Do women talk too much?

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series of excerpts from a new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, by Deborah Cameron.

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.”

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8 Responses to Do women talk too much?

  1. Kletos Sumboulos says:

    Good points, John. The content, rather than the quantity of communication across the sexes does seem to differ, not based on genetic differences, but socialization. Dr. Ron Levant has coined the phrase “normative male alexithymia” to describe the result of this socialization process. He argues that as infants, boys are actually more expressive of emotions than girls, but that they are socialized quickly to stifle emotional expression, leading to alexithymia (lit. without words – without an emotional vocabulary) in adulthood. The U.S. is fairly “gendered,” though far less than Latin America, where girls and boys tend to be dressed very differently, very early on. I’d be interested to hear from you about gender-based behavior expectations in the U.K.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Taciturnity excels loquacity.

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Men who cry “miscommunication!”

  4. [Dr Ron Levant] argues that as infants, boys are actually more expressive of emotions than girls, but that they are socialized quickly to stifle emotional expression, leading to alexithymia (lit. without words – without an emotional vocabulary) in adulthood.

    William Pollack, a clinical psychologist who’s worked extensively with children and young people, has written a book called Real Boys which also discusses this theme; he talks about ‘the Boy Code’ in explaining how boys and men silence and limit themselves, and/or are silenced and limited by their social environment. He gives some vivid case examples, and draws out implications for parents, schools, and those who work with young people.

  5. Tom R says:

    The Grauniad then went on to sidebar another article – “Venusians in a Martian’s world: How do women fare in parliament?” http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,,2181807,00.html – that adopts the same “men communicate differently from women” argument that Cameron has been rebutting.

    Cameron concedes that “autistic” people have a problem with understanding non-literal veiled requests, but adds that that’s abnormal precisely because autism is a disability. Well, full-blown autism in the classic sense is rare, but Asperger’s Syndrome – which is either a mild, high-functioning form of autism, or else its close cousin – seems much more widely distributed among the population. Baron-Cohen (Simon, not Sasha) argues that AS/AU are extreme forms of the normal “male brain” and it’s certainly true that both are found more in males than females (although the females I’ve known who exhibit AS/AU also show some stereotypically “male” traits – eg, a preference for literal, blunt statements over intuitively sensing the emotional atmosphere).

  6. Paul Gibson says:

    Here’s an interesting piece about Levant’s newfangled diagnosis:

    This recent misuse of the alexithymia concept by Harvard University professor Dr. Ron Levant shows how easily the alexithymia construct can be misunderstood as a stoic resistance, repression, or denial of emotions. Levant devised the phrase “normative male alexithymia” to describe how North American males suffer to some degree from cultural conditioning which causes men to repress their vulnerable and caring emotions causing them to become underdeveloped in emotional expressiveness. He says, “Many men were raised (and continue to be raised) to function in a world that no longer exists. To be good men, they were told, they must become reliable providers, emotionally stoic, logical, solution oriented, and aggressive.” [Levant. Men and Emotions (1997) p.3]

    Levant further states the problem this way: “I believe that a mild form of alexithymia is very wide-spread among adult men and that it results from the male emotional socialization ordeal, which requires boys to restrict the expression of their vulnerable and caring emotions and to be emotionally stoic.” [Levant- A New Psychology of Men, (1995) p.239].

    Levant states that according to his clinical observation this type of problem is so common for men in our culture that it may be called “normative”. He claims; “One of the most far-reaching consequences of male gender-role socialization is the high incidence among men of… the inability to identify and describe one’s feelings.” [p.238] and “men are genuinely unaware of their emotions. Lacking this emotional awareness, when asked to identify their feelings, they tend to rely on their cognition to try to logically deduce how they should feel. They cannot do what is automatic for most women -simply sense inwardly, feel the feeling, and let the verbal description come to mind.” [p.239].

    While Levant may be right in his claim that men are (generally) less skilled than women in their ability to describe feelings, he is demonstrably incorrect in claiming that men are less able to identify specific feeling states in self or others in the true clinical sense of alexithymia: i.e. *difficulty identifying feelings*. Here it would seem that Levant has failed to discriminate between the separate factors of (1) identifying and (2) describing feelings.

    According to College of New Jersey psychologist Mark Kiselica, past president of the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, most men are not alexithymic: “it is not a ‘norm’”. Kiselica reports that a literature review showed only a few studies have reported that males have slightly higher rates of developing the disorder, while the majority of studies found no differences between the genders, with overall about one in 10 people of either gender showing any significant level of alexithymia.

    True, men have not been educated or encouraged to express their feelings verbally but they most certainly can, generally speaking, identify both their own feelings and those of others as well as do women. From earliest childhood most cultures encourage males to be emotionally stoic, a disposition which may, as Levant stresses, lend itself to pathologies of emotional expression. But to emphasize the potential pathologies of this disposition tells us only a small negative part of the story. The stoic disposition also includes time honored traits of forbearance, tolerance, and healthy emotional control in stressful situations. To champion emotional extroversion or cite verbal skill in expressing feelings does not guarantee healthy emotional interaction with others, as in the example of ‘con-artists’ or ‘manipulators’ who misuse the language of emotional expressiveness to exploit or domineer others.

    Levant’s conjectures reveal the twin errors of both genderising alexithymia, and confusing it with general categories of stoic reticence or repression of emotions.

    In the final analysis this superficial conflation of alexithymia with ‘maleness’ may reflect the influences of contemporary gender stereotyping more than it does the findings of rigorous scientific method. It also leaves us with the unfortunate consequence of confusing the accepted clinical meaning of the term alexithymia as proposed by all leading clinicians for the last 30 years. In light of these anomalies, and considering that Dr. Levant refers again and again to the stoic nature of the males in question, perhaps he would consider a late name change to ‘Normative Male Stoicism’?

  7. wondering, says:

    My girlfriend kids around like this other woman we know has a date with a turkey that dont know how to act in front of a woman and is a smart alec,
    says things like thier nothing and act’s like ohh im just kidding around with you,
    and when she thinks that im not agreeing with her garbage she dont wanna talk to me anymore out of her thinking that im too serious or too ridgid, and i see things that i dont like and cant tell her nothing and the other woman nothing cause they are blind to wake up and smell the flowers,
    I see alot of woman that have this ignorant attitude like ohh its no big thing when its a serious thing and they dont wanna face up
    they go out with some turkey that in the long run will hurt them but they dont listen to wisdom,
    I could go out with a hooker to just talk to her and id get more out of her than just the usual BS of woman that i see most of the time,

  8. RDHarmony says:

    The very idea that Mr. Levant uses “normal” in his concept (when he really means pathological diagnosis) of so-called male alexithymia is preposterous.

    A goodly number of males that I know would purposefully speak less in the presence of obvious man-bashers like Levant. Many men aren’t good psychotherapy subjects in Levant’s view, and many of us specifically wish to avoid anything relating to it.

    Show us something concrete and useful–and we’ll gladly talk. Call us structuralists, if you must feed your addiction to specialized nomenclature, but don’t spread the myth of our normality as pathology.

    Burn the DSM IV as far as I’m concerned–the rest of the world gets along without it, anyway. Robert Spitzer and Ronald Levant both need to get out of the office and see what men do instead of bemoaning any reluctance to visit with them.

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