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Prattle of the sexes: Do women talk more than men?

When it comes to conversation, are women really more likely to be bigger talkers than men?

Women use an average of 20,000 words a day, compared to the mere 7,000 that men utter. At least that’s the assertion of a number of self-help and popular science books. Quoted by apparently authoritative experts and widely reported, it’s a statement that bolsters the stereotype of the fairer sex spending their days gossiping, while the stoic men folk get on with it, whatever it is, without the need to chatter. But is it actually true?

Talkativeness can be measured in various ways. You can get people into a lab, give them a topic to discuss and then record their conversations. Or you can try getting them to record their everyday conversations at home. You can count up the total number of words spoken, the time each person spends talking, the number of turns an individual gets in a conversation, or the average number of words spoken in a single turn.

By combining the results of 73 studies of children, US researchers found girls did speak more words than boys, but only by a negligible amount. Even this small difference was only apparent when they talked to a parent, and was not seen when they were chatting with their friends. Perhaps most significantly it was only seen until the age of two-and-a-half, meaning it might simply reflect the different speeds at which boys and girls develop language skills.

So not much difference among kids, but what about adults? When Campbell Leaper from the University of California, Santa Cruz, the psychologist who found the very small difference in young children, carried out a meta-analysis on the subject, it was men who talked the most. But once again the difference was small. It was also striking that lab-based studies in which pairs or groups were given specific topics to discuss found greater differences than those carried out in more real-life settings. This suggests that perhaps men were more comfortable in unusual, novel laboratory settings.

Leaper’s findings supported a review of 56 studies conducted by linguistics researcher Deborah James and social psychologist Janice Drakich published in a 1993 book on male and female conversational styles. Only two of the studies found women talked more than men, while 34 of them found men talked more than women, at least in some circumstances, although inconsistencies in the way the studies were done made them hard to compare.

Real life conversations have traditionally been the hardest to study because of the need to get participants to record all of their conversations. But then the psychologist James Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, Austin, developed a device that records 30-second snippets of sound every 12.5 minutes. People can’t turn Pennebaker’s EAR, or Electronically Activated Recorder, off, so it’s gives a more reliable sample of what’s really happening. In research published in the journal Science in 2007, Pennebaker found that in their 17 waking hours the women they tested in the US and Mexico uttered an average of 16,215 words while the men spoke 15,669. Again, a negligible difference.

Not all types of conversations are the same of course. Perhaps what matters is who else is listening. An analysis of a hundred public meetings carried out by Janet Holmes of the Victoria University of Wellington , New Zealand, showed that men asked, on average, three quarters of the questions, while making up only two thirds of the audience. Even when the audiences were equally split gender-wise, men still asked almost two thirds of the questions.

But despite all the evidence to the contrary, we seem wedded to the idea that women talk more. In fact it’s just one of many areas of life in which we expect significant differences between the sexes, but when the research base as a whole is taken into account, men and women are often far more similar than popularly believed.

When researchers reported earlier this year that four-year-old girls had 30% more of a protein thought to be important to language and speech acquisition in a particular region of the brain, some sections of the popular media were quick to interpret this as proof that women can’t stop talking. In fact the study tells us nothing about women, or men for that matter. The chief participants were rat pups, but ten little boys and girls were also tested. Even the authors themselves caution against reading too much into the study, saying that whether human differences in the quantities of this protein can explain differences in language skills is a question for future research.

So where does the idea that men utter 7,000 words a day versus women’s 20,000 come from? They appeared on the dust jacket of The Female Brain, a 2006 book by Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California San Francisco, and were widely quoted in reviews. When Mark Liebermann, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, questioned use of the figures, which appeared to be loosely based on related numbers in a self help book, Brizendine agreed with him and promised to remove them from future editions. Liebermann tried to trace the origin of the statistics further, he had little luck except for a similar claim in a 1993 marriage guidance pamphlet. Not quite the gold standard of scientific evidence.

Claudia Hammond