WORD BUDGETS: Writing vs Speaking, and the Male vs Female myth.

I can’t quite tell if there is any data to support the commonly quoted difference between men and women’s speaking budgets. It’s one of those things that’s so commonly bandied about that you’d think you could easily find data on it. But you can’t. And what you can, is pretty specious. In fact, it looks pretty much ‘just plain wrong’ when I read it.

But there is another explanation; it certainly does appear that men and women speak more in different **contexts**.

One thing we know that helps us understand those contexts, is that men have more friends than women, but women have closer relationships than do men. Men tolerate greater diversity of value judgements in their friends. Women tolerate less diversity of value judgments in their friends. Or perhaps better stated, men and women view the source of loyalty that defines friendship as coming from different behaviors: cooperation in pursuit of opportunities for shared gain, versus care-taking which requires bearing costs on behalf of the other.

For this reason fear of ostracization is lower in men, and higher in women. Add onto that the men not only feel more comfortable taking risks, but enjoy and seek taking them — albiet the level of risk varies substantially. But conversational risk is very low among men. We think it’s better to hear a bad idea than fail to hear all the ideas. Women are more cautious because they are more sensitive to variation in opinion.

In my anecdotal experience, in business meetings and debates, men speak far more words than women. In social settings, and in personal conversations, women speak more words than men. Men seem to enjoy participating in competitive conversations. They even artificially create nonsense-conflicts just to have something to debate: they talk about sports teams, companies, politics, technologies, cars and tools etc. Each as a vehicle for debate. They prefer the abstract to the experiential, and a limited number of contextual changes. Women seem to prefer gradual subtle conversations across multiple contexts where they can build consensus and thoroughly understand one another’s viewpoints in the process.

The result of these different preferences is more of a difference in velocity than anything else. Women tend to ‘get there’ using their conversational style just like men do, but more slowly. Like everything else, men are built for speed. The extraneous is removed by evolution.

It certainly seems like most woman I’ve been in a relationship with has greater capacity for speech than I do — and I’m pretty talkative. But I suspect that it’s a difference in the content and circumstance not the number of words. I”m not the only man who thinks it’s odd that his mate must revisit her dreams in the morning, and her daily conversations at night. It’s common knowledge among men that we must learn that skill.

But it’s good for a relationship when men learn how to feign interest in these things that we lack the emotional bandwidth to appreciate and comprehend. Listening is an exercise in providing what the other person needs, and what she needs is not comprehension and problem solving – it’s to ensure we’re committed to one another, and for her to organize her emotions by way of speaking them in the same way that men organize our ideas by visualizing them. Chatter after all, is negatively correlated with successful hunting. Communication during hunts and war is visual, not verbal. Besides, that female revisitation of emotions is why women help us with our emotional problems when we have them: they’re more experienced at dealing with them. Our compensation for lacking those tools, is that mechanical devices, consumer electronics, and politics are not opaque to our comprehension. But I’m not sure which gender gets the better deal.

We forget that we all start out female, and that the template for human beings is female, and that males are highly specialized versions of females. Testosterone shuts all that ‘unnecessary’ emotional processing off for males in the womb so that we can worry about doing dangerous things and making tools, and inventing pretty much everything, without worrying about the needs of children or the danger that other women might ostracize us in a time of weakness, when we and our children need communal support to survive.

Applying that word budget to writing: I”m writing about 8K words a day on average now, with an average low of 5K, an average high of 10K, and a max of 25K on rare occasions. I’m not sure what that means. I know that if I dont talk to people all day, I write more, and vice versa. I also know that if I am writing for a competitive argument I write more than if I write in the explanatory neutral voice. But I also need to chat more than does my spouse.

We are the product of our genes. The universe is fascinating. Life is a miraculous luxury. And every breath of it is worth savoring.