Saturday, July 07, 2007

Chatty Cathy No More

It has long been conventional cultural wisdom that women talk more than men. Men clam up, while women natter endlessly. And I certainly know a few females who seem to find any sort of prolonged silence uncomfortable. Although, I know a couple of guys like that, as well. Often frustrating.

A recent study by the University of Arizona revealed that this wisdom appears to be another cultural myth with little grounding in reality.

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 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.

The study’s use of solely college students could potentially lead to different results than one using members of the general population would, but it does seem like a strong gender difference would have resulted in a bigger discrepancy between the sexes. And the study’s methodology does improve upon the previous attempts to measure conversation tendencies.

Now, the BBC is a great source for online news. However, a follow-up article on this study demonstrates the worst of the British media and the BBC’s efforts. The BBC decided to consult some females to find out what the missing 546 words might be and it includes words like body image, empowering, feminism, airbrushing and Afghanistan.

I’m happy to see the results of a study end misleading gender-based assumptions about behaviour. Breaking down gender norms and craeating relative fluidity between both genders and behaviour is something I fully support, although I recognize that society will likely continue to have differences between the behaviour of the two genders and some difference is perhaps a good thing in itself. What’s not so good is how the BBC works to reconstruct those gender norms in an article related to that very study. Men can’t be feminists? Men don’t have body image issues? Men don’t talk about Afghanistan?

And what about uniquely male vocabulary? How does the BBC address that? Or is cockblocking a phenomenon that both sexes now speak about?


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