Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

A memo to my co-workers

To: All staff

From: Jane Demure

Here at Words, Inc.—an acknowledged global leader in the verbal communication industry—we value diversity and strive to be inclusive. That goes without saying, which is why we say it so often. But some of us feel excluded by a left-leaning culture which only values certain points of view, while deeming others illegitimate. Important issues are not being addressed because people are afraid to speak openly about them. We should not be intimidated or shamed into silence by groupthink and political correctness. Honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.

In the field of verbal communication we are regularly told that men have not achieved parity with women because of bias, stereotyping and rigid gender norms. I’m willing to believe there’s some truth in that, but it is far from being the whole story.

On average, men and women differ biologically in numerous ways. These differences are not just socially constructed: they are universal across human cultures, can often be related to the effects of prenatal testosterone, and are exactly what we would predict from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Of course, we must remember we’re dealing with averages here. I’m not suggesting that all male individuals exhibit the same characteristics, or denying there’s overlap between men and women.  But at the level of whole populations, their preferences and abilities do differ, in part due to biological causes, and these differences may explain why men are basically rubbish at verbal communication under-represented at Words, Inc.

On average, women are more verbal than men: they talk more, and attach more importance to talking. This is exactly what an evolutionary psychologist would expect, since it reflects what must have been the case while our species was evolving many thousands of years ago. Early human females had plenty of time to gossip with each other as they foraged, whereas men, the hunters, needed to stalk their prey in silence. We modern humans have inherited our prehistoric ancestors’ genes: our lifestyles may be different from theirs, but human nature doesn’t change.

Women favour (on average, of course) a co-operative, rapport-building style of verbal interaction, one which puts group consensus and conflict-avoidance above the pursuit of individual advantage.  Men’s preferred style is more aggressive, competitive and status oriented. This is why a lot of men are not very good at listening, and why they enjoy shouty arguments more than women.

All employees at Words, Inc. have highly developed verbal skills—this world-leading company does not hire the merely average—but we still need to recognise that women have a natural advantage. A large body of research confirms that girls and women on average outperform boys and men on a range of measures of verbal ability. The difference may only be very slight (some experts suggest it’s equivalent to about one tenth of one standard deviation), but when you’re a world-leading verbal communication company you can’t afford to overlook anything that might give you a competitive edge. Lowering the bar so we can hire or promote more men is bad for business, and also demoralising for the company’s female majority.

If we take proper account of all the relevant data, we will surely have to acknowledge that the marginal position occupied by men at Words, Inc. has very little, if anything, to do with anti-male bias. Apart from the fact that more women than men meet the company’s exacting standards, there’s also the question of their differing preferences and life-goals.  A lot of men just don’t want to work with words all day: it’s not where their talents and their interests lie. Of course there are some men who are capable communicators, but even they might well think that it’s easier and less stressful to do something more traditionally male, be it writing computer code or biting the heads off chickens.

Unfortunately, we as a community have allowed our left-leaning biases to cloud our thinking on this issue. In addition to the affinity we feel for underdogs in general, there’s a strong tendency among humans (especially female ones, whose brains tend to be wired more for empathy than logical thinking) to defer to men’s wishes, protect their feelings and overestimate their accomplishments. This tendency most likely evolved because men have a lot of testosterone in their system, and they’re apt to beat the shit out of anyone they think is disrespecting them.

I know some of you will find these observations distasteful or even shocking, but I’m not going to apologise for using the B-word, nor for paying attention to what research has revealed about the unalterable biological differences between the sexes. On average, men just aren’t as good as women at the kinds of things we do here—nor as passionate about the work. Maybe the reason they’re not getting ahead is because they aren’t driven to put in the long hours and the unstinting effort which success at this company requires. No one should blame men for having other priorities—that’s only natural—but nor should the rest of us be blamed for discriminating against them when it’s actually all about their own aptitudes and choices.

Another thing I’m not going to apologise for is circulating this memo to thousands of my co-workers, some of whom will inevitably be men. If you’re a man reading this, I’d just like to remind you that you shouldn’t take it personally, because that would be completely unreasonable. I recognise that some of you may have experienced discrimination in the past: ten years ago, the women who worked at Words, Inc. didn’t even pretend to think that most men were anything but inarticulate gibbons. But today we are far more enlightened. We even force everyone to spend at least two hours a year examining their unconscious biases in diversity training workshops.

That’s a good thing, of course (I value diversity, did I mention that?) but it’s possible to take it too far. Valuing diversity shouldn’t mean abandoning the principles of meritocracy, free speech and common sense. And it certainly shouldn’t mean ignoring the insights offered by science, which deals in objective facts rather than prejudices or feelings. Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we want to solve problems.

