The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World
By Helen Fisher, Ph.D.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." So spoke Hamlet to his actors, encouraging them to speak smoothly, appropriately, and eloquently. Women can be clever, broad-minded, intuitive, and many other things. But of all of women's gifts, their most outstanding, I think, is the talent that Shakespeare cherished-a flair for language.
In an era where television may soon offer five hundred channels, and more and more people around the world are beginning to need an education to make a living, the ability to communicate with written and spoken words is becoming essential in much of the workplace-including, of course, television and radio, journalism, and the expanding universe of education.
In this chapter I contend that women will come to dominate many sectors of the communications and education fields. With their contextual perspective, their mental flexibility, their imagination, and their superb linguistic faculties, they will also enrich our airwaves, print media, and classrooms with more diversity and range of subject matter, more intricate discussions of issues and ideas, and a more detailed and sensitive depiction of minorities, foreigners, women, and human relationships.
Born to Talk
At talking, women have the edge. Infant girls in the United States often babble more than infant boys. They begin to speak earlier in childhood. As they grow up, girls use longer utterances, as well as more complex grammatical constructions, such as the passive voice. Their speech is smoother. They make fewer slips of the tongue, omissions, and repetitions, and utter fewer incomplete sentences. Girls are three to four times less likely to stutter, and more than three times less likely to be dyslexic. Far fewer girls require remedial reading.
Girls like words. They enjoy word games, riddles, puzzles, making up stories, and talking to grown-ups. By age twelve, they excel at grammar, punctuation, and spelling and at understanding and remembering what they read. There has been much debate about men, women, and SAT exams-tests that many say have been refashioned to minimize gender differences. But on aptitude tests that record language abilities more precisely than SATs, girls regularly outperform boys.
Boys never catch up. Girls and women excel at what psychologists call verbal fluency-rapidly finding appropriate words, phrases, or sentences. On average, mature women can list almost twice as many synonyms for common words like sharp or wild. They can repeat tongue twisters more accurately. And they can rattle off more words starting with a specific letter. Although men and women have vocabularies of the same size, men are less able to reach quickly into their memories to find the appropriate words.
When psychologists reviewed six large surveys of gender differences conducted between 1960 and 1992, they found that females excelled at several language skills in all three decades. Some 150,000 Americans ages thirteen to twenty-two were included in this analysis, and the average differences between males and females were small. But many more females than males scored in the top 5 percent to 10 percent range in reading comprehension, writing, perceptual speed and associative memory.
American women share this gift of verbal expression with women in other cultures. Girls in Japan, for example, come up with appropriate words, phrases, and sentences faster than boys do. Women also excel at verbal tests in such vastly different societies as England, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Nepal.
In 1996, the International Gallup Organization polled men and women in twenty-two countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, asking them which sex they thought was more talkative. In Canada, Chile, Estonia, France, India, Honduras, Thailand, the United States, and eleven other countries, representing 3.05 billion people and 53.3 percent of the world's population, the vast majority of men and women thought women were more verbal. Only Mexicans and Icelanders regarded women and men as equally loquacious.
"The pleasure of talking is the inextinguishable passion of a woman," wrote the French dramatist Alain-Rene Lesage in the early eighteenth century. People around the world agree.
As usual, however, much depends on the circumstances. Men speak more when they are in a formal group, particularly in a mixed group of men and women. You have probably noticed this during the question-and-answer part of a public lecture. Men invariably ask more questions, as well as longer ones. Psychologists believe that men use more words in public settings, such as conferences and business meetings, to establish, display, or bolster their rank. Women, on the other hand, do more talking at home and when they are with other women-undoubtedly to strengthen connections with family or friends.
It is impossible to say which sex has the more interesting conversations or writes the more compelling letters or reports. Gardening or fishing, philosophy or history: both sexes can be fascinating-and boring. Men chat more about business, sports, and politics, while women converse more about people.
But leaving substance aside, in test after test and in culture after culture, women excel on how they construct their sentences, choose their words, and pronounce the little sounds of spoken language. Women are, on average, more articulate at saying what they say.
The Female Brain for Talking
"The nightingale will run out of songs before a woman runs out of conversation." So says the Spanish proverb. How do women conjure up their verbal magic?
With uniquely female brains. When neuroscientist Sandra Witelson of Canada's McMaster University, with her colleagues, examined the brain tissue of five deceased women and four deceased men, she found that the female brains had 11 percent more neurons (nerve cells) in specific areas that specialize in perceiving and differentiating sounds associated with language.
Distinguishing sounds is indeed essential to sophisticated communication. If you say "good morning" with a growl, your message is distinctly different than if you sing out a high, soft-pitched "hello." We size up a person's verbal message by listening to the cadence, the lilt, the inflection, the pitch, the music of his or her words. In fact, women's use of this mental equipment begins in infancy. Baby girls listen more intently to music. They also pay greater attention to people's voices.