Deborah Tannen’s 1990 best-seller You Just Don’t Understand documented how men’s and women’s different conversational styles can cause miscommunication and strife on the home front. In her new book, Talking From 9 to 5 (Morrow), Tannen, 49, applies a similar analysis to life in the office. For Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who is married to literature professor Michael Macovski, 42, her investigations in the workplace were eye-opening. “I was surprised at how different conversations at work are from private conversations,” says Tannen, who is accustomed to laboring in the solitude of her home study and the controlled environment of the classroom. “What you say at work is constantly being judged by others. You don’t get a report card telling how you communicated, but it is reflected in promotions, raises and assignments.” She spoke with Washington correspondent Jane Sims Podesta.
Are the male and female communication styles described in You Just Don’t Understand evident at work?
Yes, they are. Women often use indirect, self-deprecating language and couch things in a way that allows the other person to save face, which can be easily misinterpreted by men. For example, a woman running a meeting might say to a subordinate who comes unprepared, “I’m sorry I didn’t remind you that issue was coming up today.” She expects him to say, “I really should have known. You told me about the meeting.” But instead he may be silent and think, “If she wants to take the blame, let her.”
What are the consequences of this for working women?
A self-effacing style can backfire in the workplace because it appears to undercut a woman’s authority. Almost every woman I know has had the experience of saying something in a meeting and being ignored. Then a man says essentially the same thing, and everybody picks up on it as a great idea. Sometimes a woman will preface her remark by saying something like, “I don’t know if you already thought about this…” But she may be ignored no matter how she speaks.
I also discovered that if a man and a woman talk the same amount at a meeting, people will think the woman talked too much. All of this indicates that, for the most part, conversations in the workplace are still conducted according to boys’ rules.
What is the basis of these boys’ rules?
They are the outgrowth of the way boys and girls relate to same-sex peers as children. Research shows that if there is one girl with a group of boys, they tend to ignore or ridicule her. But if there is one boy in a group of girls, they tend to treat him as a leader. Research also shows that from the time they are very young, boys tend to organize themselves in much more hierarchical groups than girls. The boys don’t all have equal status. They are constantly aware that the way they talk raises or lowers their standing in a group. They tend to avoid blame, avoid admitting ignorance and pretend to know what they don’t know.
Girls learn at a very early age that they are not supposed to boast or talk about accomplishments or stand out in any way. In girls’ groups, if someone takes center stage and shows she knows more, there is often a negative reaction to her. And if a girl has the temerity to try to tell other girls what to do, she is called bossy.
How does this end up being played out in the workplace?
A woman manager typically downplays her authority in order to keep everyone on equal footing. She might say to her employees, “Tell me what you think about this.” She sees this as a way of giving everyone an opportunity to be heard—and avoiding the bad reaction that many people have to a woman acting like a boss, even if she is a boss. But the men may come away thinking, “Well, she doesn’t know what to do, so she’s trying to get us to decide.”
But doesn’t this indirect approach often work?
Yes. In some cases it may actually be a very effective form of management, even if it is not always recognized as such. A woman university president told me about the time a male board member visited her and overheard her telling a secretary, “Could you do me a favor and type this paper?” Afterward the board member said, “Don’t forget you are the president.” In terms of getting the work done, this woman president’s style of communication worked great. But the male board member evaluated it negatively.
In other words, there’s a difference between performance and the perception of performance?
Exactly. Styles that women use seem to be extremely effective for getting work done but may be less effective in getting credit for it. Which is not to say that plenty of men don’t also feel uncomfortable boasting. If these men have done a good job, they expect that if they just do it quietly, other people will recognize and reward them. Then they are shocked when they see someone who runs down the hall and is always telling the boss what “we” did—even if he didn’t have anything to do with it—getting the rewards. It’s frustrating for anyone when that happens, but it’s more common among women to be the ones who don’t parade their accomplishments.
So are you saying working women need to learn to play by boys’ rules?
I never say anyone should stop talking the way they do. But sometimes women may have to push themselves to act in ways that don’t feel natural—finding some compromise between talking in ways that are expected of women and talking in ways that are expected in the workplace—because the office is still more congenial to men’s style.
What’s the best way to go about making that change?
Step No. 1 is to become aware of the constraints you are working under. The key to conversation at work is flexibility and understanding how what you say might be perceived by others. If you study the styles of people you talk with at work, you will soon recognize whether they respond best to a direct or an indirect order and you can act accordingly.
But whatever you do, don’t feel compelled to constantly say, “I’m sorry,” when you don’t mean it, which is one typical mutual face-saving ritual for women. If you really feel something isn’t your fault, don’t claim responsibility. Bite your tongue.