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Do women really talk more than men?

In her book “Language Myths,” Janet Holmes notes that many languages in the world have sayings or proverbs that describe women’s apparent ability to talk a lot. Holmes lists the following from a variety of the world’s languages and cultures:

Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails — they are never still. –English

The North Sea will sooner be found wanting in water than a woman at a loss for words. –Jutlandic

The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with the overactive mouth, leave well alone. –Maori

Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese.

And Holmes’ favorite:

The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese

Here in the U.S., our culture just as enthusiastically embraces the view that women have a tendency to talk too much. A few years ago, Moosehead Breweries ran an ad for their beer with the line “The average woman speaks 10,000 words in a day. Roughly 9,950 too many.” While the beer company ended up apologizing for the inappropriateness of the ad, the perception lingers. In faculty meetings or other official places of business, I frequently hear women apologize the second or third time they speak up, saying things like, “I know I’m talking a lot today” or “I’m sorry, but I’d like to say one more thing.” Why does she feel sorry, I wonder, when our male counterparts in the meetings speak out multiple times and never once feel the need to apologize for participating in the conversation?

Why does she apologize, I wonder, when the linguistic research is clear? In the U.S., when the context is public, it is men who talk more than women. In fact, Holmes points out that in 63 studies comparing the amount of talking time between men and women in the U.S., men took more than half of the speaking time in 61 of the 63 studies. We also know from language-use research in the classroom that women tend to be less assertive in their talk and prefer to ask a question rather than make an assertive statement. In my own small study a few years ago, I recorded conversations between 10 male-female couples. In most of the conversations, women asked more questions than men, while the men made far more assertive statements than the women.

So what is going on? Holmes and other researchers argue that men talk more than women in contexts where talk is highly valued for its informational content and its potential to build social status or power. This explains why in studies of committee and staff meetings, seminars and task forces, men control the talking time. If you are skeptical, Holmes suggests that you take a stopwatch to the next community or political meeting that you attend and use the stopwatch to time the amount of talk by men and women.

On the other hand, the research suggests that in private, highly interpersonal contexts, women do talk more than men. This appears to be the case because private, interpersonal talk is not concerned with enhancing one’s social status but with establishing a personal connection and then working to maintain and protect it. The kind of talk contributed by men and women in these more personal conversations is also fascinating. Holmes writes, “Men tend to contribute more information and opinions, while women contribute more agreeing, supportive talk, more of the kind of talk that encourages others to contribute.” This may explain why women possess less linguistic confidence than men in the classroom.

When women speak in the classroom, the general feeling of all the students (male and female) is that the young lady is “showing off.” Because this is socially limiting and shaming behavior, women contribute less and when they do contribute, they tend to ask questions instead of making assertions. This would explain why in many of the professional, religious and public meetings I have attended, women feel they must apologize for speaking more than once. In public contexts, there is no level playing field for women. The rules for who gets the talking stick and for how long are different for men and women. Our cultural gauge for determining the appropriate amount of talking time for women is not in comparison to how much the men are talking. It is in comparison to the powerful norm of silence.

Dale Spender explains it this way:

“The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women” (from Man Made Language, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).

As long as the social rules for women’s speech are more limiting than the rules governing men’s speech the stereotype that women talk too much will prevail.

For more information on this topic, you may want to read Janet Holmes’ chapter “Women Talk Too Much” in the book Language Myths edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill and published by Penguin Books (1998). At the end of her article, Holmes provides a list of additional titles for further reading.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.