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Opinion

The Truth About How Much Women Talk — and Whether Men Listen

June 28, 2017

A linguistics professor shares the facts

I got a shoutout from Rush Limbaugh. Ridiculing as “political correctness” the abrupt departure of David Bonderman, the Uber board member who quipped that more women on the board would mean more talking, he named me as a researcher who has made that very point: Women talk more than men. He was right — but not about meetings.

I do say, in my just-published book about women’s friendships, that women friends, as compared to men, tend to talk more — more often, at greater length and about more personal topics. But that’s private speaking — conversations that negotiate and strengthen personal relationships. Research, my own and others’, has also shown that men tend to talk far more than women in what might be called public speaking — formal business-focused contexts, like meetings.

In a now-classic study, Barbara and Gene Eakins recorded seven university faculty meetings. They found that, with one exception, the men at the meeting spoke more often and, without exception, spoke longer. The longest comment by a woman at all seven gatherings was shorter than the shortest comment by a man. Susan Herring found a similar pattern in online discussions among linguists on professional topics: Messages written by men were, on average, twice as long as those written by women.

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One reason women tend to speak less at meetings, in my view, is that they don’t want to come across as talking too much. It’s a verbal analogue to taking up physical space. When choosing a seat at a theater or on a plane, most of us will take a seat next to a woman, if we can, because we know from experience that women are more likely to draw their legs and arms in, less likely to claim the arm rest or splay out their legs, so their elbows and knees invade a neighbor’s space. For similar reasons, when they talk in a formal setting, many women try to take up less verbal space by being more succinct, speaking in a lower voice and speaking in a more tentative way. Women in my classes at Georgetown University have told me that if they talk a lot in class one week, they will intentionally keep silent the next. Psychologist Elizabeth Aries observed a similar pattern in comparing the participation of women and men in college discussion groups. Even Margaret Mead, according to her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson, judiciously chose the issues on which she would speak up, so as not to come across as dominating.

Women have good reason for such caution — what I’ve described as the double bind. If they talk in ways associated with authority, they can be seen as too aggressive, and subject to the damning labels so readily applied to them. But if they don’t — if they hold back in these and other ways — they risk being underestimated. I saw this happen right before my eyes, when I conducted an extended study of talk at work; I caught myself underestimating a woman’s contribution because she talked less.

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As part of my research, I sat in on a meeting at a large corporation and took detailed notes on who said what. I’d left with the impression that a particular man had been the source of most of the ideas the group took up and embraced. But as I typed out my own notes the next day, I was surprised to discover my impression was wrong. Almost all the key suggestions had originated with someone else — a woman. My notes also revealed how I was led astray: The man had spoken at greater length in support of her ideas than she had in raising them. I wondered whether my mistaken impression was shared by others, so I sought out the eight people who’d been present, and succeeded in contacting four of the five men and all three women who participated. I asked each one, privately, who they thought had most influenced the group. The two other women named the woman who had come up with the ideas adopted, but all the men named the man who had spoken in favor of those ideas — except that man himself. He named the woman. She herself did not feel that he had stolen her ideas. In fact, when I asked her, she said with a laugh, “It was not one of those times when a woman says something and it’s ignored, then a man says it and it’s picked up.” Nonetheless, her contribution was underestimated by the other men in the group — and by an observer, me.

It would be misleading to imply that women tend to talk less at meetings entirely by choice. Another reason is that they’re given the floor less often and, when they do get the floor, are interrupted more. Two dramatic examples of this were recently spotlighted. Earlier this month, as the New York Times reported, the lone woman on a panel of physicists was ignored for the first hour; when the moderator finally asked her a question about her area of expertise, he quickly talked over her, offering his own view of her theories. The moment went viral because he was called out by an audience member who shouted, “Let her speak, please,” a plea that was reinforced by spontaneous cheers from the audience. Days later, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California was repeatedly interrupted by male colleagues during two different senate hearings.

I’ve pondered patterns of interruption for many years. In my first book, based on my doctoral dissertation, I showed that interruption is actually the doing of two people: one who begins speaking, and one who stops. For many people — those who have a conversational style I’ve called “high-involvement” — beginning to speak while someone else is talking can be a show of enthusiasm and active participation. It only becomes an interruption when the first speaker stops. I got insight into how this can lead to women being interrupted more in a conversation with a man who sailed competitively. Early on in a race, he said, he’ll seek out ships skippered by women (or older men), because they’re more likely to give way if he speeds toward them. Seeking an opening to get the floor at a meeting is a parallel challenge, and the chances of succeeding may similarly go up if the current speaker is a woman.

That’s exactly what Elizabeth Sommers and Sandra Lawrence found when observing small group interaction in their composition classes. In unstructured mixed-sex groups, young women were interrupted more. Their male classmates also interrupted each other, but they were less likely than the women to yield the floor when that happened and more likely to persist until they’d made their point.

So Rush Limbaugh was right when he said that my research, and everyday experience, backs up Bonderman’s joke that women tend to talk more than men. But Limbaugh — and Bonderman — were dead wrong, with respect to women’s participation in meetings. There the pattern, and the problem, is the opposite: In public forums, women tend to talk less, and — to the detriment of everyone involved — their ideas, insights and perspectives are less likely to be heard.

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her book You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, was published in May. Parts of this piece are adapted from her book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.

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