It is my goal in this essay is to argue that that is a silly question and to say why.
If you are the one who is asking a question, it is tough, sometimes, when the response comes in the form of another question. Most of the time, this is just for fun. Here, for instance, is one version of a joke I have heard in several dozen versions, all set in Jewish communities, for some reason.
“Rabbi, I notice that you often answer my question by asking another question. Why do you do that?”
“And why isn’t a question a good answer?”
Sometimes the issue is more serious. Here’s the best one I ran into in grad school.
“Why are swans white?”
“Why do you want to know?”
That could be taken as an abrupt response, I’ll grant you, but the “white swan” question is commonly used in philosophy. The second speaker represented the discipline of the philosophy of science and the point he wanted to make by his question is that the answer to the question will depend entirely on the reason for wanting to know. There is no good answer, in other words, that does not take into account the reason for asking the question.
So here’s a question for you: “Are men smarter than women?” To that question, the best response I know is, “Why do you want to know?” I have no confidence that the question can be formulated in a way that will allow it to be studied carefully. I don’t want to have to do that and I don’t want to have to read how anyone else did that. My interest is completely taken up by the person who thinks it is a question worth asking.
Here’s a related, but better question. Do men talk more than women? Here is a piece Anna North wrote about that. She cites studies, the conclusion of which is: sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. To me, that means that the reason for the question needs to be explored a little more or that the question needs to be reformulated.
Let’s say that you are a woman who is seriously chapped about the “myth” that women talk more than men. The image that comes to mind is the husband and wife at home. She chatters on and on, “sharing” her day, passing along the gossip, tossing off her opinions of people he doesn’t really care about. He sits there reading the paper and grunting affirmatively every now and then or, in a more modern version, smiling compliantly while texting to friends or colleagues. If you are the woman who is irked by this stereotype, you could deal with your irritation in any of several ways.
You could, for instance, operationalize “talk,” measure the amount of it engaged in by men and by women over the course of the study and publish the results. There! Easy. That deals with her concern. Now let’s deal with mine. The result of this “study” is that the irked woman is satisfied. It’s like scratching an itch. The result of this study is not that we learned anything at all significant about “men” and “women.” We didn’t learn what people mean when they say that women talk more than men. We didn’t learn what “talk” means in that question.
So here are two ideas I think are better.
Let’s say that a neighborhood group gets together to have dinner and watch “the game.” You see this coming, right? The women sit around the dining room table after dinner and talk about who’s wearing what, who’s dating whom, and whether the district manager is more or less a sexist pig than the regional manager. The men sit around the TV and talk about whether the 3-4 defense is better or worse than the 4-3, about whether Ford or Chevy makes a better pickup, and about the hot new receptionist at work.
Is the one group “talking” and the other not? Obviously not. But what if it worked this way? Men, listening to the conversation the women are having, multiply the number of words because they don’t care about the various topics of discussion and don’t feel that they are obliged to respect the interest those topics might have for the women. Women, listening to the conversation the men are having, divide the number of words by the number of topics because, although they don’t really care, they do respect the idea that the men care.
The conclusion of this “study” would be that the accounting system women use is a great deal more tolerant of “man-talk” than the system the men use is of “woman-talk.” This conclusion is not about men and women. It is not about gendered styles of conversation. It is about gendered styles of evaluating conversation. This could be made to “look mathematical” (= respectable) by saying that in evaluating women’s conversation, the men multiply the number of words by the respect factor (varies from 1.0 to 10.0, with 1 representing the greater tolerance and 10 the least). So a conversation of 1000 words could be judged to have as many as 10,000 words. How much cotton candy does it take to make a pound of cotton candy?
For women, evaluating men’s conversation, divide the number of words by the respect factor. So a conversation of 1000 words could be judged to have as few as 100. Men, you know, like to talk about “heavy topics” like the invulnerability of mobile missile systems and the vulnerability of mobile quarterbacks.
Methodologically, this is nonsense, of course, but it illustrates the idea that the variation is in the assessment and that the heart of the two assessments is a judgment about whether “that kind of talk” is worthwhile, even for the people who are using it. On the other hand, if you change the echoic “blah” in this cartoon to the historical “bar-” you get the English word barbarian. You were listening to someone whose language you didn’t understand and it all sounded like bar, bar, bar, to you. They must be, you know, bar-barians.
Another way to come at the question is to look at kinds of conversations. The theory here is that it is the kind of conversation it is that determines how many and what kinds of words are required. It is not the gender of the speakers. Let’s say that status claiming is an activity that takes a lot of words. Let’s say that offering tactical efficiency is an activity that takes very few words. Those are crude categories, but this is a crude distinction, so it all works out well. That means that men involved in the activity of claiming a status will use a great many words and that women involved in that same activity will also use a great many words. It means that men involved in representing themselves as efficient tacticians will use only a few words and that women also, in representing themselves that way, will use only a few words.
Let’s just say that is true; just for the moment. So I survey the work settings and I discover that men talk a great deal more than women. I have recorded everything; I have done word counts; I am going to call it science. I will not notice that 75% of the activities engaging the men are status claiming activities and that 75% of the activities engaging the women are representations of tactical efficiency.
So here is something else worth knowing. Knowing what kinds of activities require what volume of words is worth knowing. It is particularly worth knowing if the effectiveness with which the goal is achieved varies with the number of words.
I would be perfectly happy, as the researcher, to have someone ask me, “Why do you want to know?” To the first study—the game in the living room, gossip in the dining room study—the answer is this: if the judgment is based on predictable variations in the process by which each group assesses the other, that would be good to know. It could save us from thinking we are drawing conclusions about the conversations when we are only exercising different metrics.
About the second study—the status claiming and tactical efficiency study—the answer is this: if the judgment is based on the requirements of the task, that too would be good to know. It could save us from thinking we are drawing conclusions about the people doing the tasks (we are not) instead of about the requirements of the task itself.
Honestly, I cannot think of a good reason for wanting to know whether men talk more than women or women more than men. All the reasons I can think of invite invidious distinctions and that is an invitation I will want to just leave in my inbox.
 For one thing, you would have to provide specific procedures for identifying and measuring all instances of “smart.” You would have to, to say the same thing another way, “operationalize” smart.
 We could say that it deals with her prurient interest. I would want to say that, although it isn’t true, because I have just learned that the English prurient comes from the Latin pruire, “to itch.”
 We use “status” to mean “high status.” I wish we didn’t, but we do.