5/11/11 - do women talk more than men?

In today's excerpt - there are some ideas that people are so ready to believe that they become widely held with little or no basis in data. One such item was the 2006 assertion by Louann Brizendine that women speak 20,000 words a day and men speak only 7,000:

"In 2006, Louann Brizendine published a book that tapped straight into readers' intellectual id. And no, 'intellectual id' is not an oxymoron. There are some things that people seem desperately eager to believe, and they're delighted to find those things 'confirmed' by a piece of scholarly-seeming work. Brizendine's The Female Brain was just such a hit.

"In the book Brizendine claimed, among other things, that women spoke 20,000 words a day, while men utter just 7,000. It was all part of her larger thesis that women's brains work differently from men's. And it was just what many people ... wanted to hear. The British Daily Mail wrote, 'It is something one half of the population has long suspected—and the other half always vocally denied.' A journalist blogging at The Washington Post wrote, 'Women talk too much, and men only think about sex ... you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?' (Brizendine has an M.D.) The claim was touted prominently on the book jacket and was an Internet sensation.

"Something didn't sound right to Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, though. Women speaking three times as much as men? Though his field is phonetics, Liberman also keeps a popular blog, Language Log, where he and about a dozen other linguists regularly post on general-interest language topics that crop up in the news.

"Had Brizendine done some new research? Or had Liberman missed some past research that found this huge disparity in men's and women's speech? He looked in the back of Brizendine's book—one-third of the text is footnotes, lending it a weighty air—and found only one reference for the 20,000-word claim: a self-help book called Talk Language: How to Use Conversation for Profit and Pleasure, by Alan Pease and Allan Garner. Pease and Garner had not done any original fact-finding research on the subject themselves, nor did they cite anyone who had.

"Liberman dug around further. Had anybody else done the research on how much women and men talk? Sure enough, he found that they had. Unsurprisingly, there's a huge amount of variation in talkativeness. Some people, male or female, never shut up, and some rarely talk at all. But as for average differences between the sexes, Liberman found that studies found either no difference at all or a small one—in favor of men. Yes, according to some studies, men talk (on average) slightly more than women. Liberman has not yet found any study showing women talking significantly more, though he's asked his blog's readers to send him any, promising to publish the results. None has shown up.

"Confronted with this, Brizendine hedged. She claimed that the Pease and Garner self-help book in her footnotes was meant to be 'further reading,' not a scholarly citation. She claimed an unfair backlash against her ideas: 'It's very politically incorrect to say there are any gender differences.' She backtracked to say that women produced more 'communication events'—gestures, facial expressions, and whatnot—than men. But in the end she promised to take the bit about female logorrhea out of future editions of the book. Well she might. A study published in Science the next year, 2007, was the first to track a large number of people (210 women, 186 men) throughout the day in both the United States and Mexico. Both sexes used about 16,000 words a day, though on average, in this study, the women used 3.5 percent more words, a statistically trivial difference. Brizendine had said women talk 185 percent more than men.

"Of course, Brizendine's dud 'fact' was already out of the gate, racing around blogs and book reviews. As the book went into multiple translations, foreigners latched on as fast as English speakers have. ('Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?,' as Das Weibliche Gehirn's German publisher touted the claim on Germany's It is likely that, despite Liberman's efforts, it will become one of the early twenty-first century's favorite factoids, something that everyone 'knows.' "


Robert Lane Greene


You Are What You Speak: Grammer Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity


Delacorte Press a division of Random House


Copyright 2011 by Robert Lane Greene


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