Talk About a Gender Stereotype

5 July 2007 (All day)

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Equal opportunity.
A new study quashes the common view that women talk more than men do.

"Women's tongues are like lambs' tails--they are never still." --Old English saying

From old adages to modern pop psychology, the notion that women yak more than men is pervasive. But according to a new study, the biggest to date, the two sexes are in fact pretty much neck and neck. Girls have a jump on boys in verbal fluency early in life, but research is confusing on the subject of whether they actually talk more than boys do as adults. One oft-cited statistic, whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time, has it that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day, compared to only 7000 issuing from the laconic male. But until now, there has been "no large-scale study that systematically has recorded the natural conversations of large groups of people for [an] extended period of time,” says psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin.

To remedy that, Pennebaker, along with Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl and other colleagues equipped 396 college students--210 of them women--for several days with voice recorders that automatically turned on every 12.5 minutes to record for 30 seconds during their waking hours. All words spoken by the wearer were transcribed, counted, and extrapolated to estimate a daily word count. Pennebaker says the findings, appearing in today's issue of Science, should put the myths to rest: Both men and women averaged roughly 16,000 words a day. And there was no appreciable international difference either, at least in North America. U.S. students had about the same average as a sample of 51 students in Mexico.

"At this point, the only remaining scientific question appears to be why so many intelligent and well-educated people have so easily--even eagerly--accepted and spread what appear to be fabricated numbers supporting a false generalization," says linguistics professor Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the research.

The findings confirm other studies in more limited settings that suggested men hold their own in the chattiness department, Liberman says. Even so, Pennebaker's team may have missed important gender differences because they didn't consider the context in which people were speaking, says professor Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She points out, for example, that men and women differ in their gregariouness depending on whether they're in private or public, same-sex or mixed-sex gatherings.

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