Thursday, July 05, 2007

Do Women Talk Too Much?

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.

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Blogger zmjezhd said...

There have been a couple of posts about the new Science article on the men/women talking meme.

4:50 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I just realized I've heard that all my life & have really believed it! It makes me realize there are a couple of other things along those same lines, I've been believing without really thinking about.

7:32 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Let's hear about them concerned citizen.

6:58 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

To say, I have believed a couple of other things along those same lines is too simple a comment for me to make, really. Because what I'm thinking about goes much deeper then just making blanket assumptions based on...???whatever.

In trying to sort out in my own life what is true & what is not true, I have discovered a huge part of my thought process has been based on "myth".
Sad but true & I don't think I'm the only one with this problem.
You talk about advertising alot, & from what I gather, you make the point that advertising is about perpetuating myths & stereotypes by the use of language. As you have made clear... language is the medium by which we communicate our most complex thoughts.
I think that this is true, & I also wonder if a fundamental stumbling block to rational & reasonable thought is our lack of skills (or ability?) in sorting out what is true & what is myth in the deepest part of our own minds.
I have my theorys for why that is so in our society...besides the myths of religion & what is perpetuated by advertising,& popular opinion (as I see it in the context of your post) all this stuff seems to settle in our brains & we base assumptions on this & call it fact.

I think maybe you are saying pretty much what I'm saying when you use words like counterexamples & hypothesis. Some of your terms are a little confusing to me, but I guess I'm arrogant(or ignorant) enough not to let it bother me.
I want to learn as much as I can in the shortest time possible so I'm willing to look like a fool doing it.

3:32 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Learning as fast as possible is a good thing if you don't skip the substance of a notion. Notions like hypothesis (assertion that has explanatory power which is subject to empirical testing) are critical to developing an ability to think critically, which seems to be one of your goals. The hardest thing to learn is what is and is not a testable empirical claim and what evidence is and is not relevant to testing it.

The distinction between a myth and a scientific claim is that myths tend to assume a single cause for some event, which is often an action by a sentient being, while scientific claims recognize that there are always multiple causes for events. Ernst Cassirer, who seems to have become quite obscure, took this position. I remember being strongly influenced by his Language and Myth while I was a philosophy student. The idea that God created the universe is a paradigm case of a myth.

8:49 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Learning as fast as possible is a good thing if you don't skip the substance of a notion. I understand how important that is but, I feel There is no way for me to understand things in the convoluted way that you do.
It is easier for me to let all this stuff flow over me like water & whatever sinks in, sinks in & I use it for my purposes. For instance:(from your link)blah, blah blah..."takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in phenomenological reflexion) as its starting point and tries to extract from it the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience." sounds pretty instinctive to me???

Everything I understand is by intuition, anyway, I think...is that the way it is for everyone? Being only self-educated, (I am trying to become more mindful of the discipline, etc... involved in "real"higher education. But it is a hard row to hoe, for me) I 'd like to believe critical thinking is not so much a matter of book learning or IQ as much as it's about experience, intuition, instinct, or just being able to have or see different points of view.

The hardest thing to learn is what is and is not a testable empirical claim and what evidence is and is not relevant to testing it. Yes, & it seems to me that insecurity & emotion are two things that can stop people at this point. But, I don't see error in thinking as such a bad thing if you can just look at it as an experiment. If you don't get it once then go over it again. There are ways to know if you are on the right path, I believe. I like to hold my thoughts up to what you say(as I perceive it) or what Nietzsche says(as I perceive it) or who ever I can find to bounce my thoughts off.

I think having a foundation is most important. That is why I love philosophy. In my experience, it takes alot of sifting through philosophy to find that thing that makes you say, "AHA! this is the springboard for my thoughts."

Tackling a formal education is one of my goals when I am finally able to enter into my new life. I'm not sure I'll be successful at it, but I bet I'll learn something, anyway.

9:00 PM

Blogger Dominik Lukeš said...

Unless, I'm misremembering Lakoff's 'Language and woman's place' drastically, her central claim had little to do with how men and women speak but rather how the different social roles of women are reflected in and propagated by language. E.g. defining a woman through her husband but taking men on their own (Mrs./Miss vs. Mr.)or the differential evolution of the words 'master' and 'mistress'.

12:12 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I probably read this longer ago than you but probably more oven have had occasion to think about it. She said that there were characteristic ways women talked and that this reflected their inferior social status. But what we are dealing with is not a gender phenomenon per se but a power phenomenon and as women gain greater power in the society the critical linguistic difference diminish such as over-qualifying claims, hedging claims, etc. There are gender differences but they are ones that have little to do with status/power issues.

12:15 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Linguistics aside, This makes me think of something I just read that Nietzsche said in his book "Twilight of the Idols" If a woman possesses manly virtues one should run away from her; and if she does not possess them she runs away from herself. & also something I was talking about with a friend of mine concerning mature women & their "new found power"...perhaps, women are coming into their own?
I don't know If how WE talk reflects an inferior social status??? Maybe it does to some people, but I'm going to do my best to prove women are not mentally inferior!

10:20 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I don't think I have ever believed it. I lived in a family with smart women. My mother had a Master's from Columbia and a cousin managed to learn French enough to study at a French university for a year. There weren't any dumb women at Rice and MIT. And I married someone over my head, who was a Phi Beta Kappa at the U of Texas in Chemistry who went on to get a Ph. D. in linguistics. These experiences knock any thought of it out of your head.

11:52 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Well, your experience is a lot different then mine. Being around educated people all your life would naturally dispel some of the myths about womens intelligence perpetrated by, for instance, bad religion or bad television sit-coms.

Fortunately, badly educated human beings CAN re-educate themselves.

