Who really talks more, women or men? And should we still be caught up in that question?

A new study explains why previous findings have been contradictory

Earlier this month, US author Sylvia Ann Hewlett sparked controversy after her appearance on Fox News’ morning show Fox & Friends, in which she advised women in the workplace not to talk too much. This nugget of wisdom has its roots in the widespread idea that women have the tendency to speak more than men, or to “fill the air with words” like a “good hostess”, according to Hewlett. The stereotype of the chatty woman is deeply embedded in our culture, with "facts" derived from popular science books and marriage guidance pamphlets quoted and re-quoted in the press (Ever heard the one where women speak 20,000 words a day to men’s 7000...?) But is there any scientific evidence to back up this assumption?

A meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of California in 2007 found that across the studies examined, men actually talked more, but the difference was fairly small. Another study conducted in the same year by a team including the renowned social psychologist James W. Pennebaker found no significant difference between the amount men and women spoke. On the other hand, some older research papers do report women talking more. In short, the findings so far have been contradictory.

This week, a study was published that may explain why the academic jury has been out on this question for so long: Whether men or women speak more, appears to be wholly down to the context you observe them in.

David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has developed a “sociometer”; a wearable device roughly the size of a smart­phone, that has allowed him to col­lect real-​​time data about his subjects’ social interactions. The majority of previous research has made use of either self-reported measures of communications, or direct observations carried out by researchers. Both methods have significant drawbacks compared to the sociometer, which makes it possible to study a large number of interactions, creating an accurate and intricate picture of how people communicate.

After fitting 79 students and 54 call-centre employees with the freshly developed measuring devices, the researchers analysed the data collected in two distinct settings: A university environment in which students were working on a collaborative task for the duration of twelve hours, and a work situation in which employees were tracked during twelve one-hour lunch breaks.

In the task-based setting, the talkativeness of men versus women depended on the size of the group. In groups of six people or more, men did most of the talking, whereas women spent more time than men speaking with just one or two other people. Overall, the women were found to be 62 per cent more talkative than the men when working on the collaborative task, as most of the interactions in this context took place between just a few people at a time. These gender differences vanished when Lazer and his team looked at the data from the lunch breaks at the call centre: No significant differences between men and women were found.

“In the one set­ting that is more col­lab­o­ra­tive we see the women choosing to work together, and when you work together you tend to talk more,” says Lazer. “The real story here is there’s inter­play between the set­ting and gender which cre­ated this difference.”

The fact that men speak more in larger groups, matches previous findings that men ask the lion's share of questions at public meetings. If, when seen across situations and group sizes, women don’t speak more than men, why has this myth gained such a firm hold? A possible explanation could lie in the fact that girls’ language skills develop earlier, enabling them to become articulate at a younger age. Possibly these few years in which girls show greater verbal dexterity feed the idea that talking is a predominantly female talent. However, studies of children also fail to find robust gender differences in amount of words spoken. Their temporarily superior command of language doesn’t mean girls are always “filling the air.”

Does it even matter who speaks more? There is criticism of the tendency for books and articles to over-publicise findings such as these, enlisting neuroscience in support of the view that men and women are “essentially and unavoidably different”, as expressed on the online language log Neuroscience in the Service of Sexual Stereotypes. But if women are being warned of their natural inclination to “talk too much”, as they unfortunately still often are, then it is interesting to see that those conducting the research are unlikely to support that advice.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine