WASHINGTON – Another stereotype — chatty gals and taciturn guys — bites the dust. Turns out, when you actually count the words, there isn't much difference between the sexes when it comes to talking.
The researchers placed microphones on 396 college students for periods ranging from two to 10 days, sampled their conversations and calculated how many words they used in the course of a day.
The score: Women, 16,215. Men, 15,669.
The difference: 546 words: "Not statistically significant," say the researchers.
"What's a 500-word difference, compared with the 45,000-word difference between the most and the least talkative persons" in the study, said Mehl.
Co-author James W. Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas, said the researchers collected the recordings as part of a larger project to understand how people are affected when they talk about emotional experiences.
They were surprised when a magazine article asserted that women use an average of 20,000 words per day compared with 7,000 for men. If there had been that big a difference, he thought, they should have noticed it.
They found that the 20,000-7,000 figures have been used in popular books and magazines for years. But they couldn't find any research supporting them.
"Although many people believe the stereotypes of females as talkative and males as reticent, there is no large-scale study that systematically has recorded the natural conversations of large groups of people for extended periods of time," Pennebaker said.
Indeed, Mehl said, one study they found, done in workplaces, showed men talking more.
Still, the idea that women use nearly three times as many words a day as men has taken on the status of an "urban legend," he said.
"We realized we had the data," Mehl said in a telephone interview, so they went back to their recordings and calculated the actual numbers.
Their research began with one group of students in 1998, two groups sampled in 2001, two in 2003 and a final group in 2004. One of the 2003 groups involved 51 students in Mexico, the rest were all in the United States.
The students were fitted with unobtrusive recorders that sampled their conversations — the students didn't know when the recorders were on. From the samples, a total number of words for the day could be calculated.
Of the six groups sampled, women used more words than men in three and men used more words than women in the other three, including the one in Mexico.
The research was limited to college students, but Pennebaker said he believes it would probably apply to others in the same age range.
"The question is, how it applies to people as we get older," he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Mehl said he thinks it should apply across age groups, but he wondered how it would be affected by different cultures.