Study Finds Men Use More Abstract Language Than Women

Guys talk "big picture" while women talk specifics

men talking
Just some dudes having important, big picture conversations.
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By Kayla Kibbe / November 4, 2019 1:53 pm

While conventional (and problematic) gender stereotypes hold that men tend to be poor communicators compared to their expressive female counterparts, new research suggests the distinction between male and female communication styles may be more nuanced.

According to Psychology Today, new research appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that men have a tendency toward more abstract speech, while women more often speak in concrete terms.

Problematic reinforcement of a gender binary aside, what does that mean? According to the team of researchers led by Priyanka Joshi, men tend 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.” In other words, men tend to talk in terms of the “big picture” while women focus on specifics.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by determining “abstractness ratings” for approximately 40,000 common English words and then tracking their frequency of use among men and women. Words that could be easily visualized, such as those given to objects like “table and “chair,” were assigned a low abstractness rating, while words referring to less easily visualized concepts like “morality” were considered more abstract.

The researchers tracked the use of these words among men and women across more than 600,000 blog posts written on Blogger.com, finding that men use significantly more abstract language than women. Using the same criteria, the researchers also examined transcripts from U.S. Congressional sessions spanning 2001 to 2017, finding similar results.

Like most gender-based distinctions in behavior, this one probably has more to do with society and privilege than biology. According to the researchers, this difference in language use between men and women could reflect the power inequity between the genders surveyed. In other words, because men tend to have more societal power than women (surprise!), they’re at liberty to essentially beat around the bush and speak in lofty, vague abstractions and then receive praise for thinking in terms of the “big picture,” while women are forced to prioritize minute, practical and highly detailed speech in order to have any chance of being heard and taken seriously.

So while the notion that men — who are stereotypically seen as more grounded and practical than their effusive, emotional female counterparts — are more abstract speakers may come as a surprise to some, the news that men have the privilege to get away with speaking in vague abstractions is surprising to exactly no women anywhere.

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