Mutual Misunderstanding
Talking from 9 to 5

Mutual Misunderstanding

Linguist Deborah Tannen explores the complexity of gender-based office communication and how it affects women.

From the 1970s to the early ’90s, linguist Deborah Tannen conducted research with men and women in professional jobs. The office behaviors she tracks in her 2001 classic recur to this day, while her newer books bring her work into today’s society.

Members of the baby boomer generation – the first to confront consciousness-raising on this subject – now dominate the typical office’s highest echelons, particularly in conservative industries. As they retire, they open opportunities for generation X and millennial leaders who grew up with stay-at-home dads, doctors of both genders and commanding female role models, including CEOs and high-ranking politicians.

Cultural Norms and Changes

Tannen’s doctoral studies in linguistics alerted her to the influence that cultural norms exert on speech and behavior. Children copy their role models’ speech to earn acceptance. They absorb cultural cues from their region, socioeconomic class and ethnicity.

Women and men pay a price if they do not behave in ways expected of their gender.Deborah Tannen

Tannen explains her premise: At the time of her research, she found that the most pervasive, influential cultural traditions involve gender expectations. Boys learn to compete for status while creating social connections. Girls learn to compete for social connections while achieving status. Boys grow up in hierarchies. Girls tend to avoid leadership and express ideas as suggestions to benefit the group. Boys use bluster to cover doubts about their competence; girls downplay their knowledge and ability to gain acceptance.

In the workplace, men use teasing in conversations to encourage opposition, while women’s discussions aim for equality and empathy. Men in power in a workplace shape the predominant atmosphere and, thus, generate male communication patterns that women find hard to navigate. Tannen reports that adults repeat in their offices the behavior she found on children’s playgrounds.

Men who are not very aggressive are called ‘wimps’…this can hurt them, but not nearly as much as the innumerable labels for women who are thought to be too aggressive – starting with the most hurtful one: ‘bitch’.Deborah Tannen

She found these tendencies: Men avoid asking questions that expose their ignorance. They may see women seeking information as decisive. Yet, cultural expectations dictate that women must display feminine humility or risk ostracism. Men and women face particularly difficult gender communication disparities when discussing new ideas, seeking team input on a project, attempting humor, or exchanging compliments and complaints.

Tannen interviewed many women for whom “I’m sorry” can be either a “ritual” expression of sympathy or the first step in restoring emotional balance. She found that women who offer a ritual apology expect one in return. When a woman apologizes, however, male colleagues may assume she is to blame. 

Hitting the Glass Ceiling

Studies conducted in the 1990s show that most women – at the time – adapted their behavior to mimic men. In 1991, women held only 5% to 6.5% of executive-level positions in the largest US corporations. Women then tended to favor unobtrusive methods for preventing or avoiding obstacles, while men preferred the “white knight” method that allows problems to erupt and gives them an opportunity to save the day.

A man can choose a style that will not attract attention or subject him to any particular interpretation, but a woman can’t.Deborah Tannen

Tannen found that the narrow limits of a professional man’s wardrobe – dark suits, pale shirts – allow him a degree of freedom because uniformity resists cultural labeling. The multiple choices a professional woman faces in her clothing, hairstyle and makeup leave her more vulnerable to being categorized. This seems still notably accurate.

Women in Charge

Tannen’s study of women in authority found that they conformed to a toned-down style that eroded the respect they received, a choice they made because asserting themselves invited disapproval. The female conversational rituals Tannen observed emphasized equality and emotional support. This emphasis poses the risk that a male who can’t read his female colleague’s signals may assume that she is either incompetent or domineering. Male subordinates tended to challenge any woman who takes a role formerly held by a man.

Tannen explains that ambiguous behaviors by both genders can hold double meanings that amount to comments about status and connection: A friend who grabs the check may be flaunting his or her wealth and simultaneously showing generosity. Using first names may exude amiability, but it suggests a lack of respect.

Nowhere is the double meaning of status and connection clearer than in the use of first names.Deborah Tannen

Giving compliments implies holding superior status that enables one to make judgments. Making others wait for you is a power play, often male.

Cultural boundaries that hamper a woman’s job performance restrict her in business gatherings. Many women pepper their suggestions with humble disclaimers. If interrupted, they wait to continue. If met with groundless opposition, they compromise or retreat.

The 21st-Century 9-to-5 World

Cultural expectations about gender can fuel ambiguous behaviors, including sexual harassment. The paradigm of a powerful man is one who subdues a woman. In the 1990s, Tannen found this kind of diminution and efforts to demean women’s status took the form of sexual taunts and mock threats of sexual violence. Whether that remains as true in the 2020s world of more empowered women and publicity, laws and lawsuits about sexual harassment isn’t in the book’s purview, but one can hope.

It is not only useful but necessary to understand the cultural patterns that influence our ways of speaking. Not talking about them doesn’t make the stereotypes go away.Deborah Tannen

In her research, Tannen found that few of the most blatant offenders seemed to face consequences. In light of modern awareness, sexual harassment today appears more outrageous, more scorned and, perhaps, more frequently punished. Yet, despite dramatic gains in gender equality, gender-based styles continue to hold women back. Daily headlines demonstrate the truth of Tannen’s observations about how and why an ambitious, commanding woman risks ostracism from peers of both genders.

Ever Relevant

Any professional, male or female, will welcome this accessible guide to navigating the spoken and unspoken social cues that can lead to success or sabotage it. Even though the book dates from 2001, Tannen’s seminal manual continues to offer insights about the undercurrents swirling through offices and professional interactions. She applies sensitivity to a range of issues involving cultural and gender diversity. Drawing from her groundbreaking work, today’s professionals can learn to recognize different cultural outlooks and to be respectful and flexible. Willingness to cooperate with people who have diverse conversational styles can allow potent collaboration. Tannen’s cogent insights and practical suggestions make her work an ever-relevant classic.

Deborah Tannen also wrote You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation; That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes and Breaks Relationships; Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends; You’re Wearing That: Understanding Mothers and Daughters? and other titles.

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