September 05, 2006

The emerging science of gendered yelling

According to Dr. Leonard Sax, one of the reasons that girls and boys should be educated separately is that girls are more sensitive. In his recent book, Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences, he presents a number of variants of this argument, but the simplest and most compelling version is that girls have more sensitive hearing, and therefore need a quieter classroom. He presents some serious-seeming science in support of this argument. In an earlier post ("Leonard Sax on hearing", 8/22/2006), I pointed out that he simply misreads one of papers whose results he cites: Cone-Wesson et al. 1998 found that newborn boys had (slightly) more sensitive hearing (on average) than newborn girls, not (as he asserted) less sensitive hearing. Later, I'll analyze his compelling but misleading use of numbers from a classic study of grown-ups' hearing thresholds.

But Sax is a skillful writer, and so he doesn't neglect the need to make this issue come alive for his readers by using evocative anecdotes drawn from personal experience:

I can't count the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I'm yelling." ... The gender difference in hearing ... suggests different strategies for the classroom. ... Girls won't learn as well in a loud, noisy classroom ... [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys.

Sax argues that the dads are using a normal vocal level -- for them -- which the daughters hear as yelling -- for them -- because of the (real but small) differences in hearing thresholds between males and females, as well as the (real and larger) differences between people of different ages. (More on that later.) The fact that Sax hasn't kept a count of his anecdotes doesn't weaken his argument, since the plural of anecdote is not data. But the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, all the same, and in the Internet Age, we can easily count things on the web as a proxy for counting them in real life. So I'm going to play "dueling anecdotes" with Dr. Sax, not by claiming priority for my own remembered experience of gendered yelling, but rather by scanning for patterns like {"mother yelled"} and {"father yelled"}, and comparing the resulting counts.

Here's the anecdata:

  yelled yelling yells is yelling was yelling Total
mother 26,700 19,800 22,800 5,050 16,100 90,450
father 23,900 11,800 17,600 3,200 10,700 67,200
F/M ratio           1.36
girl 17,700 11,800 753 1,610 31,300 63,163
boy 18,600 926 886 2,830 21,500 44,742
F/M ratio           1.412
wife 21,200 10,500 13,800 14,800 19,300 79,600
husband 984 3,320 12,200 5,390 10,100 31,994
F/M ratio           2.49

In the world of the web, a mother is 36% more likely to yell than a father; a girl is 41% more likely to yell than a boy; and a wife is almost two-and-a-half times more likely to yell than a husband.

In my opinion, these numbers are not telling us anything about the facts of gendered yelling or gendered perceptual thresholds. Instead, this difference is about sexual stereotypes, and perhaps about a confusion between perceived animus and produced sound intensity. But in this duel of stereotypes, as measured by an exercise in Google Social Psychology, Sax's anecdote loses. According to the perceptions of the web, females do more yelling than males do. Sorry, Dr. Sax, but that's how it is. By the numbers.

[Update -- Karen Davis writes:

I can't resist pointing out that perhaps females yell more because males don't hear them unless they yell? At least, that would be the answer consonant with Dr Sax's position, if not with the truth.

That's the great thing about this -- any way the facts come out, you can tell a good story about it. In fact, it's not easy to distinguish empirically among several different good stories. For example, if it turns out to be true that members of group X are perceived by members of group Y to be yelling when the Xs think they're talking normally, this could be because the Ys have extra sensitive hearing and perceive normal levels as too loud; it could be because the Xs have especially insensitive hearing and actually do raise their voices to speak at what they think is a normal level; it could also be because the Ys seem to have trouble hearing, so the Xs raise their voices in order to be understood; it could be because the Ys see the Xs as frightening, and so over-estimate their level of vocal effort; or it could be because the Xs see the Ys as threatening and so raise their voices in order to forestall anticipated aggression; or it could be because there's a social stereotype among Ys that Xs are loudmouths. If you're creative, you should be able to think of quite a few other stories that would make sense of this observation -- and that's assuming the observation is true in the first place.]

[Update #2 -- Sybil Shaver writes:

My own anecdotal take on the claim that girls feel "yelled at" in situations in which boys do not, assuming of course that the claim has any merit:

From time to time a student will accuse me of "yelling" at him or her (and in my memory it is usually a "her"), when I have been deliberately and carefully modulating my voice downward and trying to speak slowly and calmly, so I believe that an objective observer would report that I was not "yelling" as that term is normally interpreted, by me anyway. But why was I being so careful to modulate my voice at that moment? Because I had an unpleasant message to deliver (such as "You are disrupting the class" or "Your comment is out of order" or even just "No, your answer is wrong") and past experience had taught me that I needed to use every trick I could muster up to try and lower the emotional temperature in those situations: modulating my voice and phrasing my message carefully.

My take, for what it's worth, is that when those students said I was "yelling" at them, what they meant was that I was being critical of them. They were not reporting my tone of voice, that is, but rather the fact that I was saying something unpleasant and they felt attacked despite my efforts to maintain calm and to express the message neutrally. (I still don't know what more to do in those situations: even saying "Let's talk about this later" seems to come across as an attack sometimes.)

So without prejudging the question of whether it is really true that girls feel "yelled at" in more situations than boys do, is it possible that "yelled at" doesn't mean the same thing to all of these young people?

I suspect that this is a better approximation to the truth than any story about hearing thresholds. Speaking for myself, if I think back over times in my life when I've said things like "stop yelling at me", I believe that what I've generally meant is "stop saying mean things to me", even if I also genuinely felt that an excessively harsh tone of voice had been used. I have no idea whether young women feel or express this sentiment more often than young men, but if they do, I very much doubt that the explanation has to do with hearing thresholds.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 5, 2006 07:44 AM