Monday, October 02, 2006

Being Heard

If you are a woman you may have had this happen to you: You are attending a meeting with mostly men and you make a comment or a suggestion or a criticism, and the silence following it is thunderous. Then some time later a man makes the same statement and a lively discussion ensues. You sit there feeling like an ass, fuming, and wondering what you did wrong. Were you too soft-spoken? Too unclear? Did you imagine that you said the same thing? And how can you own the comment now, if it was a good one? It's too late and you'd look like an idiot if you said anything at all.

It turns out not to be an uncommon experience for women in traditionally male occupations or in academia or on boards of corporations. Learning this felt odd. In a way I was greatly relieved that I hadn't imagined the whole thing and that it wasn't my fault, but then I also felt a little hopeless about my chances to be heard in the future.

Juxtapose this with the new hit book on girlbrains by Louise Brizendine. She argues that women speak a lot more than men and faster, too, and I've already seen the feedback loop from her ideas at work on the net. Too bad that Brizendine took the idea from someone who made it up out of pure air:

The most recent to join the chorus is Dr. Louann Brizendine, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In her current best-seller, ``The Female Brain" (Morgan Road), Brizendine tells us that ``A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000."

``The Female Brain" has made quite a splash since its publication last month, and this word-count claim is one of the most striking facts supporting her argument that the female brain is ``a lean, mean communicating machine." The 20,000 vs. 7,000 numbers have been cited in reviews all over the world, from The New York Times to the Mumbai Mirror.


The book's endnotes appear to attribute the numbers to a 1997 self-help book by Allan Pease and Allan Garner, ``Talk Language: How to Use Conversation for Profit and Pleasure." But Pease himself has presented several different word count numbers in other sources. In 2000, he published ``Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps" (with Barbara Pease), which attributes to women ``6,000-8,000 words," while men get ``just 2,000-4,000 words." (They also offer daily counts for women's and men's ``vocal sounds" and ``facial expressions, head movements, and other body language signals"-but don't provide a source for any of the counts.) In a 2004 CNN interview, Allan Pease said that ``women can speak 20,000 to 24,000 words a day versus a man's top end of 7,000 to 10,000."

Allan Pease is a prolific writer, and a sampling of his other recent titles gives a sense of his men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus philosophy: ``Why Men Don't Have a Clue and Women Always Need More Shoes"; ``Why Men Lie and Women Cry"; ``Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time and Women Never Stop Talking."

Yet philosophy aside, why do the word counts vary so widely among Pease's various works and interviews? Two hypotheses come to mind: Maybe as time goes on, new data emerges from better studies. Or maybe he's using the same statistical methodology that generated those Eskimo snow-word counts. In the works that I've found so far, Pease and his coauthors never cite any specific studies as the source of these various numbers, so for the moment, my money's on the second theory.

Mmm. Turns out that the studies which actually exist suggest that either men speak more than women or that the sexes speak about the same amount and that men speak a little faster.

I began with the silence that followed my brilliant deductions because I think that these two items are linked: the myth that women speak "too much" and that they are thus not worth listening to. Unless they're selling books about how women speak a lot and so on.