Busting the myth of senseless female chatter -SPECTRUM

The nattering classes: Julia Baird. Photo: Ana Gomes

I’m what Donald Trump might call a huuuuge fan of Richard Glover. And no, this is not actually him writing. Nor have any Tim Tams exchanged hands in the writing of this column, though I can’t deny it would help. I think what I particularly like about him is his facility and ease with words. Can anyone deny it? He is voluble, loquacious, has kissed the blarney stone and has ripped legs off donkeys simply by moving his mouth for hours on end, evidenced by the fact he made the Guinness World Records for interviewing the equally shy Peter Fitzsimons for 24 hours without pause.

The reason I mention this is because I would like to use the opportunity of filling in for such a grandly eloquent creature to fact check a broadly-held, oft-asserted claim: women talk more than men. To be specific, that women use more words per day – estimated at a rate of 20,000 words to men’s 7,000.

The nattering classes: Julia Baird. Photo: Ana Gomes
The nattering classes: Julia Baird. Photo: Ana Gomes

You know, women who bang on, chatter, gossip, blather, yap, babble. There are bountiful stereotypes of women who “natter” – ladies who lunch, wives who bombard newspaper-shielded partners, mothers who berate and scold.

It’s not a new stereotype. The prospect of a woman – or worse, a group of women – talking at length has been regarded with abject horror for centuries. As was written in the Spectator in 1711: “It has been said in the Praise of some Men, that they could Talk whole Hours together upon any Thing; but it must be owned to the Honour of the other Sex, that there are many among them who can Talk whole Hours together upon Nothing. I have known a Woman branch out into a long Extempore Dissertation upon the Edging of a Petticoat…”

Imagine – a woman speaking for a long period of time! About something other than a matter of geo-political importance! Shocking.

Presbyterian minister James Fordyce – himself very fond of sermonising at length – told young women sternly a few decades later in 1766 that his greatest nightmare was that they might speak too much: “What words can express the impertinence of a female tongue let loose into boundless loquacity? Nothing can be more stunning, except where a number of Fine Ladies open at once – Protect us, ye powers of gentleness and decorum, protect us from the disgust of such a scene – Ah! my dear hearers, if ye knew how terrible it appears to a male ear of the least delicacy, I think you would take care never to practise it.”

Gosh. He sounds like fun at a party.

But the real problem with the claim that women speak more words each day than men is it is abject nonsense. Or, to put it more politely, is not supported by the available research.

Over the past decade, a series of studies have punctured the chatty-lady myth. In one, carried out over six years, from the University of Arizona, 400 university students were asked to wear electronic recorders that timed their speech each day. They found that women spoke 16,215 words in each 24-hour period. Men spoke 15,669 – a statistically insignificant difference.

A meta-analysis of four decades of research, published in 2007 by Campbell Leaper from the University of California, established that men talk more than women. Men spoke more assertively, were more involved in decision-making tasks and talked more to their wives and strangers. Women spoke more to their children and classmates. Men used words to try to influence, women to try to connect.

“These findings compellingly debunk simplistic stereotypes about gender differences in language use,” concluded Leaper. “The notion that the female brain is built to systematically out-talk men is hard to square with the finding that gender differences appear and disappear, depending on the interaction context. The results of the meta-analyses bolster arguments for social rather than strong biological influences of gender differences in language use.”

This was confirmed by a 2014 study by Harvard and Northeastern University, which found that women speak more in collaborative groups.

So there it is – the context is crucial to the prattle of the sexes. The difference comes when there is a podium, platform, TV camera or microphone involved: in these situations men definitely speak more. And this is a difference that matters.

Since I wrote a column coining the word “Manologue” a few days ago, to describe the phenomenon by which men talk more often and at greater length in almost all professional settings, I have been accused of all kinds of feminist plots, of outrageous sexism and even, charmingly “C—splaining”.

But can women really be blamed, after centuries of being told our very words disgust men that we might occasionally want to call out air-hoggers, seize the microphone and go for it? I know plenty who do. All the while remembering to shoot up a prayer for blokes praying: “Protect us, ye powers of gentleness and decorum, protect us from the disgust of such a scene.” Amen.

Julia Baird hosts the Drum on ABCTV and has been known to occasionally let loose into boundless loquacity.