Chances are you've heard that men and women communicate differently! And you've probably heard statements like: Women talk more than men; women are more verbally skilled than men; men talk about actions and facts while women talk about feelings; men use language in a competitive way while women use it in a cooperative way; blah, blah, blah, But what if someone told you that all of those statements were false? Oxford language professor Deborah Cameron has written a book called The Myth of Mars and Venus. In an excerpt appearing in the Guardian, she explains that there is so much false information out there, we've absorbed it as absolute truth.
In 2006, for instance, a popular science book called 'The Female Brain' claimed that women on average utter 20,000 words a day, while men on average utter only 7,000. This was perfect material for soundbite science - it confirmed the popular belief that women are not only the more talkative sex but three times as much - and was reported in newspapers around the world.
The problem? It wasn't true. A professor of phonetics looked into the numbers behind the author's claim and found that they were based on "pure guesswork." The soundbite was much-publicized; the retraction that came late was a little less so.
Cameron goes on to explain that a psychologist named Janet S. Hyde, who specializes in meta-analysis, wrote an article about gender similarities. Scientists believe that one study on its own does not show anything: Results are only considered reliable if a number of different studies have replicated them. Hyde reviewed a large number of studies concerned with all kinds of male/female differences, aggregated the results, and came up with a number — a formula, d, — indicating the size of the overall gender difference: Looking at the chart (there's a PDF here), the last column indicates whether the figure given for d is an effect that is very large, large, moderate, small, or close to zero. (Still with me?) And in almost every case, the overall difference made by gender is either small or close to zero.
Two items — spelling accuracy and frequency of smiling — show a larger effect - but it is still only moderate. In other words, hundreds of studies, hundreds of participants, hundreds of men and women, and the difference between their results was, very often, close to zero. So why do we still believe that there is a vast chasm of communication between the sexes?
In relation to men and women, our most basic stereotypical expectation is simply that they will be different rather than the same. We actively look for differences, and seek out sources that discuss them. Most research studies investigating the behaviour of men and women are designed around the question: is there a difference? And the presumption is usually that there will be. If a study finds a significant difference between male and female subjects, that is considered to be a "positive" finding, and has a good chance of being published. A study that finds no significant differences is less likely to be published.
If it does not reflect reality, why is the folk-belief that women talk more than men so persistent? The feminist Dale Spender once suggested an explanation: she said that people overestimate how much women talk because they think that, ideally, women would not talk at all.
Sounds about right to us.
What Language Barrier? [Guardian]