Who gets heard, who gets credit, who gets ahead, what gets done?

People have different conversational styles, influenced by the part of the country they grew up in, their ethnic backgrounds and those of their parents, their age, class, gender and so on.

Deborah Tannen, is a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. One of her many books,Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work’ offers a thorough, detailed, nuanced, and balanced assessment of gender differences in conversation in western society. It shows how women’s and men’s ways of speaking affect who gets heard, who gets credit, who gets ahead, and what gets done in the workplace.

In her research Professor Tannen discovered that in communication, men tend to be competitive and avoid putting themselves in a one-down position and this is sourced right back to the playground. Women’s communication style, by contrast, tends to be ritualistic in nature. Girls are trained in play and early peer groups to stand back, be humble, and dare not look too sure of themselves (because you wouldn’t want to be seen as bossy! The shame!). Women tend to put themselves down to make other person comfortable, however, there is an expectation the other person to bring them back up or put themselves down in return in order to equalise relationship again. The ritual depends on mutuality.

Professor Tannen emphasises that both styles make sense and are equally valid in themselves, though the difference in styles may cause trouble in interaction. A woman who tries hard to keep everyone equal, works hard to save face for the other, and self-deprecates as a strategy, expecting the ritualistic re-balancing, combined with a man who takes advantage of the one-up position that has conveniently presented itself and doesn’t redress the balance. The man here is likely to come off as more powerful and with an advantage, or the resulting miscommunication may strain the relationship.

Advice about assertive communication, leadership and power cannot be ‘one-size-fits-all’. Many books and much advice have little gender analysis. For example, advice offered in the book Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer on how to exude power suggests that you display dominant behaviour when interacting with others for example display your anger when you disagree and you will, therefore, be perceived as strong, competent and smart. Actually, this behaviour may well end badly for a woman. When men are authoritative and voice their opinions, they may be respected. When women do exactly the same thing, they are often criticised and dismissed.

One broad strategy that can help women is that of meta-communication: verbalizing or explaining what you are thinking. Of course, women shouldn’t have to adapt to sexism or unfit workplaces or discrimination and bias however, research does offer strategies to help. Change towards inclusion, equity, and diversity needs to occur across society, across generations, at all levels of organization, and in personal and public domains. Bottom up change involves putting pressure on the system with small, achievable, realistic changes of behaviour – behaviours more within your control. It is indeed not sufficient, but still necessary.

Metacommunication in Action

  • Rather than only asking “What do people think?” you could say “This is how I see it (insert opinion here) … I’m curious to know what others think”.
  • To avoid appearing like you can’t make a decision, you could explain “I will be making the final decision but I’m interested in your views”.
  • Help others understand your reactions. “I’m not upset. I’m concerned about …” or “I’m not upset, I’ve got a strong opinion on this”.
  • If you are angry you could say something like “If I look angry that’s because I am angry” and go on to explain how what they are doing compromises the organisations objectives, or values. If you’re not angry you can explain “I’m not angry, this is urgent/important”.

It is an extra step but metacommunication can help circumvent gender-based assumptions and misunderstandings.

I’d love to hear other ideas of how work around gender-based communication assumptions and misunderstandings. Let me know in the comments section and don’t forget to share if you think someone you know else might be interested.

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