I know a lot of people here at Words, Inc., agree with me, they just don’t dare to say so. I too have felt the fear, but I’ve decided to do it anyway. If it all goes pear-shaped, at least I’ll be remembered as someone who broke out of the ideological echo-chamber and had the courage to stand up for her unfashionable beliefs. [Presses Send and thinks of Galileo]


Note: this post was inspired by (and in places is directly lifted from) a memo sent to his co-workers by the (now ex-) Google employee James Damore, the text of which is available here.  All the claims made in the post about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour are taken from the published (and sometimes peer-reviewed) work of real scientists, though the phrasing is my own. However, the fact that I repeat certain claims for the purposes of satire should not be taken to mean that I endorse them. (If you want to know what I really think about this body of work, this article lays it out: it also contains references for the sources I’ve used here without attribution. There’s also a (shorter and less ‘academic’) discussion in my book The Myth of Mars and Venus.)

The Google memo has prompted many non-satirical responses: among those I’ve read, the ones I’ve found most enlightening are this piece by the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and this one by the computer scientist Cynthia Lee.

Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Lekkers and losers

It will not be news to readers of this blog that I take a keen interest in popular literature on the subject of gender and communication. In my house there’s a whole shelf of old books I can’t keep in my office because they’re too embarrassing: they include Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and several examples of vintage neurobollocks. Fortunately, the internet now allows me to sample this kind of material more discreetly (and usually for free). Really, I’ve no excuse not to stay current.

Yet until two days ago I’d never heard of Dan Bacon, a self-described ‘dating and relationship expert’ and the proprietor of a website called The Modern Man (‘if you have a problem with women, I have the perfect solution for you’). Dan has recently become infamous for writing a piece entitled ‘How to talk to a woman who is wearing headphones’. Or, put another way, ‘how to make a woman take her headphones off and pay attention while you try to pick her up’.

From what I could see on Twitter, the general consensus was that the premise wasn’t just sexist, it was creepy and borderline rapey. I don’t disagree. According to Fiona Vera-Grey, who has done research on women’s experiences of being harassed by men in public places, wearing headphones is one of several tactics women use specifically to protect themselves from unwanted male attention. Like looking down at your phone to avoid eye contact and sitting near the door on the tube, it’s a form of everyday ‘safety work’.

But to men like Dan it is a truism that a woman’s apparent lack of interest in you is not to be taken at face value. It’s a challenge. Reading his piece reminded me of when I was in my early 20s (before anyone had a mobile phone or routinely wore headphones when out and about), backpacking around Spain with my then-girlfriend. After days of being hassled by men, we went into a bookshop and bought large badges adorned with lesbian symbols and the sentence (in Spanish) ‘we want to walk in peace’. Which we soon stopped wearing, because they proved to be the opposite of a deterrent. The more clearly we broadcast the message WE’RE NOT INTERESTED IN YOU, the more of a challenge we were, and the more persistent the men became.

In those days we had no idea how men rationalised this kind of behaviour to themselves. Today we have the benefit of websites like Dan’s, where practical tips on picking up women are often padded out with more philosophical reflections on masculinity and gender difference.

Dan’s views are perhaps most clearly summarised in his concluding paragraph.

As you may have noticed, women don’t usually go around approaching men. Women know that it’s the man’s role to be confident enough to walk over and talk to women he finds attractive. Women, on the other hand, have to look their best and try to attract the attention of the confident alpha males who approach.

From this we learn that in Dan’s imagination, nothing is what it seems. Deliberately ignoring a woman’s ‘leave me alone’ signals isn’t proof that you’re a jerk, it’s proof that you’re an ‘alpha male’. The woman’s headphones aren’t saying ‘I’m not available to talk’, they’re a test she’s set for the men who cross her path, and the losers who take her literally will fail. The man she’s actually attracted to is the one who disregards what she appears to want–who knows that her resistance is token, only there to be overcome. In this Mills & Boon theory of male-female relationships, no woman wants her man to be a wimp, or indeed an equal: he needs to make his dominance felt.

In an earlier post about lists of ‘things not to say’ to the opposite sex, I pointed out that women are told not to say things that men might perceive as criticisms or demands, whereas men are told not to say things that women might perceive as concessions or indications of weakness.  Dan Bacon observes this convention: his piece includes a list of mistakes men make which includes ‘allowing her to take control of the interaction’.

No matter how confident or challenging a woman might behave, she still dreams of meeting a guy who is more confident than her. A woman doesn’t want to be forced to control an interaction with a guy.

He goes on to point out that just getting the woman to take her headphones off is only the first step: now you’ve got her attention, you need to deliver on the promise of having something to say.

Engaging conversation skills are essential in keeping a woman’s attention at the best of times and even more so when she can switch herself off with a click of the “play” button.

