The battle of the blab is a draw, psychologists say in new study -- findings contradict widespread belief that women talk more than men
Friday, July 6, 2007
Forget Chatty Cathy -- let's talk about Chatty Charlie.
Men, it turns out, talk just as much as women.
Sure, maybe guys talk more about cars and sports and the new iPhone, and women talk about their feelings, but at the end of the day, each sex uses an average 16,000 words a day, say researchers who studied the conversational habits of 396 men and women for six years.
"I was a little surprised there wasn't any gender influence, because this stereotype of women talking more is such a powerful, popular idea," said Richard Slatcher, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Texas and one of the authors of the study. "But we were able to directly test the notion, and it's totally unfounded."
The study, results of which were published today in the journal Science, debunks an age-old assumption that women aren't just the fairer sex, they're the chattier one, too. Tony Bennett sang about it in "Girl Talk" in the 1960s: "The weaker sex, the 'speaker' sex we mortal males behold, but though we joke, we wouldn't trade you for a ton of gold."
The stereotype is so pervasive that even scientists have long assumed that women talk more, and they incorporated that assumption in psychological gender profiles.
When UCSF psychiatrist Louann Brizendine published "The Female Brain" last year, one statistic in particular jumped off the pages and became the main talking point among radio-show hosts and Internet bloggers -- women, Brizendine wrote, use an average of 20,000 words a day; men use only 7,000.
Brizendine ended up taking out that detail after the first printing -- she's on the 13th now -- when she couldn't back it up, but the number has stuck with popular culture. Brizendine said she's happy to see it officially disproved.
"My book is really more about hormones, and that one line has been taken out of context. It's fascinating," she said. "Anytime you talk about sex differences, it's controversial. But the bottom line is, there are more similarities than differences between men and women."
The important question now, she said, is how the stereotype started in the first place.
Psychologists don't know exactly where the myth came from, but Brizendine speculates it probably took hold in the 1950s or so, when men worked the 9-to-5 jobs and women stayed home with the kids. At the end of the day, men would come home to wives who wanted to talk about the children, the house and finances -- basically, what felt like a lot of nagging, said Brizendine.
The stereotype has been perpetuated in modern days by the idea that women tend to be more open to talking about their feelings, which just makes men clam up during emotional discussions, said Matthias Mehl, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the study.
"The woman wanting to talk about a problem suddenly becomes 'women always want to talk, and men never want to talk,' " Mehl said.
Or, to put a slightly different spin on it, "maybe the lack of male desire to listen to women is why the myth has persisted," Brizendine said. It might not just be men who are frustrated, she said.
Because conversations about relationships are often emotionally charged and intense, they take on more importance, as far as presumed word counts go, than they deserve, Mehl said.
"Because they feel so important, people overgeneralize from these conversations" and assume women are the ones doing the talking, Mehl said.
Mehl's study is not the first to analyze how much men and women talk, and previous studies have also suggested that there isn't much difference between the sexes. But earlier studies almost always recorded people in unnatural settings -- sitting in a lab having a conversation, for example, when everyone knew scientists were listening.
The new study used audio clips from university students who agreed to be recorded for several days sometime between 1998 and 2004. The recording equipment amounted to mini-recorders and lapel microphones designed for studies that require listening to natural language use. The devices would turn on automatically for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes, and the subjects could not control -- and did not know -- when the equipment was turned on or off.
Researchers then transcribed the snippets of conversation, counted the words used and extrapolated from that number to get an idea of how many words each person used in a day.
There are some potential drawbacks to the study, namely that because it used only university students, it might not apply perfectly to men and women of all age groups and education levels. But Mehl said if there were important biological differences between men and women's verbosity, they would have registered at least somewhat in the study.
As it was, women spoke on average about 546 more words each day than men, but that number was found to be not statistically significant.
Based on the study results, some stereotypes about conversational habits seemed to hold true, Mehl said. Researchers didn't actually count the types of words people used, but he said men tended to talk more about sports and technology and women about their feelings.
Previous studies have noted that women use more emotionally expressive language and describe things in relational terms -- they use more pronouns, for example, said Slatcher. Men talk about more concrete things, he said.
Montira Warran of San Francisco said she's sure Slatcher's study is very scientific, but in her family, the women definitely out-talked the men. But, she added, she comes from a family of mostly women -- and the men didn't stand a chance.
"We had mostly headstrong women in my family who needed to get their point across, and the men would just say, 'OK,' " Warran said. "I think it's that women want to make sure they're heard."
San Francisco resident Doug Wilkins said he's read books and studies on gender conversational patterns, and he's noticed trends in the way men and women talk. Men, he said, are more likely to lecture, and to practice one-upmanship when they talk to other men. Women are more cooperative when they talk, he said.
And it's definitely true, he said, that men talk just as much as women.
"For every guy you know who only goes 'yep,' 'fine,' 'nope,' there's a guy who will walk up to strangers on the street and just start lecturing at them," Wilkins said.
"Case in point: my father in restaurants," he said. "The poor waiter says, 'How is everything?' and my dad will give a capsule review of every dish everyone at the table is eating. And the whole time the poor person is standing there, arms laden with dishes, shaking with fatigue. I tell my dad, 'The answer to that question is: Fine.' "
Average number of words a day women spoke more than men in study
Average words spoken a day by women
Average words spoken by men
E-mail Erin Allday at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle