The idea that men and women use language differently is conventional wisdom—appearing everywhere from Cosmo and Glamour to The Journal of Psychology and Anthropological Linguistics. Recent research, though, suggests that the most important variable is not the sex of the person doing the talking, but that of the person being spoken to. According to a paper published Sunday in the online edition of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, both men and women are more likely to interrupt and to use dependent clauses when speaking with a woman than with a man. Adrienne Hancock, a researcher at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at George Washington University, and Benjamin Rubin, a Master’s student, recruited 20 male and 20 female volunteers and instructed them to engage in two short conversations, one with a man and one with a woman. Hancock gave the volunteers’ “conversation partners” scripts about reality television or cell phone use to guide the dialogue. “We tried to get gender-neutral topics,” explained Hancock. “And then there were counter-balances: Sometimes the speaker would talk to the male about reality TV, and sometimes to the female.”
Hancock and Rubin then transcribed the conversations and analyzed them for ten linguistic markers suspected of differing in men and women’s speech. For instance, studies have suggested that women are more likely to use “hedges” (words like “probably” or “kind of”), intensive adverbs (“very,” “extremely”), fillers (“uhh,” “I mean”) and tag questions (the “isn't it” in: “It’s cold out, isn’t it?”). In contrast with previous research, Hancock and Rubin didn’t find any significant differences in the way men and women spoke—but they did find that having male or female conversation partners elicited different results. “When speaking with a female, participants interrupted more and used more dependent clauses than when speaking with a male,” they wrote. Over the course of each three-minute conversation, women, on average, interrupted men just once, but interrupted other women 2.8 times. Men interrupted their male conversation partner twice, on average, and interrupted the woman 2.6 times.
Every single participant used more dependent clauses when speaking with their female conversation partner. Dependent clauses, which contain a subject and a verb but can’t stand alone, tend to appear in longer, more complex sentences—the kind we might expect women to produce. Women, said Hancock, “are thought of as more elaborate in their language, whereas men are really succinct and to the point.” Another possible explanation: “There is something called ‘communication accommodation,’ where you speak like the other person in order to facilitate the interaction or feel close to that person,” explained Hancock. “It’s possible that speakers had a stereotype that women have a more elaborate style of speaking, so they tried to modify their own language to match that.”
No matter that the stereotype didn’t actually hold true. “This is analogous to a speaker using a Southern dialect only when speaking to a known Southerner, even when that Southerner is not displaying a Southern dialect,” wrote Hancock and Rubin.