Obvious? Banal? Well, yes, but it’s also an illustration of something that’s puzzled me for quite a while. Advice on communicating with the opposite sex presents men in two distinct and apparently contradictory ways. When the subject is dating, men—or at least, the alpha males the reader is encouraged to emulate—are depicted as articulate, smooth-talking charmers who ‘take control’ of interactions and use their ‘engaging conversation skills’ to keep women hanging on their every word.  But when the subject is marital relationships, men are most often presented as verbally-challenged idiots who can barely string a sentence together. They are said to prefer action to words, to be incapable of expressing their feelings, and to have great difficulty understanding what women say to them.

What unites these two accounts at a more abstract level is that each contains an inbuilt justification for problematic male behaviour. In the first case it’s ‘women want men to dominate them’, and in the second it’s ‘men care about women really, they’re just Martians with poor communication skills’. But it still seems odd that they can exist side by side. Maybe it’s a case of telling the target audience what it wants to hear: the smooth-talking charmer appears mainly in dating advice addressed to men, whereas the idiot appears in advice for heterosexual couples which is probably read more often by women.

The same two characters also turn up in scientific discussions of the evolution of language. Here there’s more explicit awareness of the contradiction: it’s a topic of debate among evolutionary scientists with an interest in how and why the human language faculty evolved. The question that’s relevant here is the ‘why’ one: our linguistic abilities are costly (because they require such a big brain), and other primates have done fine without them, so what survival advantage did they confer on us?  One early theory about this was that language enabled humans to co-ordinate joint activities that contributed to survival, like hunting. But more recently attention has turned to two other stories.

I’ll call the first one the ‘social networking’ theory. It says that the essential advantage conferred on humans by their ability to speak was to do with forging social bonds and transmitting social knowledge: talking helps individuals keep track of what’s going on in the group and maintain social relationships with other members. This produces a more cohesive (and therefore more successful) group. One prominent advocate of this theory, Robin Dunbar, argues that gossip—by which he means everyday talk about what’s happening and who’s doing what with whom—has a similar function in human groups to physical grooming among non-human primates. Dunbar thinks early human females would have been central in the development of language. Females play a key role in the organisation of primate groups, and females caring for infants would have had a particular interest in building networks of mutual co-operation.

Supporters of this theory often claim that it’s in line with contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Everyone agrees that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex, more talkative and more verbally skilled than the action-oriented male. What’s happening here is that the verbally-challenged idiot who appears in books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (and the unspeakable neurobollocks classic Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps) is being projected back into pre-history.

But as you’ll know if you read another of my early posts, it isn’t actually true that women talk more than men: most evidence points in the opposite direction. And while women do, on average, do slightly better on certain tests of verbal ability, the abilities being tested are not things that would have helped our preliterate ancestors as they foraged on the African savannah. These points have been seized on by supporters of the second story about what language did for humans, which I’ll call the ‘lekking theory’.

A ‘lek’ is what students of animal behaviour call a type of courtship ritual seen among, for instance, peacocks, where males display themselves in groups to an audience of females, and the females make judgments on their reproductive fitness. The peacock’s tail is the example famously given by Darwin to illustrate the concept of ‘sexual selection’, where a trait that may confer no practical advantage is selected because it makes its carrier more attractive as a mate. Some evolutionary scientists suggest that the human capacity for language was selected in the same way and for much the same reason: speaking offered an excellent way for early human males to show off to females, and for females to judge the males’ fitness, given that verbal behaviour is a clue to both intellectual abilities and social skills.

Supporters of this theory, like the behavioural scientist John Locke, also claim that it receives support from contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Women may have the edge in lab tests of verbal skill, but who dominates—in virtually all the cultures where the question has been studied—the oral performance genres that display most skill and creativity? Who are the most accomplished orators, debaters, poets, rappers, preachers, stand-up comedians? Who fights verbal duels to assert their superiority over their rivals?

In this account it’s the smooth-tongued charmer who gets projected back into prehistory—conveniently ignoring the more recent evidence (by which I mean evidence from the past thousand years or so) that women’s non-participation in various kinds of oral performance reflected neither lack of skill nor lack of interest, but had more to do with men’s strenuous efforts to exclude them. (Which have not entirely ceased, but they’re becoming steadily less effective.)

I’ve got nothing good to say about either of these competing accounts of gendered linguistic behaviour: both are thoroughly sexist, as well as being unconvincing for other reasons. They also illustrate that sex-difference science and folk-wisdom aren’t always as far apart as we might think. Sometimes one is just a scienced-up version of the other. It’s possible Dan Bacon got his ideas from a book about evolutionary psychology, but it’s more likely he’s just channelling the wisdom of the ages. Either way, the effect is to reinforce the belief that women have no right to withhold their favours from men. Sorry, Dan, but the headphones stay on. If you don’t like it, lek off.