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Picking a fight

Gender & English has proven to be a popular topic so we’ve decided to continue the discussion for another week before switching to a new area (more on that next week). English teacher, Research Fellow and blogger Dan Clayton returns with a guest post on the differences between male and female communication.


“It has long been known that men and women talk differently when conversing with members of the opposite sex” claims John L. Locke in a blog post about his new book Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently. And it’s a pretty bold claim, not least because it’s wrong.

Linguists, psychologists and now evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists have all contributed to the debate about linguistic differences between the sexes. Some have pointed to upbringing as a reason for differences (boys being socialised into competition, girls into collaboration), some to sexist hierarchies keeping women in artificially less powerful positions both socially and linguistically, while others have argued that evolution has equipped us differently.

So far so hmm … but while these theories provide food for thought (and have certainly helped the writers John Gray, Deborah Tannen and Alan and Barbara Pease put food on the table), when it comes down to the actual data – i.e. transcripts of spoken conversations between women and men – the linguistic evidence for differences between the sexes is actually very slight.

Talking to The Guardian before her own (highly recommended) book, The Myth of Mars and Venus was released, the linguist Deborah Cameron described the statistical difference between the amount women and men talked as about as significant as “a gnat’s fart”.

Cameron surveyed a huge range of research into conversation among and between men and women, and found that very little of it indicated any significant difference between how women and men used (for example) more direct or indirect forms of language, spoke more or fewer words, or competed with each other or collaborated.

Instead, she highlighted three main problems with generalised assertions about gender differences in language: that the situation we are in and the type of activity we are generally engaged in is hugely important to our language style; that power and status are a big influence on conversational behaviour – much more so than gender; that our language choices are exactly that: a choice, not something hard-wired into us, but something we choose to project as part of our individual and group identities. And it’s this last argument that really clashes with Locke’s evolutionary model, which makes a direct link between our evolutionary histories and our preferred language styles.

In his new book, Locke argues that men and women “talk differently because our male and female ancestors followed different evolutionary paths”. Locke sees male verbal behaviour as being characterised by ritualised displays of aggression and power, which are a less risky way of “fighting” with another man than actually picking up a club and boshing him over the head. He points to anthropological evidence that cultures all over the world show evidence of such rituals – flyting in Anglo-Saxon times, drum duels, poetic face-offs – and if it all sounds a bit like 8 Mile or is getting all 2Pac and Biggie then perhaps that’s because they are natural heirs to the flyting throne.

But if this were the case we would expect to find no examples of females exhibiting the same behaviour and that surely isn’t the case. In Papua New Guinea, the ritual known as “kros” is carried out by women against men. It’s a ritualised performance of quite foul-mouthed abuse, which isn’t really suitable for a family audience (but which you can read more about here). And you don’t have to go far to find plenty of women engaging in ritual performances of abuse directed at men in poems, raps, songs or pretty much any British regional accent to know that such behaviour isn’t the sole preserve of men.

It’s not just linguists who dispute Locke’s evolutionary model; psychiatrists do too. In a review of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, Professor Robert Plomin from the Institute of Psychiatry in London, points out a major frustration with how people treat gender differences:

If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild.

What’s odd is that even after the linguistic evidence has been weighed up, there’s still a tendency for many of us to focus on difference rather than similarities. Perhaps it’s natural: we’re often quicker to see things that stand out rather than what blends in. Perhaps, as Cameron suggests in her book, in a time of flux and rapidly shifting gender roles, people look for certainties about who they are and how they should define themselves. Perhaps it’s evolution … but I suspect not.

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Dan Clayton


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