Politics Pitfalls for Women- #2: Language Patterns

Losing Through Language

Deborah Tannen, in Talking from 9 to 5, and others have documented how women use different language patterns than men. It is not that these are mistakes in and of themselves, since they are simply different conventions. The risk occurs when women do not recognize how some habits are interpreted by some men. Both men AND women misinterpret their language differences, taking them too literally and attaching attributes too automatically instead of seeing them as mere habits that may not reflect deeper character traits. As we review in Organizational Savvy: Shattering the Glass Ceiling, here are a few areas to monitor that can impact the Corporate Buzz and political impact of women:

  • Self-Deprecating Patterns – Women use more tentative phrasing such as, “I might be wrong, but…,” “I haven’t totally thought this through, but…,” “sort of…,” “kind of…,” “I think… “ (instead of “I am sure, etc.”). They tend to add more qualifying language like, “I really worry that…” or “this is a very important initiative,” whereas men let their opinions stand without adding as many emphasis enhancers.
  • Criticism Patterns – Men may give negative feedback and constructive criticism more directly as “straight talk,” while women soften the feedback by coupling criticism with praise, placing criticism in the context of what’s good about the idea/product/report, etc., being more indirect, or empathizing with the receiver’s feelings. Men may view such qualifying behavior as weak, insecure, too nice, or wasting time. Conversely, men’s more direct language conventions may be interpreted by women as harsh when that may not be the intent.
  • Apologetic Patterns – Besides using softening, qualifying language when presenting ideas, women literally apologize more. Besides more frequently saying the actual words, “I’m sorry,” they use apologetic tones more when delegating or assigning a task, (e.g., “I hate to ask, but…”, or “I know you are swamped, but I have no one else as qualified…”, etc.). Women are more likely to say “I’m sorry” in ways that actually accept blame more than men, whose “I’m sorry” can come off more as either dismissive (e.g., “Sorry, but that’s the way it is…”) or as attributing the problem to external sources (e.g., “Sorry this  has happened to you.”).
  • Asking Direction Patterns – Similar to the husband who amazes his wife by driving around lost instead of stopping to ask for directions, research shows that women are more likely to ask for more workplace directions, clarity, or suggestions on how to execute project. This is intended to ensure quality, timeliness, and respect for a boss’ specifications. But some “buzz-ards” (men and women alike) may view such requests for guidance as too frequent, signals of less competence, clues to  less confidence, and as a one-down position. Be aware of your patterns and their impact.
  • Negotiation Patterns – During a  challenging negotiation or a conflict resolution meeting, women may open conversations by asking about the wishes of the other person (“Well, what is it you believe is the fair solution?” etc.), failing to see that others may view this as meaning they will too readily grant others’ desires. The woman may only use this approach to get each party’s opening positions out on the table for dialogue, but men may see a one-down posture and over-compliance.
  • Small Talk & Humor Patterns – This is obviously a cliché, but men are more likely to small talk about sports and politics before “getting down to business,” while women focus on personal lives, family, or their appearance (hair, fashion, etc.). Similarly, types of humor follow these lines, too, with men using more sarcastic (aka, side-ways anger!), oppositional, and put-down teasing, while women use more self-mocking humor. The impact is to create a less powerful image and cast women as too “soft.” Many coaches urge women to get on the wavelength of men by being able to “dish it out” more. They might consider getting on men’s pages more by adapting to learn more about topics that men discuss. (And, of course, the reverse is true as well!)

My next Women’s Politics Pitfalls blog will deal with several more classic female behavioral patterns inviting potentially risky Corporate Buzz, so that you are fully aware of patterns and their outcomes in the political arena. Stay tuned!