I have heard all my life that women talk too much. A few days ago, however, I watched an report on CNN of a study that showed that showed that men and women talk about the same amount, i e., use roughly the same number of words per day). Naturally, I couldn't remember the name of the researcher who was quoted, so I googled the topic. Using one set of search terms, I found references to the Brain Lady
, Dr. Louann Brizendine, claiming that women talk very much more than men as well as references to the male stereotype that women talk too much.
I used another set of search terms and came up with an ABC news story
citing the same research that the CNN report discussed, which was an eight year research project headed up by Matthias R. Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. This research was based on the use of voice activated digital recorders that subjects (college students) carried around with them throughout the day. The study found that men and women average about 16,000 words per day with women having a negligible edge. The ABC story also reports that the Brain Lady herself very quickly found out after publication of her book that her claim was based on faulty research. She asked the publishers to remove the claim. Unfortunately for Dr. Brizendine, her false claim will probably live with her forever and cause people to wonder a bit about her judgment in citing research from unfamiliar fields in publications which, though not scholarly, nevertheless depend on being seen as based on sound research. In any event, it seems, we have a definitive answer to the question of who talks more, men or women. the answer being neither.
It is difficult for me to understand why anyone would actually care whether men or women talk the most. If four women going to lunch together use more words per hour than four men having lunch together, why would either gender care since it has no impact on them? What matters most is not how much men and women talk per se but such things is (a) what do men and women talk about, (b) how much they does each talk about specific topics, and (c) most of all, how much men and women do talk when they are in mixed gender groups. The stereotype is surely not based on assessments by men as to how much women talk to other women when men aren't involved since they wouldn't be in a position to know this.
So, who talks the most in mixed gender groups? Contrary to the stereotype, women do not talk more than men in mixed gender groups. They talk less. However, in every study I have read that I could take seriously, this question is extremely difficult to answer in one word, as I just did when I wrote "less." In fact, when males and females are of equal in status, there are relatively few differences both with respect to how much
each talks or how
they talk. One Prof. Robin Lakoff
wrote a book years ago that was based on nothing more than her perceptions (prejudices) that said that there is a fundamental difference between h0w men and women talk. In somewhat more modern terms, the claim was that women used less powerful language than do men. Robin's claims were not without some justification but as I just noted, when men and women have equal status they talk in very similar ways. The problem is that for years women couldn't achieve a social status equal to that of their "bread winning" husbands.
I had the good fortune to be in a discipline (linguistics) in which there has many women members for many decades and in a department in which there were always women. Indeed, the department was founded by a woman and currently has a female chair. One result of this is that essentially every negative stereotype of females that had leaked into my brain over the years was resoundingly falsified. This education began at Rice University which though it had more men than women students, had only smart women. Unfortunately, most males do not have such edifying experiences.
In the preponderance of studies I have read over the years it has been shown that men talk more than women in informal social gatherings. Given this fact, it is difficult to see how the stereotype that women talk too much could have emerged since that would have been the sort of context that would foster such a view in men. The Brain Lady suggests that one reason men might think that women too much is that "women want to talk when [men] really don't want to listen" (taken from the ABC story). Moreover, of course, men and women tend to want to talk about different things. According to the Mehl study the ABC report cited, "men in the study tended to talk more about technology and sports, while women talked more about their relationships" (also taken from the ABC story). The fact that males and females prefer to talk about different things could lead to the perception that women talk too much because they talk about things men don't much care about.
I can't say why stereotypes emerge, but I think I know why they survive even when contradicted by experience. There are two ways that apparent counterexamples to a hypothesis can be taken. They may be taken as genuine counterexamples, that is they may be taken as facts which falsify the hypothesis forcing one to abandon it. Or they may be taken as mere exceptions to the rule, and thus as being of negligible interest. So, any man who believes women talk too much may see instances of women who are dominating a conversation as confirming their belief while seeing instances of women who say very little as mere exceptions to the rule. In any event, it is time for men to give this silly idea up.
Labels: counterexamples, exceptions, female talk, male talk, mixed gender interactions, stereotypes