‘A woman’s tongue wags like a lamb’s tail”, so an old English saying goes, and if you deign to type “why do women …” into Google’s search bar, the search engine will finish your sentence accordingly with “talk so much”. We’ve been brought up to believe that women are the talkative ones, the ones whose words, both soothing and scolding, are the social glue of small communities and families alike. We assume women talk more than men. But there’s also the more sinister notion that women must be silenced for risk of what they might say about men, a belief Mary Beard traces back to the classical world in her recent tract Women and Power – and something we’ve seen in full contemporary flourish with the eruption of #MeToo.
Because of the prohibition on women’s speech, which continued right through the middle ages and up through the mass growth in western female literacy, it took until the 20th century for a more positive, parallel notion to take hold: that women might be biologically better with words. Today scientific study has even found the odd bit of evidence that girls may indeed find it easier to acquire language than boys. But does the idea of women’s super- (and superfluous) loquacity actually hold up to scientific scrutiny?
It depends on the context. For more than 20 years, Deborah Cameron, one of Britain’s leading sociolinguists, has examined the concept of conversational dominance. What she has found is that men hold court more often in mixed-gender conversation unless the topic is one where female expertise is presumed – relationships or babies, for example – and this is not just because the men talk over the women but because the women more frequently defer to them.
What’s more, in formal or public situations – business meetings, political debates, TV interviews – men nearly always talk more than women. And that’s also a matter of status, says Cameron – people higher in the pecking order command the floor. That more men hold positions of high office than women explains again why it’s male voices that resonate more loudly and more regularly.
As an educated woman of Yorkshire-Irish heritage, I think it’s fair to say I’m better at talking than breathing. And yet while learning to debate on TV, I’ve been called everything from “mute blonde piece”, to “bog-eyed chipmunk”, to “confused bint” by men and women alike. In fact, when I first started, I was amazed at how many more words the male guests and presenters felt justified to slot in. I was even more surprised by how I seemed to self-censor my usual garrulousness when given male sparring partners, something I’ve had to work hard to overcome.
It’s notable that the practice of filibustering – talking irrelevantly at length to prevent a political bill being passed – was devised by men (the orator Cato, against Julius Caesar, in the first instance). In British parliament, the tactic is on record as having been almost exclusively favoured by male politicians, and it’s well-noted by many a female politician that learning to speak above the male brouhaha is one of the most difficult aspects of life in the Commons.
There’s a perception at the moment that a cacophony of feminine complaint about everything from sexual harassment to equal pay is drowning out the sensible “balance” of male voices. But the fact is that women are simply catching up to the level of public self-expression with which men are so comfortable. When Cathy Newman interrogated the rightwing psychologist Jordan Peterson recently, many journalists, academics and experts criticised her method. But the trolling and vitriol she received from a particular sub-section of the internet seemed to be a symptom of the fact that she had dared to challenge Peterson at all, prompting Peterson himself to step in and defend her.
The episode seemed to perfectly exemplify what the linguistic theorist Jennifer Coates has called “the androcentric rule”, whereby the linguistic behaviour of men is seen as normal and the linguistic behaviour of women is seen as deviating from that norm. That most trolls on the internet are, according to a study from Brunel and Goldsmiths University, disenfranchised males with narcissism and face-to-face communication issues makes for an interesting aside. Behind a computer screen, lower-status men still feel more entitled than women to vent at higher-status females.
In some ways it’s no surprise given that Twitter, despite having 55% female users, is a male domain. According to a 2009 study from Harvard Business School, men have, on average, more followers than women, are twice as likely to follow other men, and even women follow more male users. Then there was the survey of Twitter’s most influential political voices with regards to the 2017 election, which caused Yvette Cooper MP to ask why experts such as Laura Kuenssberg, Gaby Hinsliff and the Guardian’s own Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewartand other prominent female journalists had failed to make the cut.
What’s more, when women do speak up and at similar rate to men, there’s an inaccurate perception that they are talking more than them – and it’s perceived by men and women alike. We are so used to hearing less from women that when they reach anything approximating equivalence, listener bias kicks in and we think we are awash in women’s words.
As Deborah Cameron puts it: “The idea that women talk more than men is a good illustration of the power of our perceptions to mislead us about the facts. No belief about gender differences in language is more widely or strongly held, yet none receives less support from the available evidence.”
Wise words to ponder. And even better, to speak up about.