The Power of Language

Our conversational style is forged by culture, gender, socialization, and geography. At work, how we talk determines how we get the job done and how we are evaluated for our efforts.

We tend to look through language and not realize how much power language has.

-Deborah Tannen

Work is where we spend considerable time interacting with people we may not understand or would choose to spend time with if they weren’t our coworker, employee, or manager. At work, how we talk determines how we get the job done and how we are evaluated for our efforts.

In her book, Talking From 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen, author and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, explores the world of work and the misunderstood power of conversational styles. 

While researching and studying speaking styles, Tannen has discovered that people’s speaking tendencies are influenced by multiple sources, including gender, geography, socialization, and culture.

She has identified two primary conversational styles – direct talk and indirect talk. Direct talk focuses on independence and information, while indirect speaking centers around rapport and consideration of others.

Although she cautions that conversational styles are highly personal and unpredictable, she has uncovered a general inclination of males to employ directness and females to be more indirect in their manners of speaking. (Note: While we understand there is broader definition of gender than simply male and female, these are the terms Tannen uses in her books.)

These styles begin in early childhood with how children interact socially. Young girls tend to play in small groups or one-on-one. The goal of such intimate play is to forge closeness and connection with a few individuals with whom you can trust. Equality is an important aspect; any individual who attempts to dominate the group is excluded from the friend group. 

Tannen explains that girls temper any aggressiveness or boasting; it makes them unpopular with their peers. Girls want connection, not a single person telling them what to do, which is why they engage in rapport play and communication. She says that adults often perpetuate this practice, admonishing young girls for being boastful, too self-assured, and not humble enough.

On the flip side, young boys play in larger groups where the goal is status over forging deep friendships. Activities are frequently competitive, with the boy who speaks longest and loudest attaining a high-status position. Unlike young girls, boys are allowed to boast and brag among their peers-this is leadership. 

According to Tannen, the manner of play for young boys is hierarchical-someone is constantly vying for the top role. These individuals claimed leadership by stating opinions boldly and taking center stage. Those of lower status expect to be given commands from their leader. Adults don’t apply the same “no-boasting” rules to boys as they do to girls.

These communication methods solidify in adulthood with women engaging in rapport-talk (an indirect style) and men using report-talk (a direct conversational style). 

Those who naturally use a direct style make statements and give commands rather than make requests. They focus more on what they view as essential details and limit small talk. In a work environment, this is viewed (sometimes mistakenly) as self-confidence and a natural leader.

People who naturally use an indirect manner of speaking make requests instead of declarative statements or orders and engage in “small talk” to create connection. At work, those who use an indirect style are often (again mistakenly) viewed as lacking