UBER was having a bad week: accusations of sexism in the ride-hailing company had turned it from a Silicon Valley “unicorn” into something more of an ogre. Matters were not helped by a board meeting to discuss the mess. Arianna Huffington, a director, cited research showing that the likelihood of a board bringing on a woman is higher if it already has at least one female member. David Bonderman, her colleague, quipped that this would just mean more talking. He later apologised and quit.
Some might quietly grumble that, rude or not, Mr Bonderman had a point. It is widely thought in the West that women talk more than men. One popular-science book called “The Female Brain” said they use three times as many words per day as men. Maybe that is why senators kept interrupting Kamala Harris, a Californian senator, during her questioning of Jeff Sessions, America’s attorney-general, at a hearing on June 13th. Or why Jim Holt, hosting a panel on cosmology at a science festival in New York, repeatedly talked over Veronika Hubeny, the one woman in the group. Women will talk for ever if you don’t stop them.
Except that there is not a whit of evidence that they do. Abby Kaplan, a linguist at the University of Utah, rounded up the facts in “Women Talk More Than Men…And Other Myths About Language Explained”, published last year. Researchers have given men and women in groups a task to complete, observed classroom interactions, required mixed-sex groups to reach a joint political agreement, and recorded romantic partners in their homes. No study has shown women talking more, and some (like the romantic-couples study) found them talking rather less.
In the best study of a large sample of natural speech, researchers recorded six groups of university students (five in America, one in Mexico) wearing devices that would randomly switch on and record them over the course of several days. The result? Members of both sexes spoke a statistically indistinguishable average of around 16,000 words daily. This average was dwarfed by differences within each sex, with some taciturn types speaking just a few thousand words, and a few motor-mouths as many as 50,000.
Yet people hear women talking more—and clever researchers have proved that too. When they played scripted conversations in which male and female speakers took perfectly balanced speaking times, respondents heard the woman taking 55% of the speaking time (even when the male and female actors swapped scripts).
Why do people hear women talking more? Perhaps because women and men speak differently. For this, there is some evidence. In some studies, women take more speaking turns, but men take longer ones. In one study, women were more likely to offer reactions (“yeah” or “that’s right”) and men more likely to offer answers.
Some linguists, like Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University, argue that women and men tend to have different goals when talking: men are more likely to seek status and exchange information, whereas women are more likely to seek connection and exchange affirmation. This view has its detractors, but even its proponents insist that this generality hardly applies to all men and women.
If true, this would help explain events such as Mr Holt’s interruptions of Professor Hubeny, often derided as “mansplaining”. If one partner in a conversation is seeking dominance and the other is seeking co-operation, the status-seeker will wind up hearing co-operative conversational turns as submissive. That may explain why people think women talk more: in the stereotype, it seems they are nattering on with no clear purpose.
Speakers of both sexes need the full suite of skills: explaining, problem-solving, interrupting, supporting and more. Some people think that women are just biologically better at one kind, and men at another. Culture, though, explains plenty, too. It’s not everywhere that men are expected to be the blunt, competitive, problem-solving sex and women the comforters. In rural Madagascar, men are prized for kabary: flowery, indirect speech that avoids putting other people on the spot, a mode that is thought to be beyond women’s abilities. And in the village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea, women specialise in the kros, an elaborate tirade packed with sexual profanity delivered at someone who has wronged her. Western men and women can learn plenty from these examples—and from each other.