While multiple attempts have been made to study the assumption that women talk more than men, they’ve been stymied by a few factors. First, when researchers have relied on self-reported data, their results have depended on the less-than-photographic memories of study participants. But, when researchers have directly observed men and women engaging in social interactions, sample sizes have been limited by research teams’ capacity (it takes major manpower to pay real-time attention to each member of a large group) and results have likely been affected by the fact that people adjust how they act when they know they're being watched.
A new study from Northeastern University professor David Lazer has sidestepped these difficulties to offer the most accurate picture of sex-specific socializing yet. His team fitted study participants with “sociometers,” which are basically FitBits for communication: wearable gadgets that gather information on users’ talking patterns. The first group of participants consisted of 79 master’s degree candidates who were each instructed to carry out an individual project over the course of 12 hours spent in the company of all other students. (Sounds exhausting, but we assume these students are no strangers to marathon work sessions.) The second group consisted of 54 call-center employees who wore their sociometers during 12 one-hour lunch breaks. Participants in both groups were free to interact as they wished, with no instructions influencing their conversations.
So, do women really talk more than men? The answer is that it depends. In the project setting, the women were significantly more likely to participate in long conversations than the men, and slightly more likely to participate in short conversations — but only when the groups in which they were talking consisted of fewer than six people. When the talking groups consisted of six or more, the men in the groups talked more than the women.
In the lunch-break setting, women were more likely to engage in both long and short conversations, but only marginally so on both counts. The study didn't measure interaction styles of women in women-only groups, or of men in men-only groups, and so can't speak to which sex is more talkative overall. But, while the results are based on relatively small samples, they do indicate that women are slightly more likely than men to engage in casual social conversation — and to hash out ideas in long conversations in working environments. But, ladies are less likely to stand up and speak out in large, mixed-gender working groups. Gee, we wonder why?