Mark Travers Ph.D.
Posted Oct 31, 2019
A new study finds that men tend to use more abstract language than women.
It would be a lie to say that men and women are the same. They are different in terms of their biology, and they show differences, on average, in terms of their personality and interests.
But how might these differences be reflected in their communication styles? New research appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology may have an answer.
A team of researchers led by Priyanka Joshi of San Francisco State University examined the degree to which men and women relied on "communicative abstraction" to verbally convey their ideas and emotions. Communicative abstraction, according to the researchers, reflects the tendency of people to use "abstract speech that focuses on the broader picture and ultimate purpose of action rather than concrete speech focusing on details and the means of attaining action."
Interestingly, they found that men were significantly more likely to speak in the abstract than were women.
"One gender difference that has been pointed to anecdotally is the tendency of women to speak about specifics and men to speak about the bigger picture," state Joshi and her team. "Across a series of six studies, we find that men communicate more abstractly than women."
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers examined the linguistic patterns of men and women in both experimental and field contexts. For instance, in one of their studies, the researchers examined over 600,000 blog posts written on the website Blogger.com to see whether men used more abstract language than women. To do this, the researchers computed abstractness ratings for approximately 40,000 commonly used words in the English language. For instance, words that could be easily visualized, such as "table" or "chair," were given a low rating for abstractness while words that were more difficult to visualize (for example, "justice" or "morality") were given a high rating. They found that men used significantly more abstract language in their blog posts.
The researchers sought to replicate this effect in a real-world speaking environment. To do this, they relied on transcripts from U.S. Congressional sessions spanning 2001 to 2017. They predicted that female members of Congress would, on average, invoke less abstract language than their male counterparts. Again, they found this to be the case. Analyzing over 500,000 transcripts of text delivered by more than 1,000 Congress members, the researchers reported that men used significantly more abstract language in their speeches than women. This was true regardless of political party affiliation and irrespective of Congressional house (House of Representatives or Senate).
What is the source of this effect? The researchers suggest that power differences between the genders — that is, men having more power in society — might be a key determinant. For instance, in a follow-up study conducted with a sample of 300 students from a large west coast university, the researchers manipulated power dynamics in an interpersonal setting to see if this would influence communicative abstraction. Specifically, they assigned participants to play the role of either an interviewer or interviewee. Then, they asked participants to describe various behaviors. They found that participants in the high-power interviewer role were more likely to invoke abstract descriptions of behaviors than were participants in the low-power interviewee role.
The authors conclude, "Across a number of varied contexts we find that men tend to communicate more abstractly than women. We also identify several moderators for this effect, suggesting that it does not reflect a fixed tendency of men or women but rather emerges within specific contexts. We look forward to future research that continues to explore this effect, its basis, and its consequences."