If stereotypes are to be believed, this is an open-and-shut case.
Women blab on and on while men stand around all strong and silent, producing little more than the odd grunt — and that’s only when they’re pushed.
While most people think the search for cold, hard facts will only reveal what we guessed all along; for psychologists who have done some research, it’s turned out to be a tricky little question.
Some research does indeed find that women talk more, while others finds there’s no difference between men and women, and some even finds that men talk more.
Now, new research suggests that the reason there’s no easy answer to this is that it depends on the context (Onnela et al., 2014).
Researchers at Northeastern University investigated by having various groups of people wear ‘sociometers’ (below), a device developed at MIT which measures how long people spend talking to each other, along with various other social signals.
These devices were given to men and women in two different settings:
- One group were students working together on their Masters degree group project. Their conversations and interactions were measured over 12 hours of one day.
- The other group were call-centre employees at a US bank whose interactions were measured over 12 one-hour lunch breaks across 12 separate days.
What they found was that amongst the students working together on the project, women were more likely to talk more.
This probably reflects the greater degree to which women tend to collaborate.
These findings, though, were only true when the groups were relatively small.
Once there were six or more people talking together, it was men who began to dominate the conversation.
In the call-centres there was relatively little difference between how much men and women talked.
Still, women were slightly more likely to engage in conversations.
Professor David Lazer, who led the research, said:
“In the one setting that is more collaborative we see the women choosing to work together, and when you work together you tend to talk more.”
So it’s a very particular scenario that leads to more interactions. The real story here is there’s an interplay between the setting and gender which created this difference.”
The research doesn’t necessarily end the debate about which gender talks more — although women seem to have the slight upper hand — but does demonstrate the importance of context.
What it does show that the received wisdom about who talks more needs adjusting.
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Image credit: Alex Prolmos