About a year ago, Louann Brizendine, founder and director of the University of California, San Francisco's Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic, published The Female Brain. One of the most cited gems within its pages was a claim that women are chatterboxes, speaking an average of 20,000 words per day, nearly three times the mere 7,000 spoken by men.
Seemed to make sense, given the rep of women as purveyors of gossip, not to mention creatures incapable of keeping their traps shut. Right? Wrong.
A new study published today in Science reports men and woman actually use roughly the same number of words daily.
James Pennebaker, chair of the University of Texas at Austin's psychology department, says he was skeptical of the lopsided stats when he saw them quoted in an interview with Brizendine in The New York Times Magazine. "I read that and I knew it couldn't be true simply because we've run too many studies," he says, "it just didn't make sense." In fact, he had been collecting data over the past decade with colleagues at the University of Arizona in Tucson that specifically showed that the sexes are about equal when it comes to a war of words.
After working with posttraumatic stress disorder patients for years, Pennebaker had noticed a deficiency in people's self-reporting of their experiences. So, he devised "a measure that would capture people's real life," he says. His device, called EAR (for electronically activated recorder) is a digital recorder that subjects can store in a sheath similar to a case for glasses in their purses or pockets. The EAR samples 30 seconds of ambient noise (including conversations) every 12.5 minutes; carriers cannot tamper with recordings.
Researchers used this device to collect data on the chatter patterns of 396 university students (210 women and 186 men) at colleges in Texas, Arizona and Mexico. They estimated the total number of words that each volunteer spoke daily, assuming they were awake 17 of 24 hours. In most of the samples, the average number of words spoken by men and women were about the same. Men showed a slightly wider variability in words uttered, and boasted both the most economical speaker (roughly 500 words daily) and the most verbose yapping at a whopping 47,000 words a day. But in the end, the sexes came out just about even in the daily averages: women at 16,215 words and men at 15,669. In terms of statistical significance, Pennebaker says, "It's not even remotely close to different." He does point out that women tend to jaw more about other people, whereas men are apt to hold forth on more concrete objects—so the stereotypes of ladies as gossips and guys engaging in car talk can live on.
As far as the myth of women being more chatty than men, Pennebaker thanks Brizendine for bringing it to his attention. As for the legend's origins, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman speculated in a blog last year: "My current best guess is that a marriage counselor invented this particular meme about 15 years ago, as a sort of parable for couples with certain communication problems, and others have picked it up and spread it, while modulating the numbers to suit their tastes."