New research challenges the notion – frequently communicated in major publications, broadcast media and popular entertainment – that women talk significantly more than men.
The research, conducted by a professor at The University of Arizona and his colleagues, is reported in the July 6 issue of the journal Science.
Matthias R. Mehl, an assistant professor of psychology at the UA, and other researchers set out to challenge the findings in a recent book written by a noted neuropsychiatrist that “a woman uses about 20,000 words a day, while a man uses only about 7,000.”
In a series of studies conducted over six years, Mehl and the others recorded the conversations of nearly 400 U.S. and Mexican male and female university students.
To catch all of this chit-chat, they developed an electronically-activated recorder (with the fortuitous acronym EAR) that digitally, and unobtrusively, logged the daily conversations of those who wore the device.
The results: women in the study spoke a daily average of 16,215 words during their waking hours, versus an average of 15,669 words for men.
True, the women win, but not by a statistically significant margin. Mehl also noted that there are “very large individual differences around this mean.”
“What’s a 500-word difference, compared to the 45,000-word difference between the most and the least talkative persons” Just to illustrate the magnitude of difference, among the three most talkative males in the study, one used 47,000 words. The least talkative male spoke just a little more than 500,” Mehl said.
Mehl confessed to a concern about the homogeneity of the sample – only college students – but said that the study showed no support for the idea that women have larger lexical budgets than men, any more than it did that gender differences in daily word use have a basis in evolution.
Still, the idea that women use nearly three times as many words a day as men has taken on the status of an “urban legend” (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003420.html) and is the stuff of what marriage counselors use in therapy, not to mention all of the citations in Newsweek, New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and others.
But the last word, at least from this study, is that “the widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talkativeness and male reticence is unfounded.”