July 06, 2007

Female talkativeness: "knowledge protected against induction"?

In a recent post ("The New York Times slyly abets a lie", 7/6/2007), I discussed Dr. Louann Brizendine's amended claim about female talkativeness.

... because of her larger communication center, this girl will grow up to be more talkative than her brother. [original: Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand. ] [amended: In most social contexts, she will use many more forms of communication than he will.]

What does "forms of communication" mean? Or, or get all positivistic about it, how could we check whether or not this claim is true?

Some guidance is offered by an interview with Dr. Brizendine, published last year in the NYT Sunday Magazine ("He thought, she thought", NYT Magazine 12/10/2006):

Q: Your book cites a study claiming that women use about 20,000 words a day, while men use about 7,000.

A: The real phraseology of that should have been that a woman has many more communication events a day — gestures, words, raising of your eyebrows.

In a post the next day ("Sex differences in 'Communication events" per day?", 12/11/2007), I tried to evaluate the "communications events" claim by taking a look at John F. Dovidio, Clifford E. Brown, Karen Heltman, Steve L. Ellyson, Caroline F. Keating, "Power displays between women and men in discussions of gender-linked tasks: A multichannel study", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(4), 580-587, 1988.

My conclusion:

... the guys did more of the talking, as is often the case -- 43% more, this time, which is a bigger difference than one usually sees. What about non-verbal signals? Well, the guys did 80% more gesturing, and produced 623% more chin thrusts. The gals did 28% more smiling, 7% more self-touching, and 46% more laughing.

I even tried to add up all the "communication events", as absurd as that is, and found that "for the males, we get ... 278.62 'communication events'. For the females, we get 203.36 "communication events'".

Dovidio et al. didn't count eyebrow motions, it's true. But there's certainly no support here for the view that women produce about three times more "communication events" on average than men do.

You can read many further details in the cited post.

Dr. Brizendine's end-note for the amended sentence ("In most social contexts, she will use many more forms of communication than he will") is this:

14: ". . . communication than he will.": Tannen 1990.

This cashes out in her bibliography as Deborah Tannen, "You just don't understand: women and men in conversation", 1990. Tannen's central thesis is that "If adults learn their ways of speaking as children growing up in separate social worlds of peers, then male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication. Although each style is valid on its own terms, misunderstandings arise because the styles are different."

This book is the source of my favorite passage of cinematic sociolinguistics, from one of my favorite movies, White Men Can't Jump.

Actually, the linguistics comes in two parts. First, Gloria Clemente (Rosie Perez) explains to Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) about (one aspect of) the difference between rapport talk and report talk:

Gloria:  Honey? My mouth is dry. Honey. I'm thirsty.
Billy: Umm... [ Water Runs ] There you go. honey.
Gloria: When I said I was thirsty. it doesn't mean I want a glass of water.
Billy: It doesn't?
Gloria: You're missing the whole point of me saying I'm thirsty. If I have a problem. you're not supposed to solve it. Men always make the mistake of thinking they can solve a woman's problem. It makes them feel omnipotent.
Billy: Omnipotent? Did you have a bad dream?
Gloria: It's a way of controlling a woman.
Billy: Bringing them a glass of water?
Gloria: Yes. I read it in a magazine. See. if I'm thirsty. I don't want a glass of water. I want you to sympathize. I want you to say. ''Gloria. I. too. know what it feels like to be thirsty. I. too. have had a dry mouth.'' I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness
Billy: This is all in the same magazine?

Several scenes later in the movie, after a big fight and separation, Billy approaches Gloria and sings her a song:

Billy: Honey. All right... don't say anything. all right? Just listen for a second.

I will never bring you water
When you're thirsting in our bed
You know I understand dry-mouthedness
And I sympathize instead

There's more, but it's about love rather than language.

[Note: the movie transcription comes from this source, which curiously doesn't provide any speaker-turn divisions or speaker IDs -- apologies if I divided things up wrong.]

I have no idea what magazine Gloria fictionally read, but the relevant passage in You Just Don't Understand is on p. 51, under the heading "I'll Fix It For You", which starts like this:

Women and men are both often frustrated by the other's way of responding to their expression of troubles. And they are further hurt by the other's frustration. If women resent men's tendency to offer solutions to problems, men complain about women's refusal to take action to solve the problems they complain about.

Anyhow, I've read the book, and I don't recall anything in it to support the claim that "In most social contexts, [a woman] will use many more forms of communication than [a man] will". I just paged through my copy (the 13th printing of the 1990 edition, if it matters) without finding anything that could be said to back up the assertion. The trade paperback version is searchable on Amazon, so I looked at all 39 places where the word "communication" occurs in the book, again without finding anything.

In fact, what Tannen 1990 had to say on the subject is this (p. 75):

Who talks more, women or men? According to the stereotypes, women talk too much. Linguist Jennifer Coates notes some proverbs:

A woman's tongue wags like a lamb's tail.
Foxes are all tail and women are all tongue.
The North Sea will sooner be found wanting in water than a woman be at a loss for a word.

[..] Modern stereotypes are not much different from those expressed in the old proverbs. Women are believed to talk too much. Yet study after study finds that it is men who talk more -- at meetings, in mixed-group discussions, and in classrooms where girls or young women sit next to boys or young men.

So where does this leave Brizendine's assertion about women's talkativeness? Well, a recent note from Robin Shannon came with a link to a relevant paper by Gail Jefferson, "A Note on Laughter in 'Male-Female' Interactions", Discourse Studies 6(1) 117-133, 2004. The (start of the) abstract:

Working with interactional data, one sometimes observes that a type of behavior seems to be produced a great deal by one category of persons and not all that much by another category. But when put to the test of a straightforward count, the observation does not hold up: Category X does not after all do this thing significantly more often than Category Y does. It may then be that the apparent skewing of the behavior's distribution across categories is the result of selective observation; noticing with greater frequency those cases which conformed to some biased notion held by the observer of how these categories behave.

And towards the end of the paper, Jefferson writes:

The foregoing may turn out to be an object lesson in the persistence of stereotypes even when confronted by cold, hard, neutral facts. As happens again and again, the facts (in this case the results of counting the assembled instances of 'male-female' laughter) are disputed with anecdotes (here, with a few cases that serve the stereotypes, while those that don't are treated as 'exceptions').


This begins to look like something akin to Harvey Sacks' observations on 'category-bound activities' with their associated 'knowledge protected against induction' (1992: 295). As Sacks remarks:

It's not the case that exceptions involve any change in what you know about [a] category's members. For all the categories that have . . . a bunch of activities bound to them, exceptions don't matter. It's built in that there are exceptions, and they do not involve you in modifying what you know.


[Full disclosure -- Jefferson argues that in some rather subtle way, perhaps the stereotypes will turn out to be true. The abstract ends:

But there seems to be another possibility. It may be that the observation has located, but only roughly and partially described, a complex of behaviors which the observation can then be seen to reflect, refer to, or constitute a 'gloss' for.

After reading her paper fairly carefully, I'm still not sure that I understand this, but perhaps it's a case of truthiness avant la lettre: those "hard, cold, neutral" behavioral counts, like books, are "all facts, no heart".]

[Update -- a reader asked for a more complete reference to the work by Harvey Sacks that Gail Jefferson quotes. It's given in her bibliography as Sacks, H. (1992) Lectures on Conversation, Vol. I. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 6, 2007 06:10 PM