Monday Mornings with Madison

Workplace Communication– Part 1

Word Count: 1,316
Estimated Read Time: 5 1/2 min.

Part 1: Looks Who’s Talking

Communication abounds in business.  It is needed for effective teamwork, sharing of ideas, collaboration across departments and between levels of leadership, interaction with clients and vendors, hiring and training of staff, and much more.   Some of it is written, but most of it is verbal.  But there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to talking at work.  Everyone knows there are productive conversations, there are pointless meetings, and then there is idle blather.  For work to get done, people must communicate on the work at hand.  Often, though, business conversations digress into rants and yammering that is a waste of time.   There is a point where repetitive and rehashed discussions and personal chit chat waste time.  There is moment when the talk should stop and work should start (unless, of course, the job involves talking, such as teaching, phone sales, customer service, etc.)   The truth is that most jobs require some time spent talking and the rest of the time doing other tasks related the job.  Developing code.  Designing blueprints.  Balancing spreadsheets.  Analyzing data.  Writing content.  Setting up digital campaigns.  Processing payments.  Etc.  And, in most jobs, when talk exceeds action, it undercuts productivity and eats into profits.

So how do managers monitor if employee conversations are moving forward the work versus being just idle blather?  How do supervisors get employees to talk less and do more?  To tackle that question, we must first start by looking at the research on workplace talk.  Who is doing all that talking?  The answer might surprise you.

The Biggest Talkers at Work

For ages, it was widely touted that women talk more than men, regardless of setting or context.  In fact, women have had a reputation for being chatterboxes for ages, a trait viewed very negatively in American culture. That myth was perpetuated in a 2006 best-selling book titled The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco.  Dr. Brizendine claimed that men and women are different because their brains function differently.  One of the most interesting examples she gave to support the assertion was that women talk more than men- 20,000 words a day compared with 7,000 for the average man.[1] She added that women also talk twice as fast.  On what were these assertions based?  It turns out it was not based on any scientific studies or even reputable opinion polls.  In nearly 100 pages of notes, Dr. Brizendine had only one attribution for her widely-repeated assertion.  Her source was a self-help book titled Talk Language: How to Use Conversation for Profit and Pleasure by Allan Pease and Alan Garner.  The problem was that there was nothing to back up the assertion that women talk more than men in the Pease/Garner book either.  The numbers were pure fiction.

Electronically Activated Recorder:  Counts Words Spoken

Many scientists doubted her claim.  To prove the assertion untrue, numerous scientific studies were conducted to calculate exactly how much men and women actually talk.  James Pennebaker, Chairman of the University of Texas at Austin’s Psychology Department, noted that he was immediately skeptical of the lopsided stats in Brizendine’s book. He knew it could not be true because of his own numerous studies on the subject.  Pennebaker had been collecting data for over a decade at the University of Arizona in Tucson that specifically showed that both genders spoke, on average, about the same amount.[2] So he did yet another study.

In order to measure how much people talk empirically, Pennebaker created a device called Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) to record and store when a person spoke.  The EAR sampled 30 seconds of conversations every 12.5 minutes.  Those carrying the EAR device could not tamper with the recordings.  They collected data on the talk patterns of 396 university students (210 women and 186 men) at colleges in Texas, Arizona and Mexico.  In most of the samples, the average number of words spoken by men and women were about the same. Men showed a slightly wider variability in words spoken. It turned out that the most economical speaker (roughly 500 words daily) and the most verbose speaker (47,000 words a day) were both male.  But when looking at daily averages: women spoke about 16,215 words daily and men spoke 15,669 words daily.   Statistically speaking, a variance of 3% which is numerically insignificant.  The study published in the journal, Science, reported that men and woman actually use roughly the same number of words daily.  The big difference was not in how much they spoke, but on the topics chosen.  Women tended to discuss people, whereas men discussed concrete topics.

Then, a more recent study found that when setting was taken into account, women did tend to talk more in private settings, but men talked more in public settings including the workplace.  It was particularly true in meetings.  In private settings, women friends tended to talk more — more often, at greater length and about more personal topics — as compared to men.  That was strictly in private conversations that negotiated and strengthened personal relationships.  Men, on the other hand, tended to talk far more than women in what might be called “public speaking” — in business settings such as meetings.

Different Ways of Communicating

Because the urban myth about women talking more persisted, Campbell Leaper and Melanie Ayres, professors at the University of California Santa Cruz, conducted a thorough review of all the research on talkativeness and the different types of speech under a range of social situations.  They compared mixed-gender and same-gender conversations.  Their review included all studies spanning from the 1960s to 2007.  First, they found that overall men were a bit more talkative than women.  And men used more assertive speech, whereas women used more affiliative speech.   They also found that the type of activity people engaged in influenced how much they talked.[3] In business settings, men talked more.

That was confirmed in another study by Barbara and Gene Eakins.[4] They recorded seven faculty meetings and found that, with one exception, the men at the meeting spoke more often and, without exception, spoke longer. The longest comment by a woman at all seven gatherings was shorter than the shortest comment by a man.  It was presumed that one reason women tend to speak less at meetings is that they didn’t want to come across as talking too much.[5] Similarly, psychologist Elizabeth Aries compared the participation of men and women in college discussion groups and found that women who spoke a lot one week would invariably speak less the following week.  It was noted that even the famous scientist Margaret Mead judiciously chose the issues on which she would speak up, so as not to come across as dominating.  This is thought to be the way the women balance between being seen as too aggressive when they speak up with authority (and labeled a “chatty Cathy’) and being underestimated when they hold back.

In sum, men and women tend to talk about the same amount per day, on average, but men tend to talk more at work while women talk more in private settings.  Men focus on concrete topics while women discuss more affective topics.  But, clearly, there is a lot of talking happening at work.  Of course, as stated at the start, work conversations are not bad.  In fact, conversations are absolutely necessary.  But, there is a time for talking and a time for action.  And not all talk is created equal.  The key is to keep conversations clear and focused, and then balance talk with action to ensure that the actions operationalize the plan.  So how does a manager ensure that conversations focus on work-related issues, are succinct and clear, and then stop in order to allow time for work?  Stay tuned next week as we look at how to get employees and coworkers to talk less and do more.

Quote of the Week

“The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives and what we achieve.”
Tony Robbins


[1] Louann Brizendine, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco, The Female Brain, Morgan Road Books, First Edition, 2006.

[2] July 6, 2007, Swaminathan, Nikhil, Gender Jabber: Do Women Talk More than Men?, Scientific American  Magazine, a division of Springer Nature America, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/women-talk-more-than-men/

[3] November 1, 2007, Leaper, Campbell and Ayres, Melanie M., A Meta-Analytic Review of Gender Variations in Adults’ Language Use: Talkativeness, Affiliative Speech, and Assertive Speech, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Review, https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868307302221

[4] 2019, Westbrook Eakins, Barbara & Gene Eakins, R., Sex Differences in Human Communication / B.W. Eakins, R.G. Eakins.

[5] June 28, 2017, Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University, The Truth about How Much Women Talk – And Whether Men Listen, Time Magazine, http://time.com/4837536/do-women-really-talk-more/

 

© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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