Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently

  • John L. Locke
  • Cambridge University Press
  • 252 pp.

A look at the biological evidence behind miscommunication between members of the opposite sex.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

What if the differences between the way men and women talk were hardwired? Put scientifically, what if the disparity were biological rather than cultural? Most writers have assumed that social interaction from past millennia has shaped men’s and women’s distinctive ways of speaking. But as Locke points out at the beginning of Duels and Duets, “there is not one shred of evidence” to support such a view.

John Locke’s new book, in other words, isn’t just another treatise about the differences between men’s and women’s speech. It picks up where Deborah Tannen (You Just Don’t Understand) and John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) and many others left off. Locke hypothesizes on the first page that there are biological roots for contrasting speech strategies in the human male and female. He spends the rest of the book sifting through evidence from art, ancient literature, animal studies, anthropology, physiology and linguistics to support or refute the proposition.

Duels and Duets is richly documented with hundreds of footnotes and 34 pages of references. For all that, the writing is accessible, even chatty at times. The book, in short, meets the standards of academic precision without the density of academic prose. And Locke comes to the task well prepared. A professor of linguistics with post-doctoral training in psychology and anthropology, he has authored countless articles and book chapters. His best known work is probably the 2010 book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History.

Rather than focusing on interchanges between men and women as most earlier works have done, Duels and Duets posits that identifying indelible patterns of the communication practices of each sex requires examination of recurring same-sex patterns, man-to-man and woman-to-woman. To inoculate against the effect of human cultural traits, Locke starts with animal communications, seeking to isolate universal behaviors. He cites studies of birds, fish and especially primates. He then links the common actions found among a variety of species to similar actions among human beings. The resulting model delineates what he calls the duel and the duet as the prototypes for masculine and feminine communication.

Evidence of the duel as the model for men’s speech is more readily available than that of the duet for women because, as Locke defines it, the duel is always public and designed to attract attention. Males, both human and animal, seek status and dominance to gain power and increase access to sex. Since brutal force is often both dangerous and damaging, wholesale slaughter devolves to one-on-one combat, then to duels in which the victor does not necessarily have to kill or even maim the loser. To avoid physical conflict altogether, males resort to demonstrations of prowess to intimidate their rivals — boasting, swaggering, loud voices, feats of strength. In human males, aggressive behavior is frequently channeled into speech, resulting in contests like debates, aggressive humor, courtroom battles, medieval flyting (“insults and boasts, rendered in a stylized way, with the odd threat, curse, or vow thrown in for good measure”) and sounding (a verbal duel between black adolescents involving insults to the opponent’s mother). Verbal duels, Locke says, are ritualistic contests held in public space, won or lost based on the quality of verbal performance as judged by the audience or jury. The language is colloquial, and each challenge must be met by an appropriate in-kind response. Sometimes the participants sing or speak in rhyme. Winning and losing must affect reputation, and therefore status. And dueling occurs almost exclusively among males.

“The disposition of men to dominate and defeat other men … is rarely far from the surface,” Locke tells us. Men rival one another in speech as bards, heroes, Romeos and clowns. Even among close friends, competition is constant. A man greets a lifetime buddy with a punch to the shoulder and the words “How are you, you old son-of-a-bitch?” Women don’t indulge in friendly insults. How often does a woman greet a life-long friend with a slap and “How are you, you old whore?”

The duet, as Locke describes it, is women’s preferred model of communication. It involves the mutual exchange of intimate thoughts and feelings in a context of closeness and trust. Because it is nearly always private, it is more difficult to document than the duel. It requires a low voice and even whispering, and therefore often arouses the suspicion of men. Locke quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “Women are … bound together by their immanent complicity. And what they look for first of all among themselves is the affirmation of the universe they have in common. …  Pregnancies, birth, their own and their children’s illnesses, and household cares become the essential events of the human story.” Such interchanges among men are as rare as duels are among women.

As in his case for dueling, Locke searches for behavior comparable to the duet in other species. He finds it in huddling, grooming and social vocalization among female primates. Studies of mother-infant communication in human beings offer an early form of the duet. Finally, he offers physiological and psychological evidence that women benefit. Those who engage in the duet are less subject to the symptoms of stress and depression, a consequence not true, as far as we know, in men. Duets also build solidarity buttressing condemnation of rivals, interlopers and wayward men.

In the last and least persuasive chapter of the book, Locke notes the lack of evidence that evolution has created a communications strategy specifically for men and women to converse with one another. Instead, couples must and do learn to talk to each other. The result offers the same benefit as the team in a work setting — bringing out different viewpoints, experiences, and aptitudes to blend in the solution to human problems.

Despite its general readability, Locke’s writing suffers from a tendency to use quotation marks when nothing is being quoted, as if to apologize for the word usage. The author uses italics for emphasis so frequently that it feels like a mannerism. The casual tone occasionally clashes with scholarly prose, causing me to go back and reread. And Locke depends on what is formally called the syntactic expletive, “there is,” “there were.” These constructions appear on almost every page. At one point he writes: “… there is safety in numbers. But there is limited value in assembly unless there is a feeling of connection among the constituents. Predictably, there are physiological mechanisms … .”

These annoyances aside, the book is informative and, for me at least, breaks new ground. Locke persuaded me that speech differences are indeed biological, but like all biological urges can be overcome by an act of the will once we humans are conscious of them.

Writer Tom Glenn, trained as an actor and public speaker, is intrigued with the power of human speech. He has spoken, read and worked in seven languages other than English.

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