Home > Daily Struggles, Manly Men, Our Innate Womanly Natures > Strong, Silent Men Wax Eloquent In Print To Refute Mehl Study

Strong, Silent Men Wax Eloquent In Print To Refute Mehl Study

You can study it scientifically, gather the data, analyze it, publish it in Science, and have it discussed on NPR. But by golly, if you are asking us to give up cherished stereotypical beliefs about male and female nature, then you can just take your data and shove it, mister! You are wrong, wrong, wrong, because My Personal Feeling About How Things Are says otherwise.
This, of course, would be the kind of reaction stirred up by Matthias Mehl et al.’s study Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?, published in the July 5, 2007 issue of Science. Let us consider the abstract from the paper – it couldn’t be more straightforward:

Women are generally assumed to be more talkative than men. Data were analyzed from 396 participants who wore a voice recorder that sampled ambient sounds for several days. Participants’ daily word use was extrapolated from the number of recorded words. Women and men both spoke about 16,000 words per day.

That’s pretty blunt. Not much room for interpretation there. And here’s the last two sentences of the paper:

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, on the basis of available empirical evidence, that the widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talkativeness is unfounded.

So what do you do, Rational Man, when faced with this evidence against your stereotype?
Why, of course, you call the study flawed and write a (putatively) humorous column about how women really are extraordinarily chatty, particularly when the men are trying to watch a ball game! Stir in a little stereotype about the nagging wife and blammo! your column practically writes itself.

The findings seem to disprove the common wisdom that women are more talkative than men.
But I see two problems with this study. First, the subjects weren’t married. Also, the research was not conducted in the controlled environment of my den during baseball season.

Ha ha ha ha! oh boy, this is going to be a good one! I’ll bet he goes on to have his wife declaim long sentences about stuff he isn’t interested in despite his absorption in the ballgame, thus cementing her Nagging Chatty Wife status, while he replies in monosyllabic grunts and exclamations focused only on the game, displaying his caveman credentials and certifying his Manly Manliness. We can all have a good laugh, ignore the study, and go back to our comfy stereotypes about Those Women Who Talk Too Much.
Thus does My Personal Feeling About How Things Are trump Science.
I don’t think this one column would have annoyed the piss out of me quite so much, if it weren’t the third such column I’ve read since Mehl et al.’s study came out. That’s starting to feel like a trend. At least one other one was also in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist; see here.

Saw the news on how much men and women talk. Seems some scientists toted up the oral output and got the same number of words from each gender. Find it hard to believe. To tell the truth, would rather not talk about it. Better to cogitate for a couple of days and then dismiss the whole business nonverbally, with a derisive snort or an exasperated sigh…This research torpedoes the popular assumption that incessant yakking is correlated with X chromosomes…
All I can say is that if the average male is putting out 16,000 words every day, then I’m living in a verbal desert. Some guys I haven’t met must be gushing verbiage like Old Faithful to make up for the ones I know, many of whom might easily be mistaken for victims of lockjaw.
That is not a description I would apply to many women of my acquaintance. The editorial board on which I serve used to be nearly all-male, but now has a female majority. I can describe the difference in two words: Longer meetings…
[For men,] [o]ur slogan is, “Speak less, think more.”

Ha ha ha ha. Steve Chapman, author of this witty piece, goes on in similar misogynistic vein throughout the rest of his column. He, too, deploys the My Personal Experience defense against the data – all in good fun, boys will be boys and all that.
Is it “just a joke”? What we choose to make jokes about is significant. This “joke” says “no matter how much scientific data you throw at me, I know women talk too much and thereby annoy men, superior creatures who don’t need so many words to get through the day.” The “joke” is that there’s never enough data to prove that women aren’t stupid chatterboxes.
Why are some men so anxious to cling to a vision of men as inarticulate, single-minded boors? Do they think they are projecting the Strong, Silent Type image which, surely, all women are just dying to mate with? Not Talking and, more importantly, Not Wanting To Talk are markers of masculinity. The reality is men do talk just as much as women, but the stereotypes can’t be abandoned, because the Strong Silent Type functions as an integral component of The Real Man. Women must be incessant empty-headed chatterboxes, because that’s how we know what men aren’t. If women and men are the same, how will we know what makes a Real Man?
Mehl spoke about the negative effects of the stereotype for both men as well as women:

“It puts men into the gender box, that in order to be a good male, we’d better not talk — (that) silence is golden,” Mehl says. “The stereotype puts unfortunate constraints on men and women – the idea that you can only happily be a woman if you’re talkative and you can only be happy as a man if you’re reticent. The study relieves those gender constraints.”

