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.

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