Deborah Cameron
Language: Sociolinguistics and Sociobiology

Critical Quarterly v39, n4 (Winter, 1997):81 (4 pages).

COPYRIGHT 1997 Editors of Critical Quarterly (UK)

During the 1990s there has been a fashion for popular psychology books about gender, language and communication. Bestsellers in this subgenre include Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand and John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.(1) What these books argue, in a nutshell, is that women and men have communicational styles so divergent as to make misunderstanding between the sexes a routine (though usually unrecognised) cause of conflict and unhappiness. Men allegedly use language primarily to compete for status, whereas women use it to forge intimacy (in Tannen's phrase, men do 'report talk' and women do 'rapport talk'). The books advocate understanding and tolerance: we should accept that gender-preferential styles of speaking are different but equal and learn to be passively bilingual(2) Martian' and women's 'Venusian'.

Not all researchers agree that gender differences in the use of language are as pronounced as they are Popularly believed to be, and those linguists who do judge them significant are careful to attribute them to social factors. Recently, however, scientists at the Institute of Child Health published a study which suggested that male-female differences in communicational style might have a genetic basis. The scientists asked parents to assess their children's 'social cognition', using indicators like whether a child could intuit when an interlocutor' was angry, or had enough awareness of others to avoid interrupting them constantly. Some children in the study were girls with Turner's syndrome, meaning they had only one X chromosome rather than the two which are normal in females. These girls(3) scored lower for social cognition than their XX counterparts (as boys did by comparison with 'normal' girls), suggesting to the researchers that the skills being assessed might be associated with a gene on the X chromosome. No one claimed this piece of DNA had actually been identified, but the extensive press coverage of the study generally treated the existence of a 'female intuition' gene as a foregone conclusion. Explanations were typically of a vulgar Darwinist kind: for example, it was suggested that since men have spent millennia specialising in activities like hunting and making war, there might be some survival advantage in their lacking empathy or sensitivity.(4)

This study is not without flaws. There is a problem in basing conclusions about sex differences on parents' impressionistic judgments of their children's behaviour, since such judgments are likely to be filtered through cultural assumptions about what is normal or desirable for boys and girls; over time, the way parents respond to children's behaviour influences the way they behave. 'Boys will be boys' is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Equally, parents of girls with Turner's syndrome, assuming it has been explained to them that this is an abnormality of the sex chromosomes, may be looking for evidence that their daughters deviate from the supposed gender norm. But however we assess its findings, it seems to me that the study is a sign of the times, in more than one way. It resonates with all kinds of current cultural preoccupations -- about gender, about language, and about how we understand what it means to be human.

It's no coincidence that this research hit the headlines at a time when there is considerable anxiety about masculinity and men. It is striking too, how much of that anxiety has been focused on the symbolic issue of men's linguistic behaviour. Concerns about men's inability to communicate have been pervasive throughout this decade, manifesting themselves not only in the popular psychology literature but also in political discourses on crime and violence, health and education. The idea that boys and men have a communication problem was sufficiently consensual by the mid-1990s to sustain British Telecom's lengthy 'it's good to talk' campaign, in which a series of advertisements compared men's brusqueness unfavourably with women's verbal facility.(5) In both expert and popular domains, a stereotype of male conversational cluelessness now functions as shorthand for a whole range of ways in which men are felt to be a problem.

If we ask, 'why has the problem of men been figured so often as a problem about men's language?', one answer might be that increasingly there is a tendency to define virtually every problem as a communication problem. Youth unemployment, juvenile crime, marital breakdown, racial tensions in the workplace, domestic violence, sexual harassment and date rape have all been subject in recent years to programmes of expert intervention based on the notion that the root cause of these problems is inadequate communication or misunderstanding, and the solution is some kind of communication training. As some critics (particularly feminist ones) have observed, this represents the triumph of therapy over politics, since it glosses over material questions of power and inequality. It suggests that everyone means well and that we all have similar interests; there is no real conflict, only misunderstanding caused by verbal ineptitude. The huge sales enjoyed by books like Deborah Tannen's suggest that this is a comforting idea.

On the face of it, the ideas promoted by today's Darwinians are less comforting. Though one scientist involved in the Turner's syndrome research pointed out that social skills can be learnt, meaning that men's deficiencies are not irremediable, the more obvious implication of locating male cloddishness in the genes is that most men cannot realistically be expected to match women in the sensitivity stakes. In this discourse, nature always wins over nurture: boys will indeed be boys, and men will go on behaving badly.

Yet paradoxically, its bleak certainty is what makes Darwinism so compelling: that may be why it is rapidly emerging as the most powerful secular grand narrative available to fin de siecle westerners. It's not just that the evolutionary narrative speaks to us about who we are and why; more importantly, it does so with a confidence and clarity other narratives lack. Darwinism affirms, contra Marx, that the point is not to change it, for we cannot change our nature. It thumbs its nose at most variants of feminism, suggesting that sexual difference in its most stereotypical forms is irreducible and essential. It cocks a snook at postmodernism, a movement dedicated to destabilising all master narratives, by robustly declaring that there is, indeed, such a thing as human nature (evolutionary psychology is the study of how natural selection has shaped it).

Language is an important test case for Darwinist ideas. Like sexual behaviour, language-using has both a clear biological basis and an obvious social or cultural element; unlike sexual behaviour, however, language- using is exclusively a human trait. Any story that purports to tell humans about our 'nature' is bound to be partly a story about language. When today's Darwinists attempt to annex for nature aspects of linguistic behaviour that were previously taken to the province of culture, they are continuing what is actually a very old debate, in which 'language' is a figure for humanity itself. Ultimately this is a struggle over competing narratives of human nature, one celebrating flexibility, variety and the possibility of change while the other, more austere, offers coherence and stability. Finally, I am less interested in which narrative is 'true' than in why these particular stories of language are ones we seem to want to hear retold in every age.


(1) Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (New York: Morrow, 1990); John Gray, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

(2) A passive bilingual understands two languages while normally speaking only one of them.

(3) More exactly, a subgroup of Turner's girls scored lower than XX girls: those who had inherited the relevant genes from their mothers rather than their fathers.

(4) I call this 'vulgar' because if I understand current Darwinian orthodoxy correctly, the unit which is now held to be basic to the workings of natural selection is not the whole organism but the so-called 'selfish gene', which survives by being passed on. Insensitivity would only be an advantage if it allowed men to mate more frequently and successfully than more sensitive rivals. At least one recent Darwinian thesis about language and gender strongly suggests that the opposite is more plausible -- humans and other primates do better when they are socially skilled (see Robin Dunbar, Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language, London, Faber 1994). This points to one of the troubles with Darwinism: within the parameters of the theory, you can make two opposing cases with equal conviction, or, to put it less politely, tell any story you like.

(5) The agency responsible for the campaign later confirmed men had been the main targets, and the aim had been to persuade them to spend more time (and money, of course) talking to friends and relatives on the phone. BT's market research had shown that men, by contrast with women, did not regard the phone as a medium for social interaction, but only as a tool for making practical arrangements. Lecturing a group of people on their poor communication skills might seem an odd way of persuading them to change their habits; still, the 'good to talk' campaign won an industry award for effectiveness -- though viewers also voted it one of the most irritating on TV.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Editors of Critical Quarterly (UK)


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