LINGUIST List 14.1739

Thu Jun 19 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Coates (2003)

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  1. Anna Kristina Hultgren, Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities

Message 1: Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities

Date: Thu, 19 Jun 2003 12:54:56 +0000
From: Anna Kristina Hultgren <>
Subject: Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities

Coates, Jennifer (2003) Men Talk: Stories in the Making of
Masculinities. Blackwell Publishing.

Announced at

Anna Kristina Hultgren, Institute of Education, 
University of London


This book examines how men construct their masculinity through
talk. It builds on rich conversational material and focuses on the
stories that occur within these conversations. The data has been
collected from a range of contexts in order to include a variety of
social parameters, such as age and social class. The main argument is
that, through a combination of strategies, men orient to hegemonic
masculinities, i.e. approved ways of being male.

The book is suitable to readers interested in language and gender and
conversational narratives. As well as being the first in-depth study
of all-male conversation, it is one of few books that actually shows
how gender is constructed through talk.

Chapter one serves as an introduction and exemplifies how speakers use
talk to construct their identity. The chapter includes a brief
literature review with the aim to show that maleness has gone from the
privilege of unmarked to marked status, testified by the proliferation
of books about men and masculinity in the 1990s. The focus of the
book, i.e. conversational narratives, is defined and it is shown how
these play a crucial role in helping us express who we are and who we
are not. The author discusses some methodological considerations, for
instance whether speakers censor themselves in the awareness that the
researcher is female, but notes that there is no indication of this in
the data. The chapter finishes with an account of how the book is

In the second chapter, the formal characteristics of stories are
outlined. A story must have two things: a narrative core, which is a
sequence of clauses with a verb in the simple past tense or the
historic present and tellability, i.e. it must have a point. The
question whether stories are gendered is raised and Coates suggests
that men and women differ in what they consider as being tellable. The
chapter goes on to show how speakers draw on various strategies to
make a story more dramatic, e.g. by shifting between historic and
simple past tense, by using direct speech and adding evaluative
comments. It also shows how a third person narrative can be used to
frame oneself and the listeners as in-group and the protagonist of the
story as out-group members.

Chapter three introduces the central theme of the book, i.e. how
masculinity is constructed and maintained in all- male talk. Though
the stories are told in groups of men with different ages and
belonging to different social classes, they have commonalities in the
way in which gender is constructed. Coates identifies four of these.
First, the topics are stereotypically masculine, dealing with cars,
modern technology, drinking and travel. Second, the characters in the
stories are all male. Third, the narrator pays great attention to
detail. Finally, the narrator makes elaborate use of taboo
words. According to Coates, these features all interact to accomplish
dominant values of masculinity, which include emotional restraint,
ambition, achievement and competitiveness. Coates shows how sometimes
alternative masculinities expressing e.g. vulnerability are voiced,
but that these are silenced by peer pressure. She also argues that
hegemonic masculine discourses are homophobic and misogynistic and
tend to avoid self-disclosure.

Chapter four explores the way in which stories told in sequence help
signal friendship and solidarity. A sequential story is defined as
having a topical link with the previous story and as being
contiguous. Coates observes that one speaker dominating talk by
telling a series of stories is allowed in all-male talk but not in
all-female talk. The chapter goes on to show how sequential stories
differ in structure from stories told in isolation and how men friends
construct solidarity through telling second stories. Coates suggests
that telling stories in sequence is valued by men because other ways
of showing mutual understanding are taboo for fear of appearing
feminine or gay.

Chapter five introduces the topic of gender differences in narratives
by comparing stories told in all-male groups to stories told in
all-female groups. Coates laudably aims to avoid oversimplifying by
examining stories that break with traditionally gendered scripts as
well as stories that conform to gender stereotypes. Despite this,
Coates claims that she was forced 'to recognize that there are some
stark differences between the stories told by men and those told by
women' (p. 137). Where men's stories focus on action, women's focus on
people and relationships. This ties in with the finding that men
depict a storyworld populated entirely by men, while the characters of
women's stories are of both sexes. The absence of women from men's
narratives is highlighted as a disturbing aspect in that it maintains
an ideology where men are all-important and women are
invisible. Another difference is that men's stories are characterised
by emotional restraint whereas women^�'s stories frequently involve

Chapter six focuses on mixed-sex talk in order to investigate whether
men construct their masculinity differently when talking to women than
when talking to men. Coates finds that the narratives told by males in
mixed conversation vary far more than those told in all- male groups
both in form and in content. A range of masculinities are produced,
from most macho to more sensitive and expressive, depending on the
recipient. Coates distinguishes between two types of recipients:
peer-group members and family members. Though the stories told in
peer-groups in many ways fits in with hegemonic masculinity, they also
deviate from this by introducing a wider range of topics, by depicting
storyworlds that often contain women, by including emotions,
e.g. fear, and by making less use of taboo words. It is also shown how
all participants, whether male or female, collaborate in the
construction of normative gender roles. In family talk, Coates argues
that older, male family members have privileged access to the
narrative floor. There is some evidence, however, that female family
members sometimes co-operate to undermine the father's authority.

Chapter seven examines another type of mixed-sex conversation, couple
talk. Coates observes that it is not possible to make general claims
about the behaviour of couples in conversation but one finding is that
male speakers are more likely to construct talk collaboratively in
mixed company than in all-male company. Coates suggests that
co-construction of narratives is allowed only in contexts where it
functions as a display of heterosexual coupledom. Thus, by
co-constructing a story with a female partner, a man displays
heterosexuality, which is a central feature of dominant values of

In the eighth and final chapter, the main finding of the book is
perspectivised. Through talk, men construct and maintain hegemonic
masculinities even though (or perhaps because) traditional male roles
are disappearing as a result of social changes. Coates draws on
several sources to argue that there is a crisis in masculinity and
that 'men, in particular young men, seem to be angry and out of
control' (p. 194). This is visible across the globe in problems such
as gang violence, race riots, football hooliganism, etc. According to
Coates, male lack of self- disclosure, a feature of hegemonic
masculinity, plays a crucial role in these problems.


The book provides valuable insight into the social construction of
gender and is a significant contribution to our understanding of the
intersection of language and masculinity. Coates is immensely
perceptive in her analyses and communicates her findings in a clear
and accessible style. Where her arguments are backed with statistical
evidence, for instance on gender of storyworld characters and use of
taboo words, I found their convincingness even stronger. Other more
qualitatively supported arguments are also convincing, notably the
section on homophobia.

Some of the more subjective claims, however, would have benefited from
further discussion. For instance, Coates claims that men have a
propensity to pay attention to detail in their narratives. It is
questionable whether a quantitative approach would reveal that they
pay more attention to detail than women. Moreover, Coates sees men^�'s
attention to detail as a way for them to avoid talking about more
personal matters. Arguably, this point is valid only when male talk is
compared against and seen as deviating from a female norm. The
tradition has been the reverse ever since Lakoff (1975) wrote her
pioneer book comparing women's speech to men's. Admittedly, it is
Coates' explicit intention to problematise male speech, but I am
wondering whether this can be done without regarding it as inferior to
a female ideal.

Indeed, the main argument of the book is that there is something
missing from male speech and male inexpressivity is given the blame
for a crisis in masculinity. Though this may have something to do with
the problem, it is questionable whether it is the sole cause. Today's
society attributes highly positive values to talk, yet Cameron (2000)
questions whether all talk is necessarily good and all lack of talk is
necessarily bad.

According to Coates, another feature of hegemonic masculinity is
achievement. Stories of achievement can take the form of heroic
action, exemplary skill or getting away with a clever prank. Coates
claims that 46% of narratives told by men focus on achievement
compared to 6% of narratives told by women. Is it possible that this
difference has more to do with the definition of an achievement than
with any real gender differences? For instance, it is not clear
whether a girl's story of managing to acquire a set of earrings at the
bargain price of 25 pence is interpreted as an achievement story or

The absence of women from men's narratives is highlighted as a
disturbing aspect of hegemonic masculinity in that it maintains an
ideology where men are all-important and women are invisible. This
rests on the assumption that a speaker's language use determines his
or her awareness of the real world, c.f. the whorfian
hypothesis. There is a big step, however, from arguing that language
functions as an identity marker to arguing that it will shape one's
worldview. In day to day life, men do seem to be aware of the presence
of women and the impact they have on the world around them.

On the whole, this book is highly recommendable as it shows how
important it is for men to adhere to traditional notions of
masculinity. This may have implications for their potential to enact
unfamiliar roles and, in turn, for society to dissolve outdated gender


Cameron, Deborah (2000) Good To Talk? Sage.

Lakoff, Robin (1975) Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper &


Anna Kristina Hultgren is based at the Institute of Education in
London where she is studying for a Ph.D. in Sociolinguistics. Her
research interests include language and gender, notably how
expectations of gender-appropriate behaviour limit the individual's
possibility to engage in untraditional roles.
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