You might think men are more assertive online, but really they just swear more.
By Nathan Collins
(Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
The stereotype is simple: Women are supposed to be warmer, more caring, and more deferential than men, who are supposed to be colder, harder, and more assertive. But that’s only partly true on social media, according to a new study of thousands of Facebook posts: Women are nicer, but they are also slightly more assertive than men.
While society certainly seems to expect women will be shrinking violets, whether that’s ever actually been the case is less clear. A 1977 review found little evidence for overall differences in assertiveness between the sexes, although it did find differences in what men and women were assertive about: Men reported being more confident in the workplace, while women reported being more assertive about expressing love and anger. More recently, studies have shown that women are much less likely to negotiate job offers, but not because they’re inherently less self-assured—it’s because they pay a social cost for sticking up for themselves.
“The online network environment may act as a social equalizer.”
Still, there’s one area where women really do appear to be less assertive: language. According to a 2007 review, women speak and write in less assertive, more acknowledging and supportive ways than men. On the other hand, the differences were small and depended on context, such as whether men and women were discussing personal topics or deliberating specific issues.
In an effort to sort some of this out, Gregory Park, David Yaden, and their colleagues turned to a new source of data: millions of Facebook status updates written by 52,401 users who participated through the MyPersonality Facebook application. Using statistical methods rather than potentially biased human judgment, the team identified 1,281 topics that had some link to gender—men talked more about football and speed metal, for example, while women posted more about relationships and shopping.
Next, the researchers looked at the posts of 15,827 additional Facebook users who had taken a 100-question personality survey, which, among other things, assessed assertiveness and affiliation—that is, how supportive and acknowledging someone is. Then, by assigning each of those users’ posts to one of the topics identified in the study’s first phase, the researchers could examine the links between topic, assertiveness and affiliation, and gender—in particular, whether women’s language, rather than their underlying personalities traits, differed from men’s.
As previous results suggested, women did use more affiliative language than men, but, contrary to expectations, they were no less assertive than men—if anything, they were more assertive—but in somewhat different ways. Women’s assertiveness had a warmer, more agreeable, gregarious, and extroverted tone, while the male version involved more swearing.
Exactly why those results emerged is unclear, the researchers say, but may have something to do with the nature of online social media. “The online network environment may act as a social equalizer, placing users at different power levels into similar social roles—everyone is a ‘friend,’” the research team writes. “These factors may decrease the salience of gender roles in online contexts that create differences in assertive and submissive behavior in other situations.”