TalkTalkTalk -- Who Are You Calling a Chatterbox?

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Contrary to the commonly accepted urban myth that claims that women talk more than men, a recently published study has instead found that men talk as much as women do, and both sexes speak about 16,000 words per day.

Originally, the researchers read in "The Female Brain," by Louann Brizendine, that women speak approximately 20,000 words each day, while men speak a mere 7,000. So James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who was the senior author of the study, and his colleagues decided to learn the truth.

"This was one of these urban myths," observed Pennebaker. "No one knows where this belief even came from, but it's been reported for years."

In my opinion, this myth probably started because men have historically wanted to control women, and a good way to do that is to shame them into silence, and to ignore them when they are not silent.

Earlier attempts to quantify how much the sexes talk relied on self-reported data from questionnaires or telephone interviews, which are notoriously unreliable. However, digital recording technology allowed the scientists to eavesdrop on actual conversations.

The researchers used an electronically activated recorder, known as EAR to quietly record conversations during someone's daily routine. The cellphone-sized device developed by Pennebaker, activates itself every 12.5 minutes and records sounds for 30 seconds.

Ten days' worth of recordings collected from 396 university students in the US and Mexico were transcribed and analyzed. The researchers found that men speak average 15,669 words per day while women speak 16,215 -- which are a statistical tie. Additionally, the researchers did not find a cultural difference in talkativeness between Americans and Meixcans.

More important for this study than gender was whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert.

"What's a 500-word difference, compared to the 45,000-word difference between the most and the least talkative persons?" Asked lead researcher Matthias Mehl.

Despite this, the researchers did find some differences in their conversations. Men tend to talk about objects, Pennebaker said, while women tend to talk about other people.

The study was published in the journal Science.


Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men? by Matthias R. Mehl, Simine Vazire, Nairán RamÃrez-Esparza, Richard B. Slatcher, James W. Pennebaker Science 317(5834):82 (6 July 2007) Abstract. DOI: 10.1126/science.1139940.

Science (quotes)

LA Times (quotes)

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NYTimes (quotes).


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The study authors raise the valid caveat that they only looked at university students and larger differences may exist in people of a lower socioeconomic background. However, it seems unlikely that a university education would completely mask a three-fold difference in verbosity, as stated in the 20,000/7,000 stat. Incidentally, this came from a book called The Female Brain, which seems to be full of unreferenced stats according to various reviews.

I'd be curious to know if there's any disparity in word counts when a man and a woman are talking to each other, versus talking to the same sex.

If men and women have trouble talking about the same kinds of things, maybe a man's reaction is to clam up, while a woman's is to keep talking, which could account for the anectdote.

Or not. Just curious.

By Eric Wallace (not verified) on 05 Jul 2007 #permalink

As a general rule, any unreferenced claim that there are mental differences between men and women should be presumed false until evidence is presented.
(wait ... wait ... I'm trying to remember something about a certain sharp philosophical instrument ...)

Figuring that someone speaks at 120 words per minute, then to speak 16,000 words would take a little over 2 hours. Where did they find college students with that much free time?

If a student spoke only to one person at a time, that would mean 4 hours a day in conversation, with the student speaking half the time. If they spoke to four people, this would mean eight hours of conversation a day.

Is it possible that the gadget recorded any speech as the subject's own? If the student spent two hours a day in lectures, that would account for the 16,000 words, even if the student never opened his mouth.

In my opinion, this myth probably started because men have historically wanted to control women, and a good way to do that is to shame them into silence, and to ignore them when they are not silent.

While I do sympathize with the feeling, you've tangled the causality here (and maybe invoked a special plea). Remember, "the patriarchy" is not a conspiracy! What would be happening here is that the women are being "enrolled" as subordinate in the local pecking order, but are declining the role, and suffering the usual effects of challenging the heirarchy. Subordinate speakers naturally get flak for speaking "out of turn". Of course, failing to acknowledge someone's comment is as much a social sanction as the "you're outta line" stare!

The obvious difference between my and your phrasing, is that my version also covers minorities and other "subordinates by default", who experience similar "silencing". The subtler difference is that my version is "mechanistic" (social mechanisms) whereas yours is basically telelogical. Telling the top dogs that they're being "opressive" generally qualifies as barking down a well. I'd say that over time, a better payoff will come from attacking either or both of the low-level processes: (1) routine subordination of women (et al.) and (2) routine silencing (disdain) of subordinates.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 06 Jul 2007 #permalink

Bah, typos: "oppressive".

By David Harmon (not verified) on 06 Jul 2007 #permalink

Silence women seems a bit harsh. We just don't want hear about shoes, hair styles and purses it interferes with more weighty matters like sports, beer and fart jokes.

It certainly seems to me that on average women talk more than men.-Then again, maybe that's because everyone says that to be the case.-There is no doubt that the women I come in contact with each day talk more than men.-Wives generally want to talk more than men after work.-There seems to be more women with a blue tooth these days as well.

And that, Larry, why personal anecdotes simply cannot be used as evidence. Selection bias and the possibility of uncommon personal experience makes it completely useless. It's been shown time and time again that people remember and perceive things differently based on what they expect. This is why double-blind studies are the gold standard in medicine, and why studies like this (as long as their methodology is not suspect) trump personal memory.

By CaptainBooshi (not verified) on 07 Jul 2007 #permalink

Using college students does not seem like a good sampling to prove or disprove this point.-How about including married couples?-I'm not buying this unless a study is done with a wider cross section of the population.