Monday, July 9, 2007

Talk About Talk

A new study from the University of Arizona, published in every newspaper and wire service, claims men and women talk the same amount. Reports and headlines everywhere claim that the “chatty wife and taciturn man” myth was dead like Apollo pulling the sun across the sky. The study finds “no significant statistical difference between men and women” but found a large gap between the most chatty and least chatty.

Deborah Tannen, claiming the new study lacks qualitative analysis of contexts, could help explain the results. Differences in the communication between men could help explain the similar quantitative results with different qualities. Men tend to use communication as status-holding, independence asserting, and competitive behavior. Women use communication to gain support, intimacy, and consensus. The basic analogy is the difference between war and negotiation. The latter seems to require more communication but war requires propaganda, counter-propaganda, strategizing, campaigning, orders, and false transmissions in addition to diplomatic and political communication. High competition requires each person to communicate in order to jockey for status. The context, for both men and women, is important in the study of communication and that should be the focus of the story.

While the study makes an interesting piece of information in attempting to understand men and women, we should consider a few caveats. First, the lab setting is placed as an objection. The samples were taken in different years, with different subjects, and with one sample coming from Mexico. Results from each sample were similar across time and space. Laboratory measures may affect some participants but the lab setting will not affect participants in the same way. Finding a repeated pattern across samples tends to indicate the lab setting was not a factor in this study.

Second, we should consider the previous studies. A study based on self-report will have problems in reporting. People often adjust their responses to fit a perception of themselves or to project an image to the researcher. Some people may alter a self-report to seem “normal” while others might change the data to seem “special.” If all the readers in blog-land want to find contrary studies, be sure to check if the method is self-report rather than recordings. Researchers can make errors but the tapes rarely lie.

The most important caveat is the age of the subjects. This study used college students and that is the most interesting piece of data. Pronouncements that women talk more than men might be premature because the age of participants is fairly uniform. Empirically, the study proves college-aged men talk the same as college-aged women. This study, like most studies released by colleges, tends to have limited research dealing with people outside of the university. Odds are good that many of these students were undergraduate volunteers looking for extra credit in a communication class, the most common subject we gather at Arizona State University for communication studies.

This new could indicate many things rather than disproving conventional wisdom. First, this could indicate behavior among college students as opposed to the general population. A college male could have a different view of communication than a male outside of college. The number of men currently enrolled in college against the general population is a rather small number. Second, we should consider the status of college men. If men tend to view society as a competition, college-men are engaged in a high-competition environment, battling for jobs, sexual partners, grades, and other things. College environments, for all the talk of the democratic classroom, encourage competition and this would allow males to perform highly. By contrast, women in this environment may be more reticent than their counterparts outside of college. Women tend to talk less than men at the workplace, something Tannen believes comes from the desire for women to avoid open opposition. Third, we could see this as a generational shift. The quiet man is slowly being replaced by the communicative man. The future professional woman might learn the power of withholding information.

A man talking the same amount as women has little political advantage for anyone when discussed in quantitative terms. The content of communication is more compelling than the number of words discussed. The new study confirmed one stereotype; men talked more about things and women talked more about people. We should be careful about the findings of a study. The study might be intact and valid but the implications will be up for grabs. Implications, in Aristotle’s terms, are the artistic additions to the inartistic proof of statistical data. The study may be dialectic but the news reporting is rhetoric and we should not confuse the counterparts.

1 comment:

David Schraub said...

All well and good (and I recognize that by raising questions about methodology, you're not necessarily indicting the premise of the study, just that we haven't gotten from A to B yet), but the results of the study, as far as they go, are consistent with the belief that the stereotype is just that--stereotype. Given the manner in which sex stereotyping can distort our vision and lives, that's the direction I lean towards.