, discussed matters of mutual interest. An unusually pure form of duetting occurs when women collaborate, effectively co-authoring and co-telling their personal stories.
Some books on “gendered language” say that little boys learn to talk like their father, and little girls imitate their mother. But it is clear that males and females come into the world pre-wired to engage with other members of their sex in vastly different ways. The endocrine system plays an important role here, supporting various relationships between the speaking voice and reproduction. Men who enjoy locking verbal horns in public also tend to have more testosterone than others – trial lawyers are off the charts.
The adaptive value of this is revealed, predictably, on the evaluative side of the equation: women prefer men with low-pitched voices, especially during the high fertility phase of their menstrual cycle. In this sense, women literally call the tune. But other areas of speech and language are also involved in courtship, and I discuss the things that men do, in their speaking behaviors, to convince women that they have the right biological stuff. Of course, duetting has its own set of physiological supports. Intimate vocalization tends to increase oxytocin, which appears to facilitate emotional connection, and to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone.
How discrete are the relationships between the human sexes and their preferred ways of talking? I’ve found lots of cases, historically, where women verbally assaulted each other, but these assaults were typically genuine – lodged in anger, usually as a form of reprisal for a perceived injustice – not as a way of posturing or relating, and none was ritualized. Women may denigrate themselves, but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously. Men do talk quietly and privately with other men, but they usually shy away from the intimate self-disclosures that could increase their vulnerability, and they rarely work through other men in their efforts to compete with male rivals. If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it.
Toward the end of the book, I revisit linguistic evolution, suggesting that if human language is built the way it is because the designers, the ancient human architects, were built the way that they were, then the shape of language would have been formed around these innately scripted preferences and priorities. But how did this happen? How did the human sexes’ ways of relating and interacting affect the design of spoken language? In earlier chapters I focus on the things that language, as a communicative tool, has done for men and women; in the final chapter I ask what men and women did for language.
In recent years, writers have discussed the fact that speaking differences can cause couples to clash in their conversations. But couples also need to collaborate in carrying out a broad range of domestic operations, from getting the car fixed to raising the children, paying the bills, and maintaining some sort of social schedule. Teams usually work better if the members bring different strengths to the table, and divide up the responsibilities. Different speaking strategies, I suggest, can and do help men and women to mesh in their lives.
John L. Locke is the author of Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently. Click here to find out more about the book and order your copy today for just £14.99 / $28.00
Why not listen to Professor Locke in discussion with Kirsten Hoge on Woman’s Hour