November 16, 2006

When stereotypes hang out

Here's a striking example of popular ideas about laconic guys and gabby girls, sent to me by Arnold Zwicky:

I don't know any evidence, one way or another, about the relative talkativeness of American male and female high-school students in hanging-out situations like those in the strip. But as discussed in a number of earlier posts, whenever people have measured sex differences in amount of talking in a variety of other settings, the result has generally been no difference, or a small difference in favor of more talk from males:

"Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting", 8/14/2006
"The vast arctic tundra of the male brain", 9/6/2006
"Gabby guys: the effect size", 9/23/2006
"Sex on the brain" (Boston Globe, 9/24/2006)
"Secrets of the BBC sexes", 9/29/2006
"Guys are a bit gabbier in Dutch, too" 10/16/2006
" Word counts" 11/28/2006

It's fair to observe that all the cited measurements have been made in contexts where talk is expected. There might be a sex difference, at least for some groups, in whether or not talk is expected when hanging out. And then again, there might not be.

Given all the quantitative social science out there, you'd like that someone would have measured this. It wouldn't be a very hard kind of experiment to do, except for the generic problem of the Observer's Paradox. If you know of any relevant research, please tell me.

If there isn't really a sex difference in talkativeness, why would so many people think that one exists? Well, once a stereotype is well established, confirmation bias kicks in. And maybe some people think that women are more talkative because they wish that certain women would say less; and maybe some people think that men are less talkative because sometimes they wish that certain men would say more. Or something like that. In any case, it's suspicious that there are apparently no actual word or talk-time counts that confirm the stereotype.

[Update -- Jim Roberts provides an anecdote, which is consistent with my own observations of groups of young men playing video games together:

I am a white American (well, Canadian, but I’ve lived in the States for eleven years) male and, consequently, have had occasion to gather together with a group of like-minded men for many an evening of video gaming. And, good God, are we loud. Several times the guys have been in one room playing games while the women are gathered in another room . . . doing whatever it is they do. Talking, I think, and perhaps baking or knitting. Too busy gaming to really notice, frankly. And those times when we’ve been separated by gender, at least once in the course of festivities a representative from the women is sent forth to the men to tell us to shut our collective traps before the neighbours call the cops. It’s been this way since my early teens. Men are possibly at their loudest and most vocal when playing video games, in my estimation only outstripping themselves when watching a sporting event.

And Theo Vosse writes:

In a political debate (there are elections next week) between what the British would call back-benchers, the speech rate for men was quoted as being 7,000 versus 23,000 for women. The reporter in question considered his statement well researched and hence this piece of knowledge could be used to discuss the role of women in politics. The consequence seemed to be that women were more factual and placed a larger weight on arguments than men. Thus the country would be better off with more women in politics.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...

"A little misinformation" would be closer to the mark, in this case. (And I presume that Theo's source means "speech rate" to be denominated in words per day, no doubt estimated by the standard Eskimo snow-words technique, otherwise known as "making up numbers".)

Anyhow, I've gotten no pointers to any systematic factual comparisons of talkativeness in "hanging out" situations, as yet. ]

[Eleanor Wroblewski writes:

Well, I'm certainly a gabby girl (and just a year older than Jeremy Bucket), and with some of my female friends there's definitely a replication of the whole "everyone-talk-at-once" thing. And there are male friends who wish I would shut up sometimes, and male friends I wish would talk more sometimes. However, in my social group, there are definitely quieter people and louder people of both genders, and although admittedly I have not witnessed male-only social interactions often, I have reason to believe that the differences in discourse between groups of different gender compositions, if you ignore specific individuals, probably has a lot more to do with the "texture" of conversation, rather than the wordcount.

Well, if "texture" means how much overlapping talk there is, then that should come out in the collective wordcount as well, though I agree that it would be better to measure it more directly, in terms of the distribution of number of simultaneous talkers at regularly-sampled (or randomly-sampled) time points. Eleanor has raised the hypothesis (if I can put words in her mouth) that a group of her female friends might show higher counts of two (or three or four) people talking at once, compared to a group of their male counterparts. The measurement is easy enough to make, though testing the hypothesis is made harder by the fact that different groups and different circumstances doubtless vary widely.


[But Eleanor replies:

Well, you did sort of put words in my mouth; I'm not sure exactly how to describe "texture", but I think it's a combination of who says what when, and how it's discussed, and the same things being talked about in different ways. The classic is the fixation on emotions for girls, but really I think that's just me being stereotypical . . . Also conversational topics to a certain extent. But really a lot of it varies on individuals and I just happen to fit the girl stereotype pretty neatly except I talk about boys with physics metaphors (e.g. "delta boy since August until now is perilously close to zero") and say things like, "Well, I bet you don't know what the capital of Azerbaijan is . . . Oh burn," and sometimes will make an absolutely opaque grammar joke. But, you know, I talk all the time and about things like food and romance and makeup, so I'm like a stereotype personified.

OK, point taken. I guess you could interpret the Zits strip as an imaginative (i.e. false) reconstruction of such "texture" differences in terms of other stereotypes. Meanwhile, Rita Rouvalis Chapman wrote in to describe in verse her recent impressions of the reality, from a different perspective:

I'm a high school (English) teacher.

Do 16-year-old boys ever shut up?
Oh no, they do not.

They will talk if I pout.
They will talk if I shout.

Shall I give them a detention?
They do not think this even worth a mention.

They will quote the latest movie.
They will bust the latest Jay-Z.

Should I put them in the hall?
No, out there they have a ball!

They don't care if it's a test.
That's the time they like to whisper best.

Are 16-year-old boys ever quiet?
I'm afraid I find the suggestion quite the riot.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 16, 2006 06:11 AM