The biology of women’s speech habits

What differentiates women from men cannot simply stem from different wiring.

Abby Bar-Lev

For many women who spend a lot of time around brothers, guy friends and boyfriends, a trend usually seems to emerge: We tend to be just a bit more talkative. Could that trend have a scientific explanation?

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, who recently wrote a book titled “The Female Brain,” biology explains it all. According to Dr. Brizendine, who traces it back to brain development in the womb -specifically the effects of testosterone on the brain -women become wired to talk more than men. About three times as much for that matter; the average woman speaks 13,000 more words in a day (20,000 words per day in all on average) than the average man.

Dr. Brizendine, who calls herself a feminist, said, “I know it is not politically correct to say this, but I’ve been torn for years between my politics and what science is telling us. I believe women actually perceive the world differently from men.” “The Female Brain” is based on Brizendine’s own clinical work at the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic as well as analyses of over “1,000 scientific studies from the fields of genetics, molecular neuroscience, fetal and pediatric endocrinology and neurohormonal development.” She concluded, “Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys.”

Many, both in her field and outside of it, are skeptical of Brizendine’s conclusions, however, and offer that social conditioning rather than biology are responsible for the behavioral differences between men and women, rather than the effect of testosterone on the brain. They argue that upbringing and environment are accountable for shaping how men and women think, talk and act. Individual companies and situations shape the amount we talk, explained Deborah Cameron, an Oxford University linguistics professor specializing in language and gender. She added, “If you aggregate a large number of studies, you will find there is little difference between the amount men and women talk.”

Personally, I have a lot of respect for science and advancing research and knowledge. Research in this area is important and should continue, but I am skeptical of an answer that comes down to either politics or science, as Dr. Brizendine had put it, rather than a good helping of both. I do not doubt that in some ways men and women’s brains work differently, but the politics and social construction of gender cannot be discounted. I will be the first to admit gregariousness and loquacity, but I trace it back to a dinner table with three older brothers where I had to talk loud, fast and often purely as a matter of survival if I wanted to be heard at all.

There is sex and there is gender. Sex is the biological difference between men and women, namely the reproductive organs. Gender is the social construction, the influences that mold the way girls learn to be girls, and boys learn to be boys. Getting an Easy-Bake Oven rather than Tonka trucks as birthday gifts, for example. I reject that girls come out of the womb yearning for dolls and dresses in the same way that I find it hard to swallow that girls are born with more to say than boys. Plus, Brizendine fails to mention transgender individuals in her research at all.

It is certainly a strong stereotype that women talk more than men, and in many circumstances might be true. But one can find and twist just about any research to support an idea when one is looking for information to back a belief. I cannot say whether that is what happened with Dr. Brizendine’s research, but I am saying that we cannot accept research and conclusions for truth without a critical analysis first.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected]