He-Said, She-Said: Exploring Workplace Communication Styles

a woman smiling for a portrait

Women in leadership roles sometimes speak in ways that can make them appear less confident or even competent than they are, said Dr. Deborah Tannen, a distinguished university professor in the linguistics department at Georgetown University, in her keynote address on April 24 for Weill Cornell Medicine’s fifth annual Diversity Week.

“When we’re talking, we’re not just communicating information—we’re also communicating impressions of our abilities and intentions,” Dr. Tannen said. “When individuals’ ways of speaking are different, those conclusions may well be wrong.”

Dr. Tannen’s lecture, “Women and Men at Work: Let’s Talk (and Communicate),” was part of a series of events to mark Diversity Week, which celebrates Weill Cornell Medicine’s commitment to greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in academic medicine and health care. She drew heavily from her research for the New York Times Business best seller “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” showing the audience video clips of interactions between women and men in workplace leadership positions to illustrate differences in how the sexes tend to—and are expected to—communicate, that begin in childhood.

“Has any woman in the room been told, ‘Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault?’” she asked. “It’s true that women tend to say I’m sorry more than men, but often it’s not an apology—it means, ‘I’m sorry that happened.’ But women may be heard as saying something is their fault. It can help to point out how you meant it.”

In her lecture, Dr. Tannen, a frequent guest on major television and radio shows who has authored 13 books, also showed video clips illustrating how men in leadership are more likely to frame requests of subordinates as direct imperatives. Conversely, she showed examples of women in similar positions framing requests in ways that avoid giving direct orders, such as “You know what I would do?” or “…what you could do?” or using intonation that sounds like a question when it’s not.

“I asked managers what makes a good manager and heard from women, ‘I treat my subordinates as equals.’ Of course they are not equals in rank; their authority is a given, so the idea is, ‘I don’t have to rub their nose in it,’” Dr. Tannen said. “But this too can be interpreted as lacking confidence.”

Conversations between the sexes are often similar to cross-cultural communication, so it’s crucial to try to bridge the gap by understanding that another person may not mean or feel what you would mean or feel if you spoke as they did in that context, she noted.

“It’s like trying to join a line of dancers and you can’t pick up the rhythm,” Dr. Tannen said. “But the higher up you are in an organization, the more incumbent it is on you to ask, ‘Am I judging someone inaccurately, because their style differs from mine?’”

Conversations are like rituals, with built-in expectations of what others—based on sex, among many other factors—will say, and how. “But if you develop an awareness of conversation routines and rituals and become an observer, you can try speaking differently if you’re not happy with the response you’re getting, and double-check that your judgements of others are accurate.

“We think we can look through language to see what a person means and to judge their abilities and intentions,” Dr. Tannen added. “But once you realize you’re judging based on language, you have a better chance of understanding others and being better understood yourself. It really comes down to mutual respect, to just realize that people are different in these ways.”

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