Tom Glenn Q&A’s with John L. Locke

Tom Glenn discusses the differences between men and women with the author of Duels and Duets.

In Duels and Duets, linguistics professor John L. Locke contends that biological differences lie at the root of communication differences between men and women. Due to unique evolutionary pressures, men and women developed particular ways of speaking in order to achieve their respective goals: for men, protecting social status and securing mates; for women, preserving a sense of family and community. And to do so, Locke asserts, men duel — i.e., clash in their conversations in order to establish social hierarchy; while women duet — i.e., exchange intimate human material (mainly thoughts and feelings) in a context of closeness and trust.

So often when I talk to women, especially these days with my daughters, I come away feeling like Henry Higgins: “Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that.” How do you parse that?

In our approach to life, we men typically pride ourselves on our ability to get the relevant facts and use them in a sensible and effective way to solve problems. We tend not to consult our intuitions, and may try to keep our emotions out of the things completely. If we use these dispositions as a framework for evaluating women, they may seem “irrational” because we don’t immediately understand how they make decisions, or why they make the decisions that they make. But we men may benefit from these “irrational” ways of doing business, for example, when they choose us as partners in spite of our obvious flaws, and see promise in us that we do not see in ourselves.

More than once, I’ve been in a restaurant with my wife and another couple and heard one of the women say to the other, “I have to go to the ladies’ room. Do you want to come?” I wouldn’t dream of asking the other man to go to the men’s room with me. What’s going on here?

They can’t duet with you listening. I recall movies in which two couples are dining in a restaurant. Suddenly one woman, at a critical moment in the evening, whips out a compact and notices that her nose is shiny. Off the two women go to powder the nose of one. But forget the talcum powder; this is about a fairly secret, even conspiratorial, form of interaction, one that may involve strategic planning.

My experience with other men, admittedly all anecdotal, aligns with your description of our sex — we are always and forever in competition. By way of contrast, I have bonds with men who were by my side in war, men as willing to sacrifice their lives to save me as I was to save them, a bond that will never weaken. How do you reconcile those conflicting experiences?

There is a strong universal tendency for men, whether in sports or other organized endeavors, to compete with other men for opportunities to cooperate, so that they can collectively compete against groups of men who are doing the same thing. They know their coalitions will not work against other coalitions if some of their members are timid or weak, but also if they cannot be trusted to give their all. The feeling you describe is experienced psychologically, but I think it may have evolved to support these cooperative arrangements.

Your book suggests that we humans sometimes overrule our biological signals. In modern times, for example, a healthy diet demands that we can no longer slake our thirst for fat and sweets, and contemporary society requires that we no longer kill those who challenge us. So by what means do men and women, while speaking to one another, overcome their biologically ingrained differences in speech and, perhaps more important, biologically inculcated comprehension of the speech of the opposite sex?

I’m not sure we ever do overcome our differences. Learning how to live with each other means learning how to live with ourselves, to recognize that we may be factory-set to behave and react in ways that can be destructive, and so is our partner. But our strengths are complementary. Men and women’s verbal strategies work well in their same-sex relationships and in dealing with the larger world. It would be disastrous if we worked toward some “unisex” way of talking.

Forgive me for reading into your work, but do you postulate something like the soul or spirit or psyche that moves beyond the biological drives? Said differently, does the human have such a thing as free will that can mitigate the biological thrust?

I’m not terribly enamored with the amount of free will that we have. Research on the evolution of behavior is making it harder to believe that we only do things that we “decide” to do. Practically every day that the mind is studied “intuition” gains strength, which means that we do things without knowing why. But as I said above, if we understand why members of the opposite sex, and our own sex, do the things they do it becomes easier to respond sympathetically.

What will you be writing next?

In my previous book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, dealt with the evolution, history, and modern expression of the drive to observe others, even if doing so meant peeking through the cracks and keyholes of domestic walls. I’m now probing a deeper form of this experience – the one we get from standing outside the walls of our fellow human beings, attempting to sample their thoughts and feelings, and to infer their deeper nature.

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