Public Speech as Covert Courtship

Verbal courtship can be viewed narrowly as face-to-face flirtation, or broadly as anything we say in public that might increase our social status or personal attractiveness in the eyes of potential mates. Sexual flirtation during early courtship accounts for only a small percentage of language use, but it is the percentage with the most important evolutionary effects. This is the time when the most important reproductive decisions are made, when individuals are accepted or rejected as sexual partners on the basis of what they say. Yet, if language evolved only for face-to-face flirtation, we would talk much less than we do. Why do we bother altruistically giving away information when we are not directly courting a particular individual?

Verbal courtship in the broader sense explains why we compete to say interesting, relevant things in groups. Sexual choice permeates human social life, because anything that raises social status tends to improve mating prospects. If a man gains a reputation as an incisive thinker who consistently clarifies group decision-making and mediates social conflicts, his social status and sexual attractiveness increase. If a woman gains a reputation as a great wit and an inventive storyteller, her status and attractiveness increase as well. Public speaking and debate allow individuals to advertise their knowledge, clear thinking, social tact, good judgment, wit, experience, morality, imagination, and self-confidence. Under Pleistocene conditions, the sexual incentives for advertising such qualities would have persisted throughout adult life, in almost every social situation. Language puts minds on public display, where sexual choice could see them clearly for the first time in evolutionary history.

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