I’m a woman, so this article is going to be long. And you’re going to love my tweet about it! ;)
At least that’s what you’d think from recent headlines about differences in the way we use language based on each individual’s sex and gender. One study suggests that variations in brain chemistry explain why young girls are more verbal than boys, while another study found that men and women tweet differently. And though this research may seem like reason to uphold gender stereotypes (e.g. women are emotional blabbermouths), a closer look reveals that these studies actually support a more complex perspective on sex and gender.
What’s the Deal?
To study sex differences in language, scientists started by examining rats Foxp2 mediates sex differences in ultrasonic vocalization by rat pups and directs order of maternal retrieval. Bowers, J.M., Perez-Pouchoulen, M., Edwards, N.S., et al. Departments of Physiology and Psychiatry, and Department of Pharmacology and Program in Neuroscience, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. Journal of Neuroscience 2013 Feb 20;33(8):3276-83.. Male baby rats tend to be much more vocal than their female friends, and researchers say that’s because male rat brains have higher amounts of FoxP2, a protein that plays a key role in language acquisition Decoding the genetics of speech and language. Graham, S.A., Fisher, S.E. Language and Genetics Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen,The Netherlands. Current Opinions in Neurobiology 2013 Feb;23(1):43-51.. When it comes to humans, girls tend to be the more talkative sex — they learn to speak earlier than boys and use more complex vocabulary as children Sex Differences in Neural Processing of Language Among Children. Burman, D.D., Bitan, T., Booth, J.R., et al. Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Neuropsychologia 2008 Apr;46(5):1349-62. Child language with mother and with stranger at home and in the laboratory: a methodological study. Bornstein, M.H., Haynes, O.M., Painter, K.M., et al. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, MD. Journal of Child Language 2000 Jun;27(2):407-20.. Sure enough, when researchers studied 4-year-old boys and girls, they found the girls had higher concentrations of FoxP2. The findings suggest that brain chemistry is an important factor behind sex differences in the way children use language.
This research was published the same week as another study that focused on gender differences in the way people tweet. Researchers looked at 14,464 Twitter users and found, in most cases, it’s possible to predict a user’s gender based on the language he/she includes in public tweets. Specifically, women are more likely to use words that describe emotion (love, sad, annoyed), family terms (mom, sis, hubby), emoticons, and expressive lengthening (riiiiight?). Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to use swear words (we don’t have to give you examples), as well as words associated with technology and sports.
Why It Matters
Almost every news outlet that’s picked up the FoxP2 story has portrayed the findings as an explanation for why women can talk their male peers under the table. In particular, they’ve cited a study that found women talk about three times as much as men on a daily basis (those statistics were originally included in this book). But this study focused on sex differences in kids; in fact, researchers say further studies are necessary to determine if brain chemistry really has anything to do with sex and gender differences in adult speech.
Moreover, there are plenty of studies that suggest adult men and women are actually equally talkative Are women really more talkative than men? Mehl, M.R., Vazire, S., Ramírez-Esparza, N., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. Science 2007 Jul 6;317(5834):82.. And some research even indicates men may be the chattier sex, especially in situations when they’re trying to impress or influence people A meta-analytic review of gender variations in adults' language use: talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Leaper, C., Ayres, M.M. University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2007 Nov;11(4):328-63..
As for the Twitter study, it’s easy to assume men and women are still from different planets. But the study authors say their findings provide a more nuanced view of gender roles than previous analyses. When other researchers referenced women as more expressive, this study suggests that men and women are expressive in different ways. The authors also propose that people use Twitter and other social media to help construct a gender identity. For example, people who deviate from gender-typical language on Twitter are also more likely to have lots of opposite-gender friends in their social network.
While these studies are fascinating on their own, the discussion they’ve initiated is even more interesting. It’s all too easy to take a cursory glance at scientific research and see it as support for stereotypes about sex and gender. But these studies are actually excellent examples of the way sex and gender are too complicated to be explained by biology or a simple set of sociological rules. This research reminds us that there’s still so much left to discover about how our sex influences our behavior and the way gender roles evolve. In the meantime, I’m going to start including more curse words and sports scores in my tweets, just for fun.
Do you think women are chattier than men? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.