This place matters

This place matters

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I should be in the kitchen

Some years ago, I visited a bookstore and found a book on their shelves about "the female brain." The cover art is a tangled telephone cord in the shape of a brain. 
The author, Luanne Brizendine, cites her own research, along with "thousands of studies," when she states that women speak three times as much as men - about 20,000 words to men's 7,000. Her book, apparently, extrapolates from this all the ways women are special and delicate and complicated and in need of hormone therapy and drugs. But, she says, it's okay, because women are way better communicators.
I mean, that's apparently what she says. I didn't read the thing; I didn't feel like murdering anyone that day.

Though actual scientific research hasn't shown that to be the case, it has been the common wisdom for ages and across cultures. Recently, according to the NPR story that triggered this blog, a scientist named Mathias Mehl did a study in which he gave recording devices to a large sample of people. The recording device turned on for 30 seconds at a time, a few times an hour. His research found that men and women say pretty much the exact same number of words each day, at around 17,000.

Haha! Vindicated, I thought. Dr. Brizendine's just a dumb bitch after all, and she is the one who should be in the kitchen. But that didn't seem fair. Brizendine sited "thousands of studies," whereas Mehl is just one scientist. So I started digging.
Turns out that when anybody besides Dr. Brizendine aggregates the data, there's not a significant difference in the number of words men and women say. But what of the "thousands of studies"? Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania went looking for her thousands of studies and found that they do exist, they just don't happen to support her claims. Some of the studies she cites contradict her claims, while others are simply unrelated to what she's talking about. 
But why would Brizendine make all that up? She says she's a feminist, after all, and she says that these brain differences don't make women bad, just different. As it turns out, Brizendine founded and is the director of The Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic, where she makes a lot of money treating women based on her poorly supported theories.
Why does any of this matter? What does it matter if women do talk more than men? What if it's the case that men and women are just biologically geared toward different things?
I'm okay with that, actually. I'm okay with the fact that girl monkeys like dollies and boy monkeys like trucks, just not the idea that this fact should somehow determine my role in society, how people treat me, and whether I need a special clinic for people with crazy hormones. 

The thing is that we're all individuals, and the fact that I'm an individual with an innie instead of an outie doesn't make me special or delicate or in need of therapy or anything of the sort. It means I've got an innie instead of an outie. It means I'm clever enough to keep my delicate bits inside so that dogs and small children cannot double me over in pain by walking into me. 
I totally meant for this post to talk all about Mehl's research, and I'll likely do a post soon doing just that. But I wanted to be fair and make sure I had my facts straight. NPR did once convince me that "saved by the bell" was a reference to tying a string to a bell before burying someone so that if, perchance, they were buried alive, they could ring the bell and be saved by it.
Oh, NPR, you so silly.


Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I've read reports about women talking more than men, too, and I kinda think, in general, we do. Speaking purely anecdotally, most of the people I've known who were likely to tell you how to build a watch when you ask for the time have been women. Not that I haven't known men like that, too, but most, by far, have been women. But as you point out, anecdotes don't suffice as proof. On the other hand, actual scientific studies HAVE shown that the female brain develops many more connections between the left and right hemispheres than the male brain, and THAT would result in better communications skills, and a higher degree of empathy. If you can find a copy, you might be interested in reading "The Tell-Tale Brain", by V.S. Ramachandran. Anyhow, great post. (P.S. I've read in multiple sources about that "saving the bell" stuff, and since at one time, people actually WERE accidentally buried alive, I believe it.) Hope you have a super weekend.

Geo. said...

Hello! Intriguing post. I have studied women, have been married to one specimen nearly 43 years, and the only consistent language difference I've found is she uses more pronouns than men and isn't so nervous about qualifying them. Don't know if it's a general female thing. Couldn't find a joiner-upper place on your blog so I subscribed by Google Reader. My compliments.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Thanks for reading!
The "saved by the bell" myth is one of those great false etymologies that got popular because it was so much more interesting than the real etymology. I've heard this on NPR, read it in books, even saw a museum exhibit about it. I think part of the reason that this really took hold is that some people actually did take out patents for coffins that did include the bell design, but they were likely never manufactured in large-scale.
"Saved by the bell" is actually boxing slang. Bor-ing.

I should do a big post on false etymologies soon...

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Thanks for reading! I definitely talk a lot more than my husband does, but most people who know me would probably say that I talk more than _anyone_ does.
As near as I can tell, Blogspot now requires you to go to and select the Add option in the Reading List section if you want to start following a blog.

Anonymous said...

"sited" should be "cited"...

Anonymous said...

i like puppies