Apparently, some people are unwilling to have their constraints relieved. For those men who are so enamored of the Strong Silent Man stereotype, I wish they’d live up to their self-proclaimed identity and shut up about it already.

  1. Kate
    August 1, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Thank you for covering this. As a budding linguist, I’m quickly tiring of hearing the stale platitudes of ‘conventional wisdom’ reproduced in claims about language, claims that I know have no empirical basis yet figure in debate as prima facie ‘facts.’ The worst part is how these stubborn attitudes continue to impede the acquisition of knowledge about how gender and other various social factors actually affect the usage of language.
    On a related note, it continues to astound me that the same scientists who lambaste creationists and such for their refusal to face facts will happily spin around and construct elaborate ‘just-so’ stories to explain the evolutionary basis for various societal differences such as this one, which (while they may have a difference in the merciless world of sociobiology) have no basis in reality.

  2. Kate
    August 1, 2007 at 12:26 am

    A quick correction before anyone has the chance to get mad – in the scientists referred to in the above paragraph, I mean to chastise only those who engage in the second sort of behavior, certainly not scientists as a whole. Scientists as a whole have their work cut out for them refuting that sort of nonsense.

  3. Winawer
    August 1, 2007 at 2:37 am

    On a related note, it continues to astound me that the same scientists who lambaste creationists and such for their refusal to face facts will happily spin around and construct elaborate ‘just-so’ stories to explain the evolutionary basis for various societal differences such as this one, which (while they may have a difference in the merciless world of sociobiology) have no basis in reality.

    Evolutionary ‘just-so’ stories are thought experiments meant to demonstrate that it would be possible for something to be an adaptation (just as they are in the non-human animal literature, where no-one has a problem understanding this concept). They’re not meant to be realistic or backed by any particular evidence – that’s the job of empirical research. They’re just meant to show that it is plausible, in principle, that some item of interest is an evolved adaptation. (Mark Ridley’s undergraduate text on evolutionary theory has a great discussion on this point).
    In this case, there is actually two separate issues. The first is that the phenomenon of women talking more than men was assumed to exist, and the second is that there were suggestions about whether this (incorrectly-assumed-to-be-correct phenomenon) could be an adaptation. Your rant seems to be confusing the two issues. Evolutionary thought experiments are a valid tool in any branch of biology that studies adaptation – whether you’re an adaptationist or not. You might know the process as “theorizing” in other fields. 🙂 Please don’t confuse it with mistakenly assuming that something has already been proven when it has not.

  4. August 1, 2007 at 5:19 am

    I like how Chapman proves so rationally and conclusively that speaking less means thinking more! Oh, those stupid womens and their incessant blethering.
    (You’ve probably already seen it, but there was a fantastic piece at Pandagon a while back on women’s alleged chatterbox status, called somthing like ‘Women talk more than piles of rocks’.)

  5. August 1, 2007 at 5:40 am

    Thank you for writing about this. MPFAHTA is insidious, and the media love to exploit it. Probably nowhere more so than in sex’n’gender issues.