11:58 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Yes, indeed, concerned citizen and educated people can be damn fools as well. Look at George Bush.

8:32 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Besides bad religion & bad sit-coms I should add bad marriages to that mix.

re: Educated people. I didn't want to bring that up, myself, not being of that sect. But I do have a burning question as a woman...do you want hear it?

12:10 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...


1:35 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

what i'm interested in is what you said here: "But what we are dealing with is not a gender phenomenon per se but a power phenomenon and as women gain greater power in the society the critical linguistic difference diminish such as over-qualifying claims, hedging claims, etc." what I want to know is do you consider this a trait of women or powerless people in general? The reason I ask is, as you pointed out these are power strategies(maybe not good ones but...) I want to know if you think women resort to these things more then men?

8:06 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I don't know the answer to your question but I believe the consensus of opinion is as women acquire status and power the differences in how men and women talk when they are of equal status is pretty much the same when they are together. They don't defer to men of the same status and they don't hedge their claims (e. g., using things like "I think" at the end of a claim) any more than the men do.

11:33 AM

Blogger thegaypsycho said...

Wow quite a coincidence that I find a fellow Riceman online. I actually wanted to do a project similar to the one on which you're commentating.I am a third year undergrad, taking a linguistics course and wanting to do a project looking at speech patterns of men and women in the class versus in social, informal situations.

6:29 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

We Riceites/Riceans/Ricemen are few in number but powerful in effect. There is room for another blog.

Do not believe the rhetoric that there is a striking gender difference in language use. There is a power difference among people and if this gets translated into an apparent gender difference, this is because many women do not have much power.

You have bit off a huge topic in terms of the data you need to collect. I would pick one issue and look at it in the two types of contexts you are considering. I am betting that the women and men in class don't differ a lot. What would really be interesting is whether men at Rice try to take over conversations when women are there. That's what would really be worth looking at.

9:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you Mr. Language Guy. I really appreciate the work you have done.

I sincerely appreciate it. I gave up work to write a book to help parents with their babies.

Apart from food for the body I really miss brain food. Thank you.

5:25 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You are very much welcome, katherine.

7:39 AM

Blogger Mycroft Holmes said...

I live with a man who talks too much, he is a talking machine, he never stops talking. It is not so much that he talks so much which is the problem, it is that he constantly repeats himself, he is talking nonsense, he is talking about nothing of importance or in particular. Otherwise, he is nagging, moaning, digging at me, blaming me for everything in the world, making me feel guilty, etc.

So, the real question is not if people talk too much, but do they talk an alienating sort of speech which could send any of us, sane people, off the wall?

Maybe this is where the confusion comes from. Not how much people talk, but what they talk about and how they talk, which might give certain impressions and feelings.

1:30 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You are quite right, Mycroft. The problem in male-female discourse is that women are often not talking about things that interest men and they see all such talk as gabbering away. Women feel the same way about our talking about sports, for instance, but are too polite to say so.

6:40 AM

Blogger jemima said...

Hmm ok my comment might be a bit more subjective than some of the others here but...
Ive just got off the phone from my supposed boyfreind
He told me I talk too much hmm... and Im sitting here feeling sad and like Im a freak.
He said cant you just tell me quickly in a couple of words how things are going with you!
I said not really a lot has happend(we didnt talk for a few months)
Then he said "you are like a writer
who writes books and I dont have time to read your book always you are so" Then we said goodbye.
Inside I feel heavy and sad misunderstood and I know this feeling will stay with me all day as I go over and over how can I explain this or that in small bitesized statements before he is whisked off.
I spend a lot of energy doing this to be honest feels like a stone in my head like im constantly trying to change my reality to bring it into an acceptable form.. and you know Its literally painfull to have to rethink and reword everything.
In trying to reword all it brings a heaviness to my comunication and internal depression.
I wish things were different that I could feel inside I was listened to and understood maybe my realationship is mentally abusive .. it does feel like that!
Or maybe there is something wrong with me.
Now Im thinking If I was a football maybe the meaning of my life would have some validation hmm.
So what do I do?
Stay inside myself and fell unloved and misunderstood.
Try to shift the balance by "listening" more instead of talkng so much.
Its my birthday in a couple of days.. and you know he didnt even listen long enough for me to remind him, I know he'll forget and Ive agreed to spend it with a freind of mine instead.
My freind I imagine will talk at me non stop as shes prone to.. shes a person with a lot more people around her than me .. Ill be left thinking the birthday was someone elses and the lonliness inside will hardly be touched.

9:50 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

This is easy Jemima. He is a not untypical male jerk and you do not need to change anything but one thing: change boyfriends. You may be alone for awhile but it seems that you are already functionally alone. Good luck and do bust up with the guy. Otherwise this will go on forever.

5:49 PM

Blogger Michele said...

It is essentenial that the female talk more, it is basic survival skills. Language in repetition teaches the infant the skills to survive. Just think for a moment how many times a women will repeat the word -no- when teaching a small child. All of that came from the tall grass lightly wooded areas that surround the protected warm rift valley with hot springs. When all of sudden the close knit and very limited gene pool started the inbreeding and specialized humans we know today. Of the eight species that came from that only one survives. Since then many thousands of other creatures have gone extinct. That’s why all human DNA is traced back to that event in history. So far, none goes back further. (Jan/2010) The latest findings I read show that only 1500 females (mitochondria ancestry) survived. There is one mathematical yet unproven model shows less than 600. There is hundreds of thousands of DNA samples on this study and its been repeated thousands on times. Most of what a person does is from their DNA, over 98% and is flavored with the environmental stress which in tunes our culture. From repeating stories and talking to children to putting curtains on the windows, its not a fault it’s a basic and very impotent life skill.

5:15 PM


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