Across time and culture, the female predilection for chattiness and the male penchant for taciturnity have approached the status of unarguable facts. Now, two studies appear to bury these age-old stereotypes. One recorded nearly 400 college students for days and found that members of each sex uttered virtually the same number of words. “Wherever this really persistent stereotype comes from, we do not find evidence to support it,” said Matthias R. Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona whose paper is published today in Science. The second, an analysis of 63 studies of gender differences in talkativeness, found that men actually yakked slightly more than women, especially when interacting with spouses or strangers, and when the topic of conversation was non-personal. Although, overall, “the magnitude of the difference was negligible,” said Campbell Leaper, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the findings suggest that “some men may be using talkativeness to dominate the conversation.” His study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review. Female garrulousness is ensconced in jokes, literature and even law.
In Colonial America when gossiping was punishable with the “ducking stool,” women were the more common victims. The idea appeared to gain scientific authority with the publication last year of Louann Brizendine’s best-selling book “The Female Brain,” which asserted — without citing data — that women utter about 20,000 words a day and men about 7,000. Despite the popular view, few studies have found significant differences between the sexes in overall verbosity, although women and men (and boys and girls) do diverge in some notable situations. The studies that Mehl and his colleagues analyzed were done among six groups of college students — five in the United States, one in Mexico — who wore digital sound recorders during their waking hours for two to 10 days. Every 12 1/2 minutes, the machines turned on and recorded 30 seconds of sound. The researchers counted the number of words captured and extrapolated the sample to the whole day.
Women spoke an average of 16,215 words and men 15,669 words during an average of 17 waking hours a day. The difference — just under 550 words — was not statistically significant. The researchers checked to see if there was a trend for the most loquacious individuals to be women. There was not. Of the most talkative 15 percent, half were women and half men. In three of the six samples, the single most talkative person was a man. What was striking, Mehl said, was the great range of word use. The most was 47,000 words in a day; the least was 700. Because the talkers were all college students on roughly similar schedules, their word use may not be the same as that of people in other age groups. But the consistency of the results suggests that there is no innate difference in verbosity between the sexes — at any age. “If there are brain differences, you should see them in college students,” he said.
The 63 studies examined in the meta-analysis done by Leaper and Melanie Ayres (also of UC-Santa Cruz) were different from Mehl’s. Most involved observing people in laboratory conditions — talking in pairs, in groups, sometimes with children and sometimes with only one sex present — for periods of up to two hours. The finding that men talk more than women did not hold for total number of words (as in the Mehl study) but for other measures of garrulousness, such as total number of statements, duration of speaking and “mean utterance length.” The situations in which men talked more than women were conversations between spouses or partners; conversations that included people of both sexes and when researchers were present; and situations in which the topic involved disagreement or was of a non-personal nature.
The situations in which women talked more than men were those among classmates, and between parents and children; those when the activity was child-oriented; and those when the topic of conversation required disclosure of feelings. “This underscores how many gender differences can be situation-specific,” Leaper said. However, an analysis of 73 studies of children’s conversation found the opposite result — girls are more talkative than boys. Leaper, who also authored that study, said that as with adults, the difference was small and differed from situation to situation. Girls were especially more talkative than boys when interacting with adults. They also talked more during activities of their own choosing. That may reflect a preference for games such as playing house, which requires more communication, rather than construction projects and sports, which boys tend to prefer, Leaper said. Assigned to the same task, boys and girls are equally talkative.
That analysis, published in 2004, found that the biggest gender differences in garrulousness was in toddlers — which may reflect the earlier acquisition of language by girls — but that, by age 13, boys have started to out-talk girls. Brizendine, the psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco who wrote “The Female Brain,” said she got the 20,000 vs. 7,000 words statistic from a secondary source. She has concluded that it is not accurate; it was removed from her book in the second printing. “The next question is: Why has this myth about women’s talkativeness persisted so tenaciously? Why has it been passed down through the ages with such glee?” she said yesterday.
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