The Problem with Talking: Made Up Numbers That Kept Women Silent and What We Can Do About It
I sat in the nose bleed section of the San Diego Sports Arena. The place smelled musty.
I had sworn off church lady events after the last women’s retreat. Introductions seemed to follow a familiar pattern. “Hi, my name is Jennifer.” Or Cathy or Julie. “I have three kids. The oldest is 8… and my husband and I have been married for 12 years. He works for…” yadda yadda yadda.
As a college student, I just couldn’t relate. These women seemed to have lost themselves in their husbands and children.
But I’m a sucker for free tickets to a group activity. I think Point of Grace was performing and I was a fan.
So there I was at the Women of Faith conference. One sermon stuck with me and I still remember parts of it twenty years later. The speaker was very funny and her message was on Job chapter 4. She punctuated verse 4, “I put my hand over my mouth.” The verse goes on, “I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more.”
I remember she read the verse dramatically, “I put my hand over my mouth!” And with that she raised her hand high and brought it down over her lips. The illustration was clear. Be quiet. Your words are not helpful. What you have to say is not welcome and there are many times when speaking would be a mistake.
I don’t remember being overly offended by the message at the time. I thought to myself, yeah, I could probably talk less, watch my words. We women do have a tendency to do that—say things we shouldn’t.
I am part of a lady pastor’s book club and we take turns picking the next read. A couple of years ago one of us picked Keep It Shut: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Say Nothing At All by Karen Ehman. If the title wasn’t clear enough, the cover showed a pair of bright red lips with a gold zipper sealing them shut.
I tried my best to keep an open mind. Who am I kidding? I knew I would hate it. We read it together, because that’s how book club works. Not all my picks have been winners.
The title might as have well been “Women Need to Shut the F* Up.” That’s not true. It was very polite. Which only made me hate it more. True to its claim, the book addressed “unsolicited opinion-slinging, speaking the truth in love, not saying words just to people please, and dealing with our verbal anger. Christian women struggle with their mouths. Even though we know that Scripture has much to say about how we are - and are not - to use our words, this is still an immense issue, causing heartache and strain not only in family relationships, but also in friendships, work, and church settings.”
Why would my friend, ordained minister and senior pastor, pick this book? She said that she thought it would be helpful. She felt like she had a problem with her words—that she talked too much.
I picked up a used copy of Every Woman’s Battle: Discovering God's Plan for Sexual and Emotional Fulfillment by Shannon Ethridge for research purposes. The “Every Battle…” series was at the heart of purity culture. For women, the danger of an affair was in the potential for an emotional connection with men they might meet. For men, it was the casual glance that might lead to a lustful thought. These books did a lot of damage, equating normal everyday interactions with sexual dysfunction.
There’s a chapter in Every Woman’s Battle titled “Locking Loose Lips.” It begins by explaining that conversation is every woman’s favorite form of foreplay. Ok, this could be more true than false in the right context. But the idea that every conversation is a potential entry into foreplay is just plain ridiculous.
Ethridge emphasizes the need for women to “filter our words.” She warns that many women are “too naïve to recognize the impact that their words and mannerisms have on the opposite sex.” Some women know, but are desperate for affirmation, endangering their integrity.
The solution is to ask a series of questions in order to determine if your conversations are inappropriate. For example, “Is this man married? If so, would his wife get upset with me if she knew I was speaking to her husband in this way?” or “Am I using words to manipulate this person into a deeper relationship, into meeting my emotional needs or into making me feel better?” All these questions are designed to have women second and third guessing themselves before they ever utter a word to the opposite sex.
As a side note, the co-author of Every Man’s Battle who also wrote a forward for Ethridge, Stephen Arterburn, founded Women of Faith Conferences.
A few months ago, I read a blog post by my friend, Rebecca Thomas Cole, about being raised to be quiet. When she finally began to speak because of necessity, she struggled to be heard. First, at home with a dismissive husband, then later as a single parent to school leaders. She talked about working in a room full of men and struggling to speak up in an environment that expected her to keep quiet.
My first thought was I really can’t relate to this. I often joke that my parents didn’t know any better than to raise me like a boy. Not only do I have four brothers, but I worked in the construction industry for many years. I have to work really hard to “act like a lady.”
Yet there I was last night, sitting in a room with six men and one other woman, silent.
I think my husband, Adam, gets annoyed with how often I ask, “Do you think it’s because she’s a woman?” He’s usually telling a story from his workday and I predictably pop it in. Sometimes he humors me with an, “I don’t know, maybe.” Other times he gets frustrated, thinking I’m trying to make a point about sexism.
Honestly, I’m just curious. I feel silly admitting this, but until recently I hadn’t realized how women’s speech has been inhibited. Now I’m wondering with every conversation, did she stay silent because she’s a woman? Did he undervalue her contribution to the team because she’s a woman? The answer is maybe, probably and how can we know?
Women and girls have long held a reputation for talking too much. But who defines “too much?”
This was the topic of discussion on the Bare Marriage Podcast with Sheila Wray Gregoire recently. Gregoire and her coauthors of the upcoming book She Deserves Better found the earliest reference to this idea came from James Dobson’s 1987 book Love for a Lifetime. Dobson stated that on average women say 50,000 words per day while men say only 25,000.
Dobson tells of a husband coming home from a long day at work. “He comes home with 24,975 used up and merely grunts his way through the evening. He may descend into Monday Night Football, while his wife is dying to expend her remaining 25,000 words.”
I don’t think Dobson came up with this idea on his own. It was the conventional wisdom of his day. He does seem to be the first to use numbers. Except no one can figure out where the numbers came from. There’s no academic citation to be found.
Gary Smalley did the same in 1992, except his numbers had men saying 12,000 words to women’s 25,000. In 2006, Louann Brizendine, M.D. published The Female Brain with a similar claim, using another set of made up numbers—7,000 versus 20,000.
The “statistic” that women talk twice as much as men is quite simply, made up bullshit. In a 2006 study, scientists put recorders on men and women and actually counted. Turns out on average we talk about the same.
It may be a little outdated, but in 1993 researcher Deborah James and social psychologist Janice Drakich did a review of 56 linguistic studies. They found 16 studies showed men and women talked the same and 4 were inconclusive. Only 2 studies showed women talked more than men and a whapping 34 studies indicated men talked more than women. I would like the kids these days to know that this is actually an example of gas lighting.
The study concluded the differences in talk time had little to do with gender and more to do with setting and social status. In more formal or public settings the person with higher status did the majority of the talking.
Because our leadership roles are still out of balance, when we sit around a table to solve a problem together, women are more likely to stay quiet. Sometimes she will have to gather her courage and take a deep breath, wondering if her feedback will be welcomed. She might rush or skip important details to avoid being interrupted. She’s nervous because she heard over and over, “Be careful. You talk too much.”
This can be especially true in the church. Women in religious communities that exclude women from leadership often have internalized misogyny. They take 1 Timothy 2.11 to be universally true, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” They may believe quiet submission is their God ordained role.
If you’re like me, you believe all that is a lie. You read scripture and see God’s design for humanity as one of partnership, not hierarchy.
What do we do then? How do we unlearn a lifetime of misinformation.
I’m going to give you a few of my thoughts and I hope you’ll add your own to the conversation. I want to know about your experience with this and how you have worked to overcome it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
1. Bust the myth.
The stereotype that women talk more than men is just one of many bad ideas that came from the patriarchy in response to the feminist movement. Our culture has conditioned us to see characteristics like being nurturing, compassionate or polite as feminine. Likewise, men are often characterized as aggressive assholes. None of these are universally true.
On a bad day, I can be quite the aggressive asshole. Does that make me less of a woman? I think it just means I need to keep working on myself. I may also need a snack and a nap.
I think this generation is starting to get it. We Millennial, Xenial, Boomer what-have-you folks need to take a note. As weird as it might feel to call someone they/them, the kids are telling us that they aren’t having the restraints of gender roles anymore. They want you to know that things like compassion aren’t feminine, they are human. Part of developing as a society means that we encourage every individual to become their best selves—embracing things like kindness and trying every day to be less of a jerk.
2. Be Bold and Break Through
Back to last night’s meeting… I consider myself a confident person. Yet there I was, mouth shut in a room full of men I didn’t know. I have a side gig as a church musician and I more or less report to two of them.
There’s this thing that some guys do in conversation called interrupting. Please forgive me for this stereotype. It does not hold universally true. In my family of origin, we talk on top of each other all the time. No one ever finishes a thought. Except for my mother, who sits quietly and is visibly uncomfortable if the controversy gets too intense. Should she ever clear her throat to speak we will all immediately fall silent to hear what she has to say.
I didn’t associate it with dudes until my lady pastor friend described being the only woman in the monthly pastor’s meeting. She said she could hardly get a word in. They kept talking over each other.
So that’s what I did. I started to talk when I felt like one guy was about to wind down. The men in the room recognized that I had the floor and on I went. They were very gracious and made me feel like they really appreciated what I had to say. That appreciation went to my head, so I continued to talk some more. In the last half of the meeting I managed to make up for the first half that I kept quiet. No one seemed mad about it. In fact, on the way out, one of the guys told me how much he appreciated my feedback.
As leaders, we have to recognize these dynamics. We need to encourage and draw out value. Some of us (ok, me) need to yield the floor a little more often. Awkward silence is ok. Sometimes it gives people a chance to think maybe there’s space for me in this conversation too.
At times it’s better to look for input one on one, rather than in group settings. Many great thinkers have a hard time sharing in front of others.
As women we have to give people the chance to hear what we have to say. I know it can be uncomfortable, and at times even terrifying. What you have to offer is important. Your experience and perspective can be helpful to the people around you. People need to hear what you have to say.
3. Listen and Encourage
I want to give you just a few key phrases that I find helpful in conversation.
For women who have been taught that they should be quiet, it is especially important for them to feel heard. One of the easiest ways to do that is with the phrase, “What I hear you saying…” That phrase, precedes a retelling of what you just heard the person say. For example, “Sharon, what I hear you saying is that I have been misled into thinking that women talk too much.”
This accomplishes a few things. First, it lets the other person know that you were actually listening. Second, you check for understanding. Third, mirroring someone’s words communicates empathy and can help them process their ideas or feelings. I find it incredibly helpful on both the giving and receiving end.
The second phrase is simple, “Thank you.” You can expound on that like, “I really appreciate that you shared your ideas…” I give you permission to make it your own. You don’t even have to give me credit.
To someone who has a hard time speaking up, a little bit of encouragement goes a long way.
In early February I attended a very different women’s conference, Inspired for Life. I’m not sure what I expected, but a sermon about advocating for a young black man on death row wasn’t it. Cece Jones-Davis, ordained minister and activist, read from the gospel of John 19.25, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” These women, the three Mary’s, stood by Jesus as he hung on the cross.
Four years earlier, Cece Jones-Davis watched and ABC documentary that told stories of highly questionable convictions. One of those condemned to death was Julius Jones from her home state of Oklahoma. She posted on Facebook, “Where do we go from here?” She invited anyone interested to meet her at the church. Much to her surprise, 30 people showed up and the Justice for Julius movement was born.
By this time Julius Jones wasn’t a young man anymore and had been in prison for over 20 years. Despite his public defenders admission that he’d been badly misrepresented, shaky DNA evidence and his family’s insistence that he was home the night of the crime, the governor refused to overturn the conviction.
She told the story of Julius’ mother and sister who never gave up on him. They showed up to the governor’s office on the day before Julius’ scheduled execution. Because of his mother’s persistent begging (and likely the amount of press coverage) the governor agreed to stay the order just in time. Julius is still in prison, but he’s alive because these women stood for him.
Don’t let anyone tell you that God’s design is for you to stay silent. Quite the opposite. You were made to be courageous. You are a champion for justice and an advocate for mercy. We stand together for truth.
Amazon book summary quote for Keep it Shut  Every Woman’s Battle: Discovering God’s Plan for Sexual and Emotional Fulfillment. Shannon Ethridge, Waterbrook Press, 2003, page 106.  Link to the source for this James Dobson quote: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/003420.html  Scientific American Study that explains a study about the number of words men and women say: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/women-talk-more-than-men/  I really enjoyed this article about relationships. It was the source for the information on the review of 56 linguistic studies: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/marriage-equals/201910/do-women-really-talk-more-men  The research paper describes this dynamic in group conversation. It’s a little too dense for me to summarize, but best I can tell it describes some of what I’m talking about here. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264524279_Gender_Inequality_in_Deliberation_Unpacking_the_Black_Box_of_Interaction  Read more about CeCe Jones-Davis and Julius Jones here: https://religionnews.com/2022/02/09/cece-jones-davis-continues-support-for-julius-jones-who-she-helped-get-off-death-row/