December 02, 2006

Femail again

Having struck gold with Fiona Macrae's article "Women talk three times as much as men, says study" (11/28/2006), The Femail section of the Daily Mail tried again the next day with Carol Sarler's Why we women will NEVER stop talking" (11/29/2006). Sarler takes a slightly different perspective on the topic: she spells Louann Brizendine's name correctly, and she argues with Brizendine's explanation for the alleged fact that women are several times more talkative than men:

The good doctor says it’s science; I say it’s sociology. Tucked away in the jungle, with identical patterns to their days and identical concerns - appetites and fears — you can scarcely put a syllable between David and Jan or Dean and Myleene.

But in the less rarefied social climate of the real world, there is no such even playing field. Traditional male lifestyles do not require perpetual motion of the mouth [...]

Traditional women’s lifestyles, by contrast, could not function like that. You cannot raise children in companionable silence, nor skip on a chat with the elderly.

You can’t shop without telling somebody what you want, nor yell at the gas company without parting your lips. And when it comes to work, it is noticeable that the ‘caring professions’, which demand a deal of soothing talk, have always been dominated by women.

So there we have it. We are programmed to talk more because we must, and because we must, we can’t be blamed. Men can write rude rabbit-rabbit songs about us all they like, it is not our fault.

This is all sensible and plausible. The trouble is, being more talkative than men is not not only not women's fault, it's not even true. Sarler has presented 1200 words in attempted mitigation of a charge of which her sex is apparently innocent -- details can be found here.

Sarler also observes that Brizendine's book exemplifies a tendency to accept traditional misogynistic stereotypes while spinning them as positive feminist values:

What is our fault, however - and for this we do only have ourselves to blame - is the growing vogue for making a virtue out of necessity.

Where there used to be at least an awareness that you can have too much of a good thing, where a woman would once scold herself, "Oooh, listen to me, chattering away; I really must get on" - many of today’s women actually take pride in their excesses of verbal dribbling: "We are," they will boast to any who will listen, "so much better than men at communicating."

It's interesting to see so much ideology, positive and negative, erected on a foundation of ... nothing at all? Well, there are obviously some deep emotional currents here, and I don't mean to trivialize them. But wherever these convictions about male and female behavior come from, there's no evidence whatsoever that they come from the facts of how (or how much) actual men and actual women talk.

It's depressing to read the comments that these publications evoke. I've quoted a sample in some previous posts; Sarler's article gets similar treatment from its readers:

"Gk Ex-Pat, Australia": They may talk more than men but there is no depth to their conversations. Most women are full of wind and lack the ability to have a meaningful and quality conversation due to their natural desire to complain all the time and put others down.

"Janet H, Melbourne Australia": Can't say that I completely agree, I think the 'strong and silent types' are often the 'intense and disinterested types'. Some men just do not like talking - they've got this far away look in their eye and any attempt to attract interest is pointless. I've often been tempted to change the subject mid-sentence with ''I'm having an affair'' or ''I went shoplifting today'' - to see if I get a reaction.

There sure are a lot of unhappy people out there.

I'm going to adopt an optimistic interpretation: the folks who fill the comments sections in response to articles like these are a self-selected sample, unrepresentative of humanity as a whole.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer writes:

Carol Sarler, by the way, figured in another recent media-driven flurry of linguistic disinformation. See my Slate piece on the bogus trend of name-blending ("Keeping Up With the Smoneses ", 8/16/2006), on which Sarler and other British commentators spilled much ink.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2006 12:20 PM