“Locker room talk.”
Locker room talk is a simplified expression of how guys verbally bond. That’s all it is. If you consider the phrase this way, then it becomes clear why the concept is so universal and why you can find it on every continent and in every culture. If we were to take even a brief look into male verbal bonding, we would have enough material to fill a few good volumes of anthropological literature – so we’ll try to keep it short.
That’s what it’s called, isn’t it? The testosterone-fueled jostling and jibing across the locker room after a gym session or sports game. The teasing, the banter, the casual small talk about everything and nothing in particular. “Locker room talk” has become a concept in its own right, and most of the men out there will know exactly what it means without having it spelled out for them. That’s how our collective male psyche is deeply rooted. And yet, we ask this very question: “what exactly is locker room talk, and why is it so universal?”
Men have a distinctive way of talking to, with, and amongst each other, and it all comes from our ancestral path. Our primitive ancestors would jostle and challenge each other physically for a place in the group hierarchy. The top dog, our alpha male, and his allies would dominate the group and earn the right to mate and spread his genes into the future. The alpha also had access to the most plentiful shares of the food, the best shelter, etc., and so would greatly increase his chances of survival. His friends’ place was never guaranteed. They were always open to the challenge of potential usurpers; rival males and their allies were looking to jump ahead in the hierarchy.
However, physical combat is costly as the wound can be fatal. Open combat between two alliances can leave even the victors crippled and unable to hunt. The entire tribe would be vulnerable to an outside attack if all of the dominant males were destroyed or useless from in-fighting. Even the deepest and darkest recesses within our DNA know that the tribe comes before all else – even before our own power struggle within the group hierarchy.
Ways Guys Communicate
So, how do associate males challenge the hierarchy without risk of injury or death? This brings us to the first of five concepts for how guys communicate and bond with each other, and it all starts with ritual opposition.
1. Ritual opposition
Ritual opposition is a ‘playful’ conflict between males. This isn’t strictly a human domain; anyone can see lion cubs and chimpanzees sizing each other up and playfighting. That is ritual opposition, and it’s as much a part of human culture as it is amongst those species. It starts in childhood with roughhousing and playfighting. Males are much more likely to engage in this sort of physical behavior than females, who begin their social development more verbally. Boys will playfight over the most childish things, but looking below the surface, we see the same story as our primitive social hierarchy. Who runs the fastest? Who throws the furthest? Who is the strongest? Who is the best? These childish debates and comparisons establish who is the king of the playground, just as they do the king of the jungle.
As boys age and develop, these physical altercations progress into verbal jousting, even amongst the closest of friends – and for a good reason. Civilization has set boundaries in stone. Neither law nor company policy requires two adult colleagues to begin fighting in the middle of the office, for example, playful or not. From here, verbal sparring takes over.
2. Verbal sparring
Teasing and bantering in all domains becomes a part of this ritual opposition. This is both a challenge and an honor. It can confuse onlookers who are not part of the group, especially female onlookers. A male boss or co-worker may endlessly tease those males with whom he is acquainted. Those outside the circle are rarely included in this back-and-forth jousting, cementing their exclusion from the pack. The outsider may take one of two positions on this issue, depending on their sex. The male, looking in from outside the circle, knows he is not part of the group. He has been excluded, or perhaps has not earned the respect and value of his peers. He wants his place in the hierarchy, but he is not yet in the tribe. The female outsider looking in may wonder what it is all about. Where does this misplaced anger come from? Why are they saying insensitive things and insulting each other?
This takes us to the ultimate point. As our male co-worker outside the circle already knows, verbal sparring is a form of inclusion. If our boss – with a cheeky grin – was one day asking our lowly co-worker something akin to, ‘Hey, if you meet the deadline, then I’m Clint Eastwood’, or ‘You caught a 20lb pike? Couldn’t you have gotten something bigger than that?’ then our co-worker would feel bolstered and emboldened to say something back. He has been accepted and included, and he will feel valued and ready to trade playful barbs with his co-workers. They have begun to bond with each other through challenges and competition. It feels good to the man. It is essential.
It may, on the other hand, be an insult to the woman. It may be disrespectful. To take the same example, the first comment may cause her to believe that there is a lack of faith in her ability to meet the deadline, damaging her confidence. That comment about her 20lb pike – though tongue-in-cheek – might be taken as a slight on her fishing skills and degrade her proudest achievement in the sport. And these are just some of the most minor examples. Remember that verbal sparring is a substitute for playfighting, and like playfighting, it can get heated. It has been noted that women in business meetings are much more likely to excuse themselves to get away from a conflict.
On the other hand, men are much less likely to react because conflict is an essential part of being male emotionally. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. The environment influences us as surely as genes do. The age you begin socializing and the experiences you endure also matter. There are a lot of women that are working at the cutting edge of banter with a tongue as sharp as any male. Likewise, there are men with a low threshold for verbal sparring who are much more sensitive to perceived challenges. This is individuality, and individuality is everywhere.
