Communicating in the Workplace

by Melanie Steimle

Did you read the recent New York Times article, “Speaking While Female,” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant? In the article the authors examine why women are more likely than men not to speak up at work. Sandberg and Grant share anecdotes and studies that confirm that women are less likely to make themselves heard and more likely to be judged harshly when they do speak up. My question is, why? What is it about our culture and about communication styles that put women at a disadvantage at work? I recently read the book Talking from 9-5, by linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen, which provides an in-depth exploration of gender and communication in the workplace.

Tannen’s discussion is based on the premise that American men and women are socially and culturally conditioned to see the world in distinctly different ways. Men are oriented toward hierarchy; their aim is either to preserve their status or increase it. Women are oriented toward equality; their aim is to create and preserve harmony. Of course, most or all of this is subconscious and these are generalities. Men can be inclusive and women can be competitive, but generally speaking, men are inclined toward status and women toward harmony. This plays out in a number of different ways, which are discussed at length in Tannen’s book. There are way too many interesting ideas to include in this post (read the book!), but here are a few examples that I found particularly enlightening:

Confidence: Men tend to state their opinions and ideas in the strongest terms possible and expect that others will challenge them. In American society, this is interpreted as confidence. Because women are inclined toward equality and harmony, they will often soften orders to sound like suggestions (“maybe we should” or “I could be mistaken, but…”) so as not to appear better than anyone else in the group. Because workplaces are traditionally oriented toward the male style of communication, women are often perceived as lacking confidence and competence. However, when women adapt their communication styles to be more direct and authoritative (i.e. to sound more like men), they are often perceived as bossy, aggressive, and abrasive.

Humor: Tannen states that in the workplace men most often use “razzing, teasing, and mock-hostile attacks” as a form of humor, while women tend to use self-mockery. Both forms of humor can be fine, as long as the other party or parties understand what is intended; however, men and women often misunderstand each other’s humor. Women can take men’s teasing as hostile or personal and men can misunderstand women’s self-mockery as lack of confidence or worth.

Interruptions: As mentioned above, in typical male communication, men expect to be interrupted and challenged. They will often speak until interrupted and view interruptions as a sign that the interrupter is engaged in the conversation or that the interrupter has a higher degree of authority than the speaker. Women typically speak in more of a give-and-take style. Although speech between women often overlaps (which can sound a lot like interrupting), women will often pause or create breaks in conversation in order for other speakers to participate. This difference in conversational styles was very apparent to me in a conversation with a colleague who is a typical male communicator. He kept talking and talking and talking, and I realized that if I wanted to express my thoughts, I would have to interrupt. When I did interject, he seemed to take it as a matter of course, and the conversation continued naturally. He may not have realized that I was waiting for him to pause and invite me into the conversation,but because of what I knew from reading Tannen’s book, I understood that it was unlikely he would view my interruption as rude. (This is not to say that men never find interruptions impolite but that they are more accepted in men’s conversation than in women’s.)

Sexual Harassment: Because violence against women exists, “women often perceive the specter of violence lurking when they are in the company of men.” That’s certainly not to say that all men are violent, only that, in situations in which a man has literal or figurative power over a woman, the woman is probably at least minimally aware that the possibility of violence exists. This is why actions or remarks that are not at all intended to be intimidating or threatening can be interpreted as such by a woman. Because a man is not aware of the possibility of violence, a woman’s claim that his remark or action was threatening seems like an overreaction or an insult. For men, the aspect of sexual harassment that brings the most fear is the possibility of a false charge. For women, this fear can seem like a dismissal of the fact that violence against and harassment of women is much more common than false charges (despite what is sometimes portrayed in the media), yet the reality doesn’t change the power of the fear.

It’s important to note that Tannen frequently emphasizes that no one communication style is better, right, or wrong. She also doesn’t provide any easy answers. Although most work places are oriented toward the male style of communication, women often encounter problems when they change their communication style to be more masculine. The one solution Tannen does recommend is awareness and understanding. She says, “I would argue for flexibility and mutual understanding. The frustration of both genders will be reduced, and companies as well as individuals will benefit, if women and men…understand each other’s styles.”

Reading Talking from 9-5 and another of Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, has been an extremely enlightening experience for me. I’ve begun to recognize many of the patterns and rituals that she describes, and I hopefully have a better understanding of the meaning or motivation behind how ideas, suggestions, and problems are communicated. I’d recommended either of these two books to anyone who has ever been confused by how a member of the opposite sex communicates (which is pretty much everyone).

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