Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in July 2007.
Saw the news on how much men and women talk. Seems some scientists toted up the oral output and got the same number of words from each gender. Find it hard to believe. To tell the truth, would rather not talk about it. Better to cogitate for a couple of days and then dismiss the whole business nonverbally, with a derisive snort or an exasperated sigh.
But boss says I owe him a column on something, so it might as well be this. Facts as follows: James Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, rounded up some colleagues and outfitted 396 students with portable digital recorders to capture their conversations. To make a long story short, the study found women and men both utter about 16,000 words a day.
This research torpedoes the popular assumption that incessant yakking is correlated with X chromosomes. Or as Pennebaker told USA Today, with an admirable economy of words, "It's been a common belief, but it just didn't fit." The evidence is convincing enough that neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, whose book The Female Brain cited claims that women speak at triple the rate of men, says those now "can be relegated to the category of myth."
All I can say is that if the average male is putting out 16,000 words every day, then I'm living in a verbal desert. Some guys I haven't met must be gushing verbiage like Old Faithful to make up for the ones I know, many of whom might easily be mistaken for victims of lockjaw.
That is not a description I would apply to many women of my acquaintance. The editorial board on which I serve used to be nearly all-male, but now has a female majority. I can describe the difference in two words: Longer meetings.
Among my friends and relatives, at least, a voluble man is a contradiction in terms. Some of them could make 16,000 words last an entire winter. We distrust verbal excess as a sin and a danger. We assume that any guy who talks freely and at length is blowing smoke, indulging his ego, or trying to sell us something we don't need.
We read the novels of Cormac McCarthy because his male characters can ride side-by-side for days across vast plains, through tragedy and adventure, without 1) ever opening their traps or 2) noticing anything unusual in that behavior. We rent Clint Eastwood movies because he communicates mostly by squinting his eyes or clenching his jaw. We love dogs because they don't talk, and they don't mind if we don't either. We'd rather have a rabid wolverine for a pet than a parrot.
We revere Abraham Lincoln because he made the greatest speech in American history while uttering just 269 words and taking up only two minutes of his audience's time. (His predecessor on the platform at Gettysburg, famed orator Edward Everett, gassed for two solid hours, and nobody remembers a thing he said.) We'd gladly give up cell phones for a return to Morse code.
Our slogan is, "Speak less, think more." Our hero is Calvin Coolidge, known as Silent Cal, and our favorite story is the time a woman sat by him at a dinner party and said she had made a bet she could get three words out of him. "You lose," he replied. In a more talkative moment, he confided that "nothing I never said ever did me any harm."
I assumed this tendency was passed on from fathers to sons. Once, when the grandparents were over for dinner and three charming females were dominating the conversation, my eldest son winced as though his ears hurt and said, "I had forgotten how much talk goes on when there are women around." He had just returned from a fishing trip with some buddies and recalled: "We could go all day sitting in the boat without saying anything but 'Beer?' and 'Sure.'"
But now I learn that the guys I know are wholly unrepresentative. Apparently for every one of us, there is some long-winded politician, preacher, auctioneer, or "Hardball" guest who talks more in his sleep than we do fully awake. I hope not to meet any of them in this life. But if I do, I'll know what to say: Shut up.
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