In 2006, a best-selling book claimed that women are over three times more talkative than men. But a new study, the first to actually measure how many words men and women say in natural conversations, has resigned this statistic to the urban myth bin.
In ‘The Female Brain’, author Louann Brizendine stated that women use about 20,000 words a day while men speak a mere 7,000. Predictably, the media loved the story and through widespread reporting, this statistic has almost reached the status of urban myth.
The success of Brizendine’s statistic as a meme is surely helped by the fact that it ‘sounds about right’, much like the infamous myth that Inuits have multiple words for snow. In this case, our stereotyped view of gender says that women are better at expressing themselves than men, who are content to grunt and repress their way through emotional experiences.
In the light of this common wisdom, Brizendine’s ‘fact’ seems like pointing out the obvious, and she helped matters along by providing a vague explanation.
As testosterone moulds the developing brain of male embryos, it slows the development of areas of the brain involved in emotion and communication. As adults, men pay the price for this and struggle to express themselves.
But scientists were not impressed. The journal Nature said that, “despite the author’s extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance.”
As it happens, Brizendine didn’t really have any data to go on. Until now, no studies have recorded the natural conversations of large groups of people over long periods of time, which means that the statistic in the book is a guess at best.
Evidence at last
For hard evidence, we can now turn to Matthias Mehl from the University of Arizona, and colleagues from the Universities of St Louis and Texas. They had a wealth of data to study. Over the past decade, they have been running experiments which involved unobtrusively recording natural conversations.
Their recorder is an electronic device, delightfully called the EAR (electronically activated recorder). The wearer keeps the EAR on for several days and every 12.5 minutes, it records a thirty-second snippet of sound. The researchers transcribe any conversations captured by the device, and use this to estimate the total number of words spoken throughout the day.
Between 1998 and 2004, the group amassed recordings from over 210 women and 186 men. When they did a word count of the recordings, the results were very clear – both men and women use about 16,000 words a day.
Women used about 215 words more than average and men used 331 less, but this difference was not statistically significant. Neither gender was more verbose than the other.
Mehl admits that there are certain limitations to their data. For a start, all the people in the studies were university students between the ages of 17 and 29. It may be that larger differences would show up in people from lower educational background.
But not according to Brizendine’s theory – she suggested that women are more talkative because of fundamental biological differences that happen in the womb. If she was right, you wouldn’t expect these differences to be so completely masked in any socioeconomic group.
The final caveat is that only American and Mexican students were tested. In other countries, where gender equality is a much more troubling issue, there may be starker differences.
But in North America at least, women are not more talkative than men. Indeed, there may well be much larger differences between different men and women than there are between the two genders.
The moral of this story is that repeating a statistic doesn’t transform it into fact – we need experiments and good, hard data for that.
Reference: Mehl, Vazire, Esparza, Slatcher & Pennebaker. 2007. Are women really more talkative than men? Science
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