Professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Tannen is probably best known for her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which resonated with audiences nationwide. Since then she’s written about speaking styles within all types of relationships, including mothers and daughters, sisters, adults in families and people at work.
At NIH, she revisited sex differences with her lecture, “Can We Talk? How Gender and Culture Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Ahead and What Gets Done at Work.”
More than categorizing speech patterns as male or female, however, she said it’s our ability to read “conversational rituals” that makes us better communicators.
Not Just He Said, She Said
“[Of course, there are] ways of speaking that are common among women and ways of speaking that are common among men, but we all know that no two women and men are the same,” she explained. “In addition…we have other influences on our ways of speaking—cultural differences, ethnic differences, what part of the country or what country you grew up in, age, class differences, sexual orientation, the kind of work that you do. Geographers versus psychologists versus engineers versus scientists versus administrators will have different ways of speaking that they’ve developed over time.”
Tannen said two kinds of power exist in the workplace: institutional power based on your rank in an organization and interactional power, which is your ability to get things done because of the way you communicate and the way you do things. You may be able to harness the second kind to increase the first kind, she suggested.
Tannen says two kinds of power exist in the workplace: institutional power based on your rank in an organization and interactional power, which is your ability to get things done because of the way you communicate and the way you do things. You may be able to harness the second kind to increase the first kind.
Photos: Bill Branson
She began by showing video clips of children interacting. Turns out, the way we play with our friends as youngsters pretty much shapes the way we communicate for the rest of our lives. Early in life, it seems, we develop conversational rituals—girls, for example, tend to face each other when they talk; boys, not so much.
In general, girls don’t give direct orders and tend to have one best friend they confide in. They like to establish bonds of sameness, i.e., “Your favorite color is red? So is mine.” Boys, on the other hand, use language to negotiate their position. Whoever tells others what to do, and gets it to stick, rises in the group. Play fighting, or one-upping each other, is a common dynamic among young males.
Despite these patterns, Tannen said no way is right or wrong. If the goal is accomplished then the ritual is deemed successful.
More important, she said, is acknowledging that we interpret others in terms of ourselves. “You must mean or feel what I would mean or feel if I spoke or behaved that way,” she said. “If you don’t recognize the way of speaking as a ritual, then you interpret the words literally.”
It’s these misinterpretations and faulty impressions we form that can complicate communication anywhere, particularly in the workplace.
For example, many ways that women have of telling people what to do or getting work done lead to them being seen as less competent or less confident than they really are.
Who’s Sorry Now?
Tannen says two words used more often by women than men are frequently misunderstood: “I’m sorry.” She explained that women frequently use the words to convey regret about an unfortunate situation, not to accept blame. Men, however, often interpret the words as an apology or admission of fault. But, women may not be saying, “Sorry—my mistake.” Instead, they’re saying, “Sorry—too bad you have to deal with this.”
Damned If You Do…
Tannen also talked briefly about a concept known since the 1950s as the “double bind,” or what can be filed under the heading You Can’t Win Either Way.
If women behave in ways traditionally associated with females, then they could be seen as lacking confidence or competence. If they act in ways associated with authority, which are more commonly attributed to males, then women could get labeled “bossy” (or another b word not polite for describing humans).
“Anything you do that fulfills one requirement violates another,” Tannen explained.
Men’s double bind may not seem like a problem at first. Should they treat female colleagues exactly the same way they treat male colleagues? The knee-jerk response is yes. Consider the traditional handshake, though. Some regional customs, particularly in the South, say it is impolite for a man to extend his hand to shake a woman’s hand before she offers hers. What should a man sacrifice—chivalry or equality?
The way the sexes handle small talk also tends to differ, according to Tannen. Whereas many women exchange compliments, many men exchange playful insults. In addition, often men explore ideas by a ritual called “dynamic opposition,” or playing devil’s advocate. Identifying the ritual at work can prevent some female coworkers from taking such opposition literally, or personally. Often it’s not what you say, but how you say it.
Learning to balance your expectations against the rituals others might have is the key to successful workplace interactions, she concluded.
Tannen ended the session by taking audience questions. NIH’ers can watch the whole lecture online at http://videocast.nih.gov/ under Past Events.