Adolescent Gender Differences in Time Alone and Time Devoted to Conversation

By Smith, Thomas Ewin | Adolescence, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Gender Differences in Time Alone and Time Devoted to Conversation


Smith, Thomas Ewin, Adolescence


One of the most important gender differences in western civilization involves the amount of emphasis placed on interpersonal relationships. Such relationships, especially those that are more intimate, are more salient in the lives of women and adolescent girls than in those of men and adolescent boys (Bakan, 1966; Buhrmester & Furman, 1987; Bush & Simmons, 1988; Chodorow, 1978; Gilligan, 1982; Richards et al., 1990). Since emphasis on interpersonal relationships would be expected to encourage an individual to spend time with people rather than alone and to communicate with others through conversation, it was hypothesized that females would spend more time in conversation and less time alone than would males. The present research tested these hypotheses in adolescence, the period when various gender differences increase, according to developmental theory and extensive research (Buhrmester & Furman 1987; Buch & Simmons, 1988; Galambos, Almeida, & Petersen 1990; Hill & Lynch, 1983; Simmons & Blyth 1987). It was assumed that testing the hypotheses in a diverse sample of adolescents would contribute to our knowledge of the development of gender differences with regard to interpersonal relationships.

The prediction in the hypothesis pertaining to conversation time had already been supported empirically, using a different data-gathering method in a different type of population. Raffaelli and Duckett (1989) found that females devoted substantially more time than did males to conversation. They studied 401 fifth through ninth grade students in two predominantly white middle- and working-class suburban communities in the Midwest. They used the "experience sampling" method (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson 1984), which requires subjects to answer questions about their current situation in a booklet when they are beeped on an electronic pager. The students were paged seven times per day for a week, for a total of 49 occasions. Using this procedure, Raffaelli and Duckett (1989) obtained estimates of the proportion of their time the students spent talking, topics of conversation, companions, and affect. Girls spent significantly more time talking than did boys. Friends were the conversational companions of girls significantly more than of boys. In their conversations with friends, girls talked more about people and personal concerns (further supporting the feminine emphasis on interpersonal relationships), while boys talked more about sports and leisure activities. All of the gender differences increased with age in the sample of fifth through ninth grade students. Boys and girls did not differ significantly in reported affect during conversation.

Like the work of Raffaelli and Duckett (1989), the present research tested for a gender difference in time devoted to conversation, but it used a different method of data collection in a markedly different kind of sample. This allowed for assessment of whether the gender difference in conversation time was generalizable across methods and populations. Instead of a predominantly white sample of 401 fifth through ninth grade students from middle- and working-class suburban midwestern families, the present study used data from 2,004 black and white seventh and ninth graders from public, private, and parochial schools, including urban, suburban, and rural residents and a full range of socioeconomic status, in a southeastern metropolitan area.

Instead of the "experience sampling" method, the present study used retrospective self-reports of average time spent in conversation and alone. The weaknesses and strengths of this method are different from those of the "experience sampling" approach. The strengths of the "experience sampling" method are the precise information on whether the subject is engaged in conversation at specific points in time, along with adjunct information on companions, topics, and affect. Its weakness is that the highly specific information may, at times, give a distorted picture of the subject's long-term general behavior; a specific week in an individual's life may be atypical. …

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