The male works in packs. They patrol the perimeter of the tribe’s territory, warding off rivals. As a group, they hit the town for a drink. They take to the pitch as a football team. It’s inbuilt. We are stronger together. These values don’t wash off in the laundry. It feels good because we’ve been bred to do it. We are social animals, and our pack is our strength. We are not meant to be loners; it goes against years of nature, forcing us to seek protection amongst ourselves. The way we establish this security is through the formation of alliances. Chimpanzees – our closest genetic relatives – spend many hours daily ‘grooming’ a few male troop members to establish and maintain these alliances in a volatile hierarchy. Studies have found that both chimps and humans need to spend around 20% of their time in a social setting to be happy. This is a pretty good rule of thumb you should be following for optimal socialization.
Of course, there are physical reasons for being established in a pack. Imagine the individual male. Any generic individual – his culture, color, or creed doesn’t matter – just get one man firmly in your head. Now imagine a single bear. Over a thousand pounds in weight, razor-sharp claws, and breath reeking of rotten fish, stomach bile, and death. I wouldn’t say I like our imaginary loner’s chances. Evolution didn’t either. Those loners were phased out by natural selection.
So, find yourself a good ‘pack’, network, and make allies – we call them friends. One easy way to do this nowadays is by joining a Zoom mixer meeting on your favorite topic. Remember, packs are very important.
4. Less expressive
The male is less expressive. This isn’t a result of conditioning. It’s simply a fact. Men communicate with less emotional expression than women. Unlike our evolutionary experience, this characteristic is likely to be socially influenced.
In a study on gender, emotion, and expression, Tara M. Chaplin found that women display greater expressions of emotion, especially positive emotions. Happiness, excitement, and appreciation were all emotions more likely to be expressed by females. By contrast, men were more likely to express emotions associated with aggression and anger. This study is significant in that it unequivocally states that it relates only to expression. Men actually experience the same – or even more – physiological symptoms of emotion as women. For example, men experience the same rise in blood pressure, the same spike in cortisol levels, and the same perspiration when emotions are high. They are, however, unlikely to ‘let it out’ unless it is associated with the conventional view of masculinity. This is known as a ‘regulation strategy’. The emotions that are ‘allowed’ to be let out are consistent with the view that men must be assertive, individualistic, and independent. By contrast, more ‘tender’ emotions such as sadness and anxiety are bottled up within.
This has practical applications in the way men speak to each other. We don’t feel comfortable around that sort of emotional expression, although progress is being made in a 21st-century world. If a man says ‘I love you’ to a male friend, he is either drunk or joking, but even this joke can’t hide the truth that the man values their friendship. If he were to acknowledge the value of the friendship by saying ‘I value this friendship’, then it may disappear into smoke. For better or worse, men avoid being literal, and our scope for emotional expression still has some way to go.
Men tend to be wary of high maintenance relationships. If a guy immediately unloads all his personal baggage, his friend-to-be may high tail it to the nearest exit. Personal details can be gradually revealed as a bond grows. Popular issues are much more likely to cement a bond – for example, which basketball team the other person supports, and why it is a terrible choice – before discussing your impending fifth divorce and kidney dialysis.
This isn’t simply hearsay or casual observation; it has been solidified in academic study. At the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, Dr. Geoffrey Greif studied how 386 men made and maintained friendships. He found that 25% of men studied had negative impressions of women as friends, with issues such as ‘cattiness’ and ‘drama’, a recurrent theme. He also stated in his book – ‘buddy system’ – that women are more likely to hold grudges against each other than men. “Men do not want someone who is too needy,” he says, “If we use a women’s paradigm for friendship, we’re making a mistake.”
Dr. Grief’s point was that men bond differently from women. Men may not openly share the details of their feeling and emotions, but – according to Dr. Grief – men get support from gentle teasing and kidding alongside more subtle, physical approaches to friendship. Both men and women get certain levels of support from their friendship groups; they are just achieved in different ways. The key to achieving and maintaining a friendship for a man then is to start small and be gradual. Don’t set expectations, and build your rapport slowly.
The way men talk is a behavior ingrained in the male psyche from a natural progression of our mammalian instincts to climb the social hierarchy. The social interactions and values highlighted here are an essential component of what it is to be male; that’s why we feel good when we do it. We are filling a void that yearns to be filled. In today’s world, you don’t have to leave your own home to achieve these interactions: Videosocialize.com provides social mixers where guys can chat together – hunting, fishing, sports, you name it. Engaging in “locker room talk” doesn’t need to have a negative slant; it can be viewed for what it is: a natural way to forge bonds.
Before the Dawn: Recovering the lost history of our ancestors – Nicholas Wade
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Born and raised in Staffordshire, the United Kingdom, Joe Graduated in the summer of 2019 from Loughborough University with a degree in English literature and Sports science. Joe is a keen sportsman with a wide array of interests including anthropology and geo-politics. He also plays rugby semi-professionally.