Dado Ruvic/Reuters
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SEMANTICS

A new study shows just how differently men and women speak on Facebook

By Marta Cooper

Ten million status updates from tens of thousands of Facebook users seem to confirm it: men and women do speak a different language.

A team of computer scientists and psychologists from the universities of Pennsylvania, Melbourne, Cambridge and Stony Brook analyzed two years’ worth of status updates to try to discern the differences in how men and women express themselves. In the first study, the team looked at groups of semantically similar words (known as “topics”) across 10 million status updates from more than 52,000 users. They found that the language used more by women was “interpersonally warmer, more compassionate and polite,” whereas that used more by men was “colder, more hostile, and impersonal.”

The topics most strongly linked to women included words that had positive connotations, such as “excited” and “happy”, and social relationships, such as “friends” or “family”. The words more frequently used by men included those related to politics, such as “tax” or “political”, and sports or competition, such as “football” or “battle”.

In the second study, the team used a sample of more than 15,000 Facebook users and plotted the male- and female-associated topics in relation to two interpersonal dimensions: affiliation (language that included more statements of support and understanding) and assertiveness (such as criticisms, imperative statements or disagreements).

Compared to past research, the authors noticed that there was a similar level of assertiveness between men and women. They explain that male participants were more likely to use language that was “both highly assertive and colder (e.g., swearing, criticism, controversial topics), while women were more likely to use language that was highly assertive but also warmer (e.g., expressions of positive emotion and warmth towards others).”

The researchers aren’t certain why this occurred. ”We could be capturing a cohort shift over time, where women are becoming more assertive in nature. This would align with the social trend of more women in the workplace and in leadership positions,” explains co-author Dr. Margaret L. Kern, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Positive Psychology. It could also be a characteristic of Facebook itself. ”People are ‘friends’, which is an equalizer. There are not the hierarchical relationships that can influence assertiveness.”

The study has its limitations: The researchers note that other dimensions besides affiliation and assertiveness could be studied in future work, and concede that users’ behaviour and self-presentation may be different on social media compared to an offline context.