This book aims to debunk the “myth” – made popular by books such as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” – that “men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate”. You know the sort of thing: women talk more than men, women are more verbally skilled than men, and that many problems in male/female relationships are the result of “miscommunication” arising from the different approaches of men and women to language.
As Prof. Cameron points out, men tend to come out rather badly from this mythologising:
The literature of Mars and Venus … is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“Hey, wait a minute – I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?
Cameron cites some fascinating research showing that the differences between how men and women communicate are far smaller than is commonly supposed. One researcher estimates the overlap in verbal skills between the male and female population at around 99.75%. The differences among women and among men far outweigh the difference between men and women.
The most significant difference shown by the research is the clear indication (from over 60% of studies examined) that men talk more than women. Fewer than 4% of studies found that women talk more than men. Even then, however, this difference is not necessarily caused by inherent gender differences:
The reviewers are inclined to believe that this is a case of gender and amount of talk being linked indirectly rather than directly: the more direct link is with status, in combination with the formality of the setting (status tends to be more relevant in formal situations). The basic trend, especially in formal and public contexts, is for higher-status speakers to talk more than lower-status ones. The gender pattern is explained by the observation that in most contexts where status is relevant, men are more likely than women to occupy high-status positions; if all other things are equal, gender itself is a hierarchical system in which men are regarded as having higher status.
This theory is supported by studies in which the “men talk more” pattern is reversed (or at least reduced) “by instructing subjects to discuss a topic that both sexes consider a distinctively female area of expertise”. This leads to a temporary change in the relative status of those in the conversation, with the women participants’ status enhanced, and their contribution to the conversation increased accordingly.
As Cameron concludes:
That may be why some studies find that women talk more in domestic interactions with partners and family members: in the domestic sphere, women are often seen as being in charge. In other spheres, however, the default assumption is that men outrank women, and men are usually found to talk more. In informal contexts where status is not an issue, the commonest finding is not that women talk more than men, it is that the two sexes contribute about equally.
So why do people generally believe that women talk more than men, given that this is not reflected in reality? Cameron continues:
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. While that may be rather sweeping, it is true that belief in female loquacity is generally combined with disapproval of it. The statement “women talk more than men” tends to imply the judgment “women talk too much”.
So the myth of Mars and Venus “provides a justification for an ingrained social prejudice”. The “evolutionary psychology” of writers such as Steven Pinker then “takes today’s social prejudices and projects them back into prehistory, thus elevating them to the status of timeless truths about the human condition.”