  6. Wendy
    August 1, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    “Your rant seems to be confusing the two issues. Evolutionary thought experiments are a valid tool in any branch of biology that studies adaptation – whether you’re an adaptationist or not. You might know the process as “theorizing” in other fields. 🙂 Please don’t confuse it with mistakenly assuming that something has already been proven when it has not.”
    No, Winawer, I don’t think she is. I think her point is that some scientists make that very elementary mistake. BTW, these issues are frequently not presented as thought experiments at all, but as proven fact.
    One other error in your comment, Winawer. Evolutionary psychology frequently tries to discuss what is seen through the lens of “how it must have been adaptive”. This is not theorizing, it is much more akin to HARKing (Hypothosizing After the Results are Known). (As an aside, the problem as it exists in this instance is that because the results in this case different from what is “known” to be the truth, the results are being dismissed instead of scientifically disputed by a portion of the population).
    As for HARKing vs theorizing, in order to be a GOOD theory, it should allow room for falsifiablility. This is the sticky web that Evolutionary Psychology does not want us to see… we observe an event, and come up with a possiblity post hoc that does not leave room for building and testing hypotheses. For other instances of this drivel check out “http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=pto-4359.html&fromMod=emailed” (a.k.a. Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature).
    [If reading it makes you feel like you need to take a shower (more men behave badly because they are programmed that way)you can clean your palette by reading some criticism of the evolutionary psychologist POV here: “http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/07/how_not_to_think_about_human_b.php”]
    Old ideas aren’t automatically unscientific, you know. But dressing up old ideas and calling them proven fact and indisputable by the presence of research to the contrary that is. (What is awesome is the ability for us to communicate about our differences on these subjects!! ;o) )

  7. LJG
    August 1, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Haven’t any of these male columnists ever heard men spew extreme amounts of words when talking about themselves/any sport that involves a ball/statistics of those sports/politics/proving a women wrong/ (I could really go on for hours)? Perhaps they are all living on a thoughtful little island somewhere watching doped up baseball players cheat their way into breaking records. Ah the pure joy of being male!
    Bah!

  8. Maria
    August 1, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    I wonder if men are really affected by the stereotype, and thus suppress what they would actually say… Since now they speak at about the same rate, would that make them instinctively more talkative than women?

  9. August 4, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    I find this study highly misleading and flawed, in large measure because they draw a broad sociological conclusion based on data only fit for a narrow biological one, if that. LJG above supports one of the pillars of my argument: the relationship between how much somone is perceived to talk and how interested you are in what they are saying (I won’t even get on how sportscasters think they have to fill all space with words, meaning and relevance being optional).
    Short version: the stereotype was somewhat real, but it’s causes and perceived extent were sociological, and are declining every day. Here’s the long version.

  10. Stagyar zil Doggo
    August 8, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Does the study compare the number of words men direct at women and vice versa? Who initiated how many of those conversations and was the other party an enthusiastic or reluctant participant?
    Perhaps examining the stereotype of women starting “We need to talk” conversations with reluctant men may shed light on this.

  11. August 9, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    The authors will be writing another paper about the content of men’s and women’s talk, which apparently did differ by gender.

  12. August 9, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    The authors will be writing another paper about the content of men’s and women’s talk, which apparently did differ by gender.

  13. Stagyar zil Doggo
    August 19, 2007 at 6:43 am

    Zuska,
    It looks like there is a futures contract on this subject at http://www.intrade.com. Look for ‘Adult Talkativeness’ under ‘Current Events’. Last traded price was $67.50. The Contract Spedific rules are –
    ——————-
    For this contract to settle (expire) at 100 ($10.00) the following conditions must be met:
    1. The study must be first reported on or after July 10th, 2007
    2. The study must find that women talk exactly 10% or more then men over a typical whole day
    3. The study must include more then just university students, but need not include university students
    This contract will settle (expire) at 0 ($0.00) if the next study finds that women do not talk exactly 10% or more then men.
    ——————-
    So far its been thinly traded, with a bid-ask spread of $10. But I guess its time for everyone to put their money where their mouth is (or isn’t as case may be). I’m talking to you here, ScienceAvenger.
    PS: I think the wording above is ambigous. It says 10% where it should say 110%. I suggest people check this out before putting actual money on it. I also have no idea as to how reliable or solvent these guys are.

