He Said, She Said

“Omigod I am so glad you’re here! I tried to text you and had no service, but I so wanted to ask if you were okay after what you texted me before because I was so worried, I mean, I had no idea what was up with you . . ."


If you had to guess which greeting came from a male and which from a female, you undoubtedly identified the first as uttered by a girl and the latter by a boy. Not so fast.

For 15 years the claim has been floating around that females talk more than men, with last year’s popular book “The Female Brain,” by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, asserting that women use 20,000 words per day while men manage to spit out a mere 7,000. In reality, these estimates are based on little-to-no data. One study that tried to be systematic gave manual tape recorders to 153 volunteers in Britain, and estimated that women speak 8,805 words per day and men, 6,073. But the researchers had no say in whether the volunteers turned off the recorders, or even knew when they did so, making it possible that the verbal gap reflected men’s reluctance to be recorded.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have done better. For eight years James Pennebaker and colleagues gave volunteers electronically activated digital recorders. The devices were programmed to record for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes, night and day, for two to 10 days. The participants neither knew when the device was on nor could activate or deactivate it manually. Analyzing the transcripts of 396 students in the U.S. and Mexico, the scientists find that women speak about 16,215 words per day and men about 15,669, they report in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Science, a difference that was statistically insignificant.

Many of those who have repeated the 20,000/7,000 claim go on to conclude that the difference is biologically based, and not, say, cultural or social. The next line in the argument often goes something like, “evolution selected for talkative females because they were more likely to bond with one another and survive and reproduce.” Quiet, non-verbose girls and women were, by default, flouting their evolutionary heritage. As has happened before to claims about a biological basis for one or another behavioral difference (whether between genders or among races), this one, too, evaporates under the light of rigorous, empirical scrutiny. According to the Texas scientists, none of the groups of volunteers “provided support for the idea that women have substantially larger lexical budgets than men. Further, to the extent that sex differences in daily word use are assumed to be biologically based evolved adaptations, they should be detectable among university students as much as in more diverse samples. We therefore conclude . . . that the widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talkativeness is unfounded.”

I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to validate any remaining stereotypes.