“If you’re a girl, try smiling more, if you’re a guy, try being more confident and talk more.”
I saw that stellar advice in a post on the r/Feminism subreddit. Before a moderator cleaned up the trolls, someone quoted this article to prove that it’s good advice for women to talk less, because, he said, women talk more than men.
Do women really talk more than men? Nope. Men talk more than women.
The irony was that the article — which he brought to the discussion but undoubtedly didn’t read — undid his whole premise. The Truth About How Much Women Talk — and Whether Men Listen by Deborah Tannen is not about how women talk more than men. It’s about how men talk more than women. The exception, she writes, is when women talk to each other. In these private, personal conversations, yes, women talk more to each other than men do in their personal conversations.
Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown and the author of many bestselling books about communication in relationships. Her newest book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, centers on these personal conversations in women’s friendships, the times we feel comfortable enough to speak freely without worrying that we’ll come off as too aggressive or bitchy or crazy or nagging.
We already know that men monopolize the conversation in movies. (See Amber Thomas’s Women only said 27% of the words in 2016’s biggest movies, or this huge analysis of 2,000 major motion pictures, by Hanah Anderson and matthew_daniels.)
Tannen’s research shows that this isn’t just a media phenomenon: In real life, men talk more than women. (It’s not just in our heads!)
So, women just don’t like to talk?
If this were the case, men could feel okay about the verbal disparity, but Tannen’s research shows women want to talk more. When we feel comfortable talking (like when talking to a female friend), we do it a lot.
We expect in our romantic relationships to feel this comfort (even if it’s a relationship with a man). Meanwhile the men’s expectations, conscious or not, are that conversations will reflect what they’re used to: men talking more than women. This is their experience in the media they view and at their jobs. Men talking more is what they’re used to, so it just feels normal. Women and nonbinary people live with this cultural norm too, and it threatens to silence us.
Life imitates art, and art imitates life.
In a 1985 comic strip, Alison Bechdel came up with The Rule — known now as the Bechdel Test — for only watching movies that fit these requirements:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
Sounds simple enough, but, even today, almost half of movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test. A FiveThirtyEight study found, from 1970 to 1995, the rate of passing movies was growing, but since then it’s stalled. This is despite the finding, in the same study, that movies that pass the Bechdel Test are statistically a better return on investment.
Movie directors are still mostly white males, recreating the version of reality they see. They don’t see how women really talk to each other. That’s why it’s so common for women to be in movies only as a compliment to a male character’s story arc, and for women in movies to just talk about men.
In real life, men talk more than women. (It’s not just in our heads!)
Our children see this: they see women deferring to men, in media and in real life, and all of it informs their ideas about their personal value and their expected roles in this society.
When men and women are together, men talk more. And yet, they think women talk more. So, to many men, it feels like an argument when a woman speaks up. It feels like an imbalance, because their (unspoken, unconscious) expectations are that women will quietly agree.
What do we do with this?
Writing helps me find my voice, as I can imagine a female audience and feel freer to express my thoughts (yes, I really do this).
Also, in my own marriage (as in the rest of my life), I am very consciously speaking up more. This change in the status quo, and the resentment I carry for all the times I’ve bitten my tongue and deferred to men, coupled with the jolt my husband feels when he’s verbally challenged in a way he wasn’t early in our relationship, leads to some pretty bad fights.
He says things like,
“It’d be so much easier if you’d just agree.”
“Quit playing devil’s advocate.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Why are you disagreeing with me?”
I say things like,
“I am a person. You are not the default person with the default beliefs. I am not just a counter to you. I have equal significance*.”
“If I speak my opinions, that does not mean I’m being argumentative, just as it’s okay for you to speak your own opinions.”
Most of my husband’s and my opinions really jive, by the way. It’s rare we even disagree on anything. But when we do, he almost always accuses me of disagreeing just to start a fight.
I keep coming back to the feminist dystopian novel Vox —which I wrote about here. In Vox, women and girls wear counters on their wrists limiting them to 100 spoken words a day. There’s a moment that hits so hard, where our protagonist gets her counter off and is able to talk again. She argues with her husband, who says,
“You know, babe, I wonder if it was better when you didn’t talk.”
Yes, this line cements the readers’ dislike of the husband character. But when my husband read the book, his take was simple: “Fuck that guy. He’s the worst.”
My take was, “Yeah, that line is brutal, but the author captured it perfectly. That’s what it’s like being a woman.”
The husband character was not a particularly misogynistic character — in fact, he was less personally misogynistic than the average man — but he was socialized in a patriarchal society, and he got used to his opinions going unquestioned.
When I read that line, I thought of every time my own — intentionally feminist — husband said,
“It’d be so much easier if you’d just agree.”
Easier for whom?
My point in writing this isn’t to demonize men, but rather to point out that there is a real issue of men — in general — speaking more than others without even realizing it. Men — especially white men — unconsciously think what they say and think is the basis, and other opinions should be viewed in contrast to their opinions. Other opinions are viewed as arguments against the standard. This insidious understanding is so ingrained in every facet of human life, that it’s almost invisible. When I mention it to men, I risk sounding hysterical.
No, women are not doing the same thing with our opinions. We have been socialized to consider every single person’s opinion and needs and to try to balance them all, to placate everyone. Often, while doing this emotional labor, we find that we never even get to our personal desires.
But often there’s an illusion that our voices were heard, that our needs were met, because our voices were literally heard advocating for someone else’s needs. For instance, when I notice a man talking over my child, as I often do, I step in to advocate for her:
Man: “What kinds of stuff do you like to do? I bet you like dancing, huh? My daughter likes dancing too.”
Me: “Hey, you know she’ll probably answer if you just ask and listen.”
Man: “I did just ask. What are you talking about?”
This happens all the time — to my daughter, to me, to so many women and girls I know. A man thinks he just asked a question, thinks he’s doing an awesome give-and-take, but really he’s answering for us. He’s listening to himself and calling it a conversation.
Mostly, we just let it go, but when my daughter’s involved, I want to step in and make sure she gets heard — make sure she knows she deserves to be heard, that her voice is valuable. I try to come off as charming, rather than bitchy, so the man will take it to heart that he was just dominating a conversation while patting himself on the back. Too often, they get defensive and treat me like I’m crazy. And I take it as a personal failing for not being charming enough to get them to see our point of view.
When I’m calling men out, they might see me as nagging, or argumentative. They might assume I’m just looking for fault. It’s exhausting, trying to advocate for myself, for my daughter — for everyone — to men who need me to not be heard or believed in order for them to maintain the status quo.
It’s no surprise so many women are so angry.
Honest conversation can bring change. So we’re trying to make those conversations happen. If we admit to problems — men talk more than women, even though women would love to feel comfortable talking more — we can face them head-on, together. Denying any of it’s an issue is gaslighting us — we know it’s happening; listen to our experience, instead of calling us crazy bitches. If men keep denying, we’re just going to have more and more resentment, on both a personal and societal level.
Here is my voice, writing the things it’s so hard to say out loud. In that, and in my readers and all the other people writing and speaking about this, I find hope.
- *The term equal significance is from The Just City, a fantastic feminist sci-fi/fantasy novel by Jo Walton, which my husband and I both read and loved.
- It’s hard to write about things like men and women, since gender is a spectrum. I write from my own experience as a cis woman, my conversations with people of all genders, and my awareness that the patriarchy hurts everyone.