  14. August 19, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Rugosa said: Now, you can argue that the assumption [sex differences in daily word use are biologically based] is wrong, but that leaves you with the alternative assumption that differences in word use are not biologically based and may be socially ingrained gender behaviors.
    Or yet another alternative assumption, which is that differences in gender word use are (or were) caused by sociological factors that are incidentally related to gender. I’d also predict (with a nod to Stagyar) that these differences will decline over time as the sociological inequalities are rectified.
    I’d draw an analogy to driving. It is not hard to imagine, given the societal structure, that women really were worse drivers than men in years past, simply by virtue of doing so less often. But that would hardly be the case today, even if the stereotype lingered due to social inertia.

  15. August 19, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Arrrrgggghhhhh! Not the old driving canard! Sure, it’s not hard to argue, based on mindless acceptance of stereotypes – and yet, it isn’t true, as anyone in the auto insurance industry can tell you. Why do you think women’s auto insurance rates are (and have been) lower than men’s? Because the auto insurance industry is chivalrous? I don’t friggin’ think so.
    You can armchair theorize till the cows come home…it’s a pleasant way to pass the time…yet it doesn’t necessarily make tired old stereotypes any more true.

  16. August 19, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Arrrrgggghhhhh! Not the old driving canard! Sure, it’s not hard to argue, based on mindless acceptance of stereotypes – and yet, it isn’t true, as anyone in the auto insurance industry can tell you. Why do you think women’s auto insurance rates are (and have been) lower than men’s? Because the auto insurance industry is chivalrous? I don’t friggin’ think so.
    You can armchair theorize till the cows come home…it’s a pleasant way to pass the time…yet it doesn’t necessarily make tired old stereotypes any more true.

  17. October 14, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Forgive the late response, but having been directed here from your recent post…
    I find your last response absolutely comical. You really should read what people actually write and respond to that instead of going on irrelevant diatribes. Was “that would hardly be the case today” unclear? My point was that a stereotype that was once true could be perceived to be true long after it has ceased to be. Whether the specific example was so really wasn’t that relevant.
    But since you ask, yes, I happen to know in gory detail why women’s auto insurance rates are lower than men’s, since I’m an insurance actuary. Women’s rates are lower than men’s primarily because the average costs of insuring them is lower (nevermind the political meddling that prevents rating entirely by the data). It is not a normative statement of who’s driving skill is higher. Jeff Gordon pays high rates because of his maleness, not low rates because of his skill. One simply cannot logically argue that Group X are better drivers than Group Y because Group X’s insurance rates are lower.
    You are your own worst enemy sometimes Zuska. Your agenda of exposing the gender inequities in society is noble, and there are many of us out here who can be persuaded by cool analysis and solid data. But when you rant and rave off-topic to an engaged receptive audience, and bludgean subtle thoughtful arguments with blunt dismissals, you not only run the risk of alienating potential allies, you play to all the worst, and yes unfair, stereotypes of women, thus giving fodder to your enemies.
    As an atheist who has had to answer all the same damned stupid questions, address the same damned moronic lies and fallacies and mischaracterizations, over and over and over again over the years, I can relate to your anger. And when I lose it and yell and call some religious antagonists a bunch of backwoods ignoramuses, I play to all the worst stereotypes of atheists, giving fodder to my enemies. I try to keep that under control, but I’m not always succesful. Hang in there, you’re gaining some converts, even if sometimes you act like you don’t want us.

  18. October 14, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Science Avenger, I did read your comment. Please tell me when in the past the stereotype that women are worse drivers than men actually matched the reality. When were women’s car insurance rates higher than men’s, for example? The stereotype was long in existence but it is not clear that there was ever any empirical evidence to support it. This is what annoyed the hell out of me about your comment. Yes, it’s simple to imagine, given societal structures, that women were worse drivers in the past – but all you are doing is imagining. You have no data, no proof, you are just speculating that a situation obtained that would support or justify a stereotype in the past. This is the armchair theorizing that bugs me – “hey, maybe in the past, women didn’t drive as much, and so they were worse drivers, and that’s why we have this stereotype about women drivers!” Your point that “a stereotype that was once true”…well, it’s just based on armchair theorizing. You don’t know that it was once true.
    Now take your patronizing attitude somewhere else.

