Language Ideologies and Our Misconceptions About Gender Differences
The opinions, attitudes, and beliefs that people hold about language are called language ideologies. Language ideologies affect how we talk and behave, as well as how we perceive others’ speech.
Intuition tells us that men and women use language differently. Many people say they believe that gender affects language use and talk time. However, beliefs and bias about gender and speech vary from language to language.
Although there is always room for individual differences, most people who share a language and culture will share similar sets of language ideologies. In the Standard American dialect of English (typically taught in American schools and used by national news anchors), there is a common belief that women talk more than men.
This is false but quite pervasive in popular culture. Many books and magazine articles have popularized the idea that women speak approximately 20,000 words per day, as compared to men, who manage to utter a mere 7,000. This claim has seeped into common consciousness but is not backed by any evidence. The truth is that American English speakers of all genders use an average of around 16,000 words per day.
A Culture That Values Men’s Voices Over Women’s
The amount of words a person speaks in a day might not be determined by gender, but gender can affect how much we talk in certain settings. In state legislatures, research showed that women struggled to receive equal talk time. In fact, when the proportion of women legislators increased, their male colleagues tended to take up even more talk time than previously. This was true even when factors like politics and type of legislative proceeding were controlled for.
Another study of collaborative, democratic, small-group deliberation showed a similar result. Men almost always spoke more than women and were never disadvantaged with respect to speech participation. Even when women constituted a majority of the group, they still contributed less to the discussion than men did.
It’s important to note that neither study suggests that men talk more than women in every context. Rather, in certain speech contexts, men participated more than their fair share. Differences like these do not reflect anything inherent about people of any gender, but rather how we have internalized social and linguistic norms and ideologies.
Power and Gender
Power in relationships can also determine who talks more. One study from the University of Washington found that when heterosexual partners perceived their power dynamic as equal, they tended to talk the same amounts.
When a couple agreed that the man had more power in the relationship (in this case, meaning that he made more of the decisions), he talked more. However, even when the woman was deemed more powerful, her male partner still talked more than she did.
This study found that the men tended to talk more overall, but it wasn’t quite enough more to reach statistical significance. Ultimately, there was no data suggesting that women talk more than men. The study results also highlight the complex interaction between power, gender, and social norms, showing that no one of them can be easily extricated from the other.
A clearer picture emerges when you consider “talk time” in political situations. Gender often determines who holds the power, and power can determine the amount of talk time. However, even when women had more decision-making power, it did not necessarily translate to more talk time.
This suggests that how we are linguistically socialized into adult women and men—in this case, the implicit and usually unspoken rules we learn about who we believe should hold power—play a crucial role in determining who gets to talk more. While our explicit belief is that women are more talkative, this essentialist view blinds us to the many instances in which this is not the case.
Your Brain Deceives You!
If studies consistently fail to show that women talk more and that often in fact, men talk more, then why do people think that women are chattier? Perhaps our thinking is warped by language ideologies more than we realize.
In a perception study, participants listened to a recorded dialogue between a man and a woman. Despite both dialogue participants uttering the same number of words, the study participants judged the women to talk more than their male partners.
Women were judged to have been talking 5% more than they actually did. This may not seem like a lot, but when listeners heard a conversation between two men, both were accurately perceived as having equal speaking time and equal rates of speech.
Although gender does not determine English speakers’ rate of speech, many listeners perceive women as talking faster. Overestimations of how quickly women speak and of the amount that they speak are both rooted in language ideology.
Studies like this suggest that our cultural bias leads us to believe that we hear women talking more, and perhaps talking faster.
Our language ideologies about gender make it easy for inaccuracies to spread— in this case, the misconception that women talk more than men. For Standard American English, there is no evidence to support this claim. Instead, factors like social context and power dynamics impact the amount of talk time people perceive in group settings.
In some contexts, it seems that men might talk more, but the data does not support the idea that either gender speaks more. Individuals vary from day to day, but gender is not a good predictor of who uses fewer or more words. Indeed, our preconceived ideas about gender may override our actual perception of language. In some cases so much that reality is distorted.