In a recent webinar on using strong language in emails and verbally, we were looking at diagrams which displayed how a hedge “I’m not sure if anyone else agrees, but I think we need to look at….” could be replaced with a stronger opening such as “In my experience, we must address….” or how asking a college for a ‘chat’ was less powerful than asking them for a ‘discussion’. We explored ways to say ‘no’ while safeguarding your relationship with the person who made the request and how to participate in meetings with strength and gravitas.
During the webinar, a participant made the fantastic point that direct language would be useful with some of her male colleagues, but the indirect style she was accustomed to would still work well with her many of female colleagues and direct reports. This is indeed the case, and while the webinar focused on communications for women working in male dominated fields – those who primarily communicate with men and have to get their attention and respect fast, it very true that you must adapt your style to your intended audience.
A few days later I saw this engaging RSA Animated video that reminded me of the discussion. It features an animation of Steven Pinker’s talk which explains how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. He discusses how three types of cultural groups; dominance, commonality and reciprocity, have evolved with languages that suit each one.
While he does not discuss these styles related to gender, I would argue that men, particularly when in the workplace, have become accustomed to the ‘dominant’ style of communication whereas women, because of a shared historical second-sex status, share ‘commonality’. Women do not ‘inherently’ prefer passive language as some have suggested, but rather we have gained the most as individuals when we surreptitiously make gains from ‘a share and share alike’ mentality that informs the indirect and non-threatening way we use language.
Women have not been raised to ask for what we want directly – otherwise we face a backlash from some men and certainly many women, who are not used to hearing women speak this way. Think of the visceral reactions we have towards ‘bolshy broads’ who speak out for what they want. That’s not how ‘good girls play nice’.
Pinker makes the point that indirectness only works when the listener knows the speakers intent’ which is why when a female legal assistant hears her female Partner remark: ‘It would be great if you could get that report to me by Friday’, she knows it is due on Friday. A male legal assistant hearing those same words may think; ‘well, yes, it may be ‘great’ if it was ready for Friday, but it won’t be’. It’s a direct command; “The report must be ready for Friday at 3pm” which signals to those used to a dominant language style, that she means business. Any flexible leader, who works with men and women, should adapt their language style, directive and dominant or passive and communal to the intended audience, or risk being misinterpreted by everyone.
Find out how to make the most of your communications in the work place with our webinar “Say it Right: Verbal and E-mail Communications with Gravitas”