  19. July 2, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Not the old driving canard! Sure, it’s not hard to argue, based on mindless acceptance of stereotypes – and yet, it isn’t true, as anyone in the auto insurance industry can tell you. Why do you think women’s auto insurance rates are (and have been) lower than men’s? Because the auto insurance industry is chivalrous? I don’t friggin’ think so.
    You can armchair theorize till the cows come home…it’s a pleasant way to pass the time…yet it doesn’t necessarily make tired old stereotypes any more true.

  20. July 2, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    You have no data, no proof, you are just speculating that a situation obtained that would support or justify a stereotype in the past. This is the armchair theorizing that bugs me – “hey, maybe in the past, women didn’t drive as much, and so they were worse drivers, and that’s why we have this stereotype about women drivers!” Your point that “a stereotype that was once true”…well, it’s just based on armchair theorizing. You don’t know that it was once true.

  21. July 2, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    You are your own worst enemy sometimes Zuska. Your agenda of exposing the gender inequities in society is noble, and there are many of us out here who can be persuaded by cool analysis and solid data. But when you rant and rave off-topic to an engaged receptive audience, and bludgean subtle thoughtful arguments with blunt dismissals, you not only run the risk of alienating potential allies, you play to all the worst, and yes unfair, stereotypes of women, thus giving fodder to your enemies.

  22. July 2, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    As an atheist who has had to answer all the same damned stupid questions, address the same damned moronic lies and fallacies and mischaracterizations, over and over and over again over the years, I can relate to your anger. And when I lose it and yell and call some religious antagonists a bunch of backwoods ignoramuses, I play to all the worst stereotypes of atheists, giving fodder to my enemies. I try to keep that under control, but I’m not always succesful. Hang in there, you’re gaining some converts, even if sometimes you act like you don’t want us.

  23. July 2, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    I’d draw an analogy to driving. It is not hard to imagine, given the societal structure, that women really were worse drivers than men in years past, simply by virtue of doing so less often. But that would hardly be the case today, even if the stereotype lingered due to social inertia.

  24. July 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    great thanks

  25. July 3, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Cappadocia Tours, please see this post, items 7 and 9. Next time you can just refer to the post and cite numbers, it will save time on typing. No need to type the same things over and over and over and over and over again.

  26. Azkyroth
    July 5, 2008 at 2:31 am

    You know, if you don’t count thinking out loud and swearing at the computer, my wife probably does talk considerably more than I do, most days. Minus that distinction, it’s probably close, and with various ASD symptoms, I’m fairly atypical. As for personal experience, for what it’s worth, I think the people I’ve encountered who I really wished would shut the fuck up and let me concentrate were pretty evenly distributed between (among?) genders.
    This study doesn’t surprise me. Sadly, neither does the response. 😦

  27. Azkyroth
    July 5, 2008 at 2:40 am

    In this case, there is actually two separate issues. The first is that the phenomenon of women talking more than men was assumed to exist, and the second is that there were suggestions about whether this (incorrectly-assumed-to-be-correct phenomenon) could be an adaptation. Your rant seems to be confusing the two issues. Evolutionary thought experiments are a valid tool in any branch of biology that studies adaptation – whether you’re an adaptationist or not. You might know the process as “theorizing” in other fields. 🙂 Please don’t confuse it with mistakenly assuming that something has already been proven when it has not.

    It would be easier to do this if the scientists engaging in such experiments were to occasionally make this explicitly clear and publicly correct the people who take their statements and run with them in the media, in bestselling self-help books, ad nauseum in order to bolster the idiotic assumptions of the status quo.
    In other words, if these are just thought experiments, then fucking present them as “just thought experiments” and insist that others do the same.

  28. Azkyroth
    July 5, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Err, rereading it looks to me like “Disney Movies” through “Cappadocia Tours” were spambots.

  29. July 17, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    I’d draw an analogy to driving. It is not hard to imagine, given the societal structure, that women really were worse drivers than men in years past, simply by virtue of doing so less often. But that would hardly be the case today, even if the stereotype lingered due to social inertia.

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