Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chat Room

He sat behind me at a recent Dodger game.

With every pitch, he regaled all within earshot on strategy, statistics, the relative talent level of each and every player, memories of games past, all punctuated by strong opinions:

"With men on first and third, and a left handed pitcher facing a Venezuelan born batter with a moustache, the pitcher needs to throw a three finger forkball with the shortstop breaking to cover second, the center fielder shaded to right and the infield deep just like the time the St. Louis Browns nipped a 7th inning rally by the Phillies in 1939."

After one inning, I was ready to stuff a Dodger dog in his mouth.

Of course, he was merely verifying Rector's Rule, which holds that anyone sitting behind you at a sporting event is either a deep pool of incorrect information, has had his volume adjusted by seven or eight beers or has a child who kicks the back of your seat for three hours.

Now it turns out my chatty Dodger friend was merely underscoring what social scientists have recently discovered.

Men actually yak more than women.

One study recorded 400 college students for days and found that members of each sex spoke the same number of words.

Another found that men actually talk slightly more than women, especially when the topic of conversation was non personal.

In other words, we guys will freely blab on about NBA rebound leaders, fast sports cars, beer and mega construction projects. Just don't ask us about our Valentine's Day plans or whether we love puppies.

And then there's this take from Campbell Leaper, a psychologist at UC Santa Cruz who believes "some men may be using talkativeness to dominate the conversation."

Clever, those men.

Nonetheless, Matthias Mehl, of the University of Arizona, said the stereotype of female chattiness was deeply ingrained in Western folklore and was often considered a scientific fact.

Researchers and therapists had given this impression by using a figure that women speak about 20,000 words a day while men can only manage to get 7000 into the conversation.

This threefold difference has been widely reported. "The 20,000 versus 7000-word estimates appear to have achieved the status of a cultural myth, cited in the media for the past 15 years," Mehl said. It was not based on evidence.

In Mehl's study, women spoke about 16,215 words a day and men about 15,669, an insignificant difference, the researchers concluded.

There was huge variation between individuals, with the chattiest man spewing out 47,000 words a day, while the most reticent one spoke only 500.
I'm betting Mr. 500 was married.

Linguist Alice Freed at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, says that the caricature of the gossipy gal can have a truly negative effect: "The power of the stereotype is that women are considered to speak too much." She says that this stereotype emerged as a way to devalue what women had to say.

But James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas, who worked with Mehl on the study, believes that the stereotype has a different origin. "I think it's because of the way that women and men naturally react to conflict," he says. "Women talk more during arguments, and we extrapolate those very salient memories to the rest of life."

Whatever, the stereotypes are deeply ingrained in many cultures. "Women's tongues are like lambs' tails, they are never still," goes one English proverb.

"The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone," say the Maori.

And then there's the old Chinese saying: "The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty."

It may take some time to work past those images.

While it may be news that we use the same number of words, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we don't always talk the same language.

"We did find men talk more about money, sports and technology and women talk more about relationships," Mehl said.

Well, shut my mouth.

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