Home > Research, Writing > Some comments on Duels and Duets (Part 1)

Some comments on Duels and Duets (Part 1)


A few weeks ago, I made a blog post about John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets, a book which apparently explains why men and women have such different conversational styles. I think that it’s fair to say that the book has provoked a reasonable amount of controversy within the sociolinguistics community, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m in a better position to offer a more nuanced critique of Locke’s work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Duels and Duets, the central premise of Professor Locke’s book is that men and women have contrasting communicative styles due to the ‘differing roles played by the sexes in evolutionary history, the effects of which were transmitted genetically to the modern human brain, which continue to influence our behaviour today’ (Locke 2011: 13, italics in original). From this perspective of biologism, Locke argues that men’s biological disposition towards competition for status and power manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duelling, while women’s biological disposition towards co-operation and community manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duetting. Drawing primarily on evidence from case studies in anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and primatology, Locke attempts to deconstruct the differences between male and female speech behaviour down to its essence: biology.

There are, however, numerous shortcomings in Locke’s account which I will attempt to outline here. It is necessary, firstly, to illustrate how Locke’s argument differs from more widely accepted theories on gender and language differences.

The beginnings of language and gender research can be traced back to 1975 with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (there are other, earlier, treatments of women’s language, most notably in Otto Jespersen’s chapter ‘The Woman’, in his 1922 volume Language: Its Nature and Development). The main theoretical view at this time was that women’s speech was deficient, although it was only ‘deficient’ insofar that it was being compared to the ‘standard’ of men’s speech. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more hedges (phrases like I think and sort of) because of their relatively powerless status in society at that time. Men, in contrast, did not have to hedge their statements in the same way because they were powerful. So men were viewed as the de facto standard against which women’s speech was evaluated and judged. Lakoff, however, did not base her analysis on any empirical data, but rather on her own intuition and introspection. This led to a raft of studies which adopted a more quantitative approach in order to test Lakoff’s claims that women’s speech and men’s speech was different.

The work which came out of this paradigm not only provided an account of men’s and women’s speech based on data, but it also challenged some of the dominant views of how men and women conversed. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more tag questions (in a sentence like, It’s really hot in here, isn’t it?), but in subsequent studies, such as Dubois and Crouch (1975) and Holmes (1985, also reported in Holmes 1995), researchers found that men used more tag questions. It is important to note, however, that tag questions are not all one and the same, and their functions range from being facilitative (“Nice run, wasn’t it?”), softening (“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”) or challenging (“You won’t do that again, will you?”). While the general perception of tag questions is that they’re a marker of doubt and uncertainty, the reality is much more complex.

The view of women’s speech as deficient came under fire from certain researchers who argued that rather than women being deficient, language was actively used by men to maintain their hegemonic position at the top of the social hierarchy (this characterises work by, for example, Dale Spender). This was known as the dominance approach where ‘women as well as men [colluded] in sustaining and perpetuating male dominance and female oppression’ (Coates 2004: 6), and more recently, two approaches have found purchase within language and gender research: the difference approach and the dynamic approach (these terms are from Coates 2004). The difference approach refers to the idea that men and women are socialised within different cultures which consequently leads to different patterns of speech behaviour. It is this approach which attempts to explain male and female ‘miscommunication’, as argued in work by Deborah Tannen and extensively challenged in Deborah Cameron’s book The Myth of Mars and Venus.

The last approach, the dynamic approach, is perhaps the most common approach within current sociolinguistic research (that is, the study of language in society). In this paradigm, gender (the sociocultural expression of biological sex) is something that people do rather than something that people have. In this way, gender is something dynamic, changing and malleable; it is something that we do every time we speak. In this sense, gender is cultural, and the differences between men and women’s speech is conditioned by cultural expectations about what it is to speak like a man and speak like a woman. One benefit of the dynamic approach is that it allows us to examine speakers in context, rather than as a homogenous group of ‘men’ or ‘women’ or ‘other’ (this is also helpful because there are people for whom the cultural designations of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ do not apply).

Locke, however, doesn’t adopt any of these positions, and instead adopts a ‘biologism’ approach to language and gender.

I wanted to take the time to outline the (partial) history of language and gender research because I think it’s important to outline the prevailing trends within current sociolinguistic research on male and female speech so we can better contexualise why Locke’s position is untenable. On Tuesday, I’ll discuss the failings of the book in more detail (so you’ll have a reason to come back!).

– The Social Linguist

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