The Myth of Mars and Venus

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This post’s title is the title of a new book by British linguist Deborah Cameron. The book explodes the Mars/Venus industry (John Gray, Deborah Tannen, Simon Baron-Cohen, etc.) and instead concludes that men and women communicate in very similar ways. Cameron uses, in part, the research from Janet Shibley Hyde, who showed that in almost all measures the differences between men and women are negligible when compared with the differences among men and the differences among women.

A sampling of Cameron’s arguments, as described in one review in the Times of London:

Myth 1: women talk more than men Nonsense, says Cameron. In a popular self-help book, The Female Brain, the claim is made that women say 20,000 words a day and men only 7,000. This statistic has been widely reported in newspapers and journals but has since turned out to be erroneous and based on no real research. It has since been removed from the book.

In fact a number of studies have found that men speak more than women, although others found that women speak more than men. A recent study by the University of Arizona, on a group of undergraduates, found that both sexes spoke an equal number of words a day – 16,000.

Myth 2: men and women communicate differently More hogwash, says Cameron. Linguistic studies have shown that men and women share a 99.75% overlap in the way they communicate. If there are differences in the way the sexes communicate, they are infinitesimal.

The only real markers of difference between men and women are that women smile more and spell better, and it is, says Cameron, only a”moderate difference”.

Myth 3: men’s and women’s brains are hardwired differently when it comes to language This area, says Cameron, is more difficult. Brain scans show that, when men talk, they use almost exclusively the left-hand side of their brains, whereas women also use parts of the right side. But, according to Cameron, this has had no bearing on how we communicate.

The only proven effect of this neurological difference between the sexes, comes in the case of severe head injury. If men suffer an acute injury to the brain, they are more likely to lose their speech faculties than women, because other parts of the female brain are able to take over.

Myth 4: men interrupt more than women The evidence suggests women interrupt as much as men do. Cameron argues that some men, naturally, will interrupt more than others. The dangers of grouping men together is that the differences between men and women are so slight, whereas the differences between men and other men are more interesting.

When, and how people interrupt, argues Cameron, is much more about power and social relations than the genetic make-up of the sexes.

According to that one review and another that appeared in the same paper, Cameron places part of the blame for the infatuation with the Mars/Venus myth at the hands of a backlash against feminism. A lot of people are comforted that women and men are essentially different and should have different roles in society. They’re also comforted in thinking that women and men have inherent communication problems rather than problems based on women competing with men for jobs and resources that have previously been confined to just men.

I haven’t read the book yet but look forward to doing so. It seems that it’s another in the growing and important line of articles, blog posts, and books debunking a renewed trend toward essentializing male/female difference.

- David S. Cohen

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