Men and women really are different — at least when it comes to word choice on Facebook. While we might want to think of ourselves as each a bright and unique snowflake, free from the gender binary system, computer algorithms can cut to the core: Statistical models can guess what gender a writer is with over 90 percent accuracy.
A study published today in PLOS One has taken the concept of gendered language even further. In a two-part study analyzing over 68,000 Facebook users, an international team of researchers found that the language used by women tends to be warmer — but no less assertive — than men.
In the first study, the team analyzed 10 million messages collected from 52,000 Facebook users who self-identified as men and women. These subjects were all willing participants drawn from a third-party application called MyPersonality. The average age of the user was 26 years old, but could be anywhere from 16 to 64 years of age. The researchers searched for gender-linked language features — words, phrases, and sentence lengths that were used by both genders. Because words aren’t the only way to express emotion on the internet, the team also used a “emoticon-aware” tokenizer that scraped the data for unconventional expressions like “WTF,” “!!!,” and “:).”
They found that the common theme within the men’s language were words that were connected to swearing, anger, and the discussion of objects instead of people — especially sports and “the government.” Comparatively, the topics most associated with women were friends, family, and having a social life. The topics were frequently linked to social emotions and reflected a sort of process — like “I miss my sister.”
In phase two, the researchers looked at the statuses and messages of 15,000 Facebook users and linked topics pulled to two interpersonal dimensions: Affiliation and interpersonal warmth versus impersonality and coldness, and assertiveness and dominance versus indirectness and passivity. They then compared how assertive the language used was to how assertive the user ranked on a 100-item personality measure that they had previously completed. Ultimately they found that women typically were more warmer, more compassionate, and slightly more assertive than men.
That said, while these results are obviously very real, it can be argued that they mean very little when trying to decipher the difference between men and women. That’s because people are becoming increasingly aware that the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mantra is a bullshit. Earlier this year, scientists concluded that the human brain doesn’t belong to one of two distinct categories — male brain or female brain. Our brains are comprised of unique “mosaics”, our actions shaped by lived experiences.
“One explanation for our finding of gender similarity in assertiveness may be found in social role theory, which holds that the disproportionate allocation of men and women into different social roles contributes to gender specific behavior,” write the authors of this language-based study.
Benevolent sexism is a real thing, constricting us into traditional gender roles. Sometimes that is evidenced in what careers people choose, and sometimes it’s demonstrated in the words we use on Facebook.