There's a stereotype that women are chattier than men. New research, however, finds that female loquaciousness only comes out in certain situations.
For example, women in the study were more talkative in a structured group assignment setting, but there was hardly any gender difference in the way men and women socialized in informal break-time conversation. The focus on context is important, said study researcher David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, because different social situations in education and the workplace could affect how men and women interact and perform.
"We need to think about organizations and other social settings as actually being many social settings, which may have different consequences," Lazer told Live Science.
The chatty sex?
Earlier studies on gender and talkativeness had found mixed results, with some studies finding men to be more talkative and others implicating women as the chattier gender, or finding no differences. [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom and Beyond]
Lazer and his colleagues asked participants in two settings to wear smartphone-size "sociometers" to measure their physical proximity to others and record the amount they talked. In the first setting, 42 men and 37 women participated in a structured workshop. The participants were assigned to read a large amount of information and translate it into a policy memo — an assignment they had to complete individually but could discuss with others.
The second setting was a lunchroom at a call center, where 16 male employees and 38 female employees agreed to wear sociometers. The employees had their usual conversations over a series of 12 hour-long breaks.
In the first, structured setting, the researchers found that men and women behaved quite differently. Women interacted and talked more, particularly with other women, and particularly in long-duration conversations. Men seemed to prefer working on their assignments in isolation.
"It wasn't so much that women preferred to talk to other women, but that women stuck around to interact, and there just weren't many men left," Lazer said.
Women's increased talkativeness held true only when they were in pairs or small groups, Lazer said. When the entire group joined for discussion, the difference vanished, and men may have even talked slightly more than women, he added.
In contrast, there was very little gender difference in talkativeness in the call-center lunchroom. Women clocked just a few more interactions than men, but there was no increasing gender difference with longer-duration conversations — interactions that were more likely to be substantive.
The effect of interaction
The study was small, Lazer cautioned, and it can't speak to gender differences in talkativeness and interaction more broadly. But, he said, he hopes the research will prompt a deeper, more context-dependent study on how men and women converse.
"You can imagine looking within settings to see how different sub-contexts change the gender-based behavior that one might observe," he said. For example, previous research has found that in workplaces, men and women work together equally on job tasks, but tend to pair off in same-gender pairs for workplace friendships — friendships that could affect promotions or job opportunities. If the senior employees in the organization are all men, Lazer said, this tendency toward same-sex friendships could freeze women out of opportunities.
"We need to think about the implications of how we organize our lives, our organizations, higher education and how all that aligns" with gendered behavior, Lazer said.
The researchers reported their findings July 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.