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Review of  Men Talk

Reviewer: Anna Kristina Hultgren
Book Title: Men Talk
Book Author: Jennifer Coates
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 14.1739

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Date: Wed, 18 Jun 2003 11:59:45 +0000
From: Anna Kristina Hultgren
Subject: Men Talk: Stories in the Making of

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

Reviewed by 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 structured.

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^Òs stories frequently involve self-disclosure.

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 masculinity.

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^Òs 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 not.

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 demarcations.


Cameron, Deborah (2000) Good To Talk? Sage.
Lakoff, Robin (1975) Language and Woman's Place. New York:
Harper & Row.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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