“Women talk.”

Jess Molyneux 

It’s not the only example of casual gender stereotyping in F.R.I.E.N.D.S which makes re-watching your favourite teenage TV show a revealing and uncomfortable experience. Ross is annoyed at Chandler for spilling the beans to his girlfriend Janice (who in turn spills them to Ross’s girlfriend Rachel) on his secret ‘hug and roll’ technique. And in his frustration, he seizes on the cultural trope of ‘gossipy women’ for blame.

There are quite a few of these intriguingly pervasive, and more intriguingly unfounded, myths about female speech floating around. Here we’re dealing with the idea of women who just can’t stop themselves sharing, which isn’t too far from that stereotype of ‘the loud mouth’, the fishwife, that inane, mundane female babbler. There’s this perception that little girls are chatterboxes and continue to be so into womanhood. Looking into the actual research in this area, though, is confounding because the linguistic reality is so at odds with our cultural perceptions.

In a study by linguist Marjorie Swacker, both men and women were asked to describe the events in a picture, and while female participants managed it in an average of just over three minutes, their male counterparts took over thirteen. Spender did a similar experiment, this time in an online environment with higher stakes: the topic in discussion was men’s literature. Over the course of 5 weeks, men contributed around 70% of the total words in the discussion. There were two days in that whole period where women said more than men – and on both of these days male participants actually complained about being drowned out. Woman don’t talk more than men. (Recognising, of course, that we can never really say ‘what women do’ and ‘what men do’ without generalising and homogenising, but speaking in terms of tracked trends.) But they do talk more than silence, and plenty of female linguists have come to the conclusion that that’s what we must be measuring women against whilst this myth continues to pervade.

We also have this idea that what women talk about is different from what men do. Words like ‘gossip’ are gendered, and we tend to assume that female conversation revolves around feelings, people, and other small-talk, rather than ‘things’ and politics. We might consider, if this is true, what it has to do with how gendered roles influence the conversation at our disposal, or we might think about how ridiculous it is to have an idea of what ‘female conversation’ looks like that could possibly come close to capturing the content of every woman-to-woman conversation in all the contexts of all the conversations taking place right now and throughout history.

Finally, we still like to believe certain things about the way women speak. Ever since linguist Robin Lakoff published her list of ‘women’s language’ features (based purely on anecdotal evidence) the linguistic community has, like the general one, had a script from which it assumes women will speak, and according to which it can judge and analyse their deviance from the male norm. Women, as propounded by Lakoff and the cultural consciousness from which her ideas sprung, use more empty adjectives, more super polite forms, more hedging, more conditional constructions. In short, fewer of the features that we would traditionally see as ‘powerful’.

But let’s think about what the reality might be. Some amazing studies by feminist linguists like Pamela Fishmann and Victoria DeFranscisco have shown us pretty damningly that it is women who ‘do the conversational shitwork’. That they’re certainly not the ones who are responsible for the majority of delayed, minimal, or absent responses. That they’re likely to ask more questions, to use more attention beginnings (‘Guess what?’, ’This is interesting…’), and more facilitative tag questions (‘wasn’t it?’, ‘wouldn’t you say?’) in order to engage their conversational partner. Male ‘statements’, by the by, which tended to be speaker-focussed and require far less conversational effort than women’s questions, were still, in the studies, two times more likely to elicit a response. This speaks volumes for the way we value the contributions of one gender in conversation.

In short, women have been proven to work harder to facilitate conversation than men, not least because it is expected of them, because it is viewed as part of ‘gender activity’. Those ‘powerless’ features that are supposedly characteristic of women, those maybes and coulds and don’t-you-thinks, might be better described as co-operative, considerate, facilitative, listener-oriented. Maybe it seems like women talk more because they’re the ones, as Fishmann puts it, who are doing ‘the active maintenance and continuation work’ in most of our conversations.

Maybe we’d do better to see ‘women’s talk’ as a valuable form of social interaction, and a necessary one when we think about the intersections between conversation and mental health. Maybe there’s something incredibly productive about talking, something uniquely important about natter. Maybe we’d do better to start celebrating and encouraging those voices which are keeping our conversations going.

Image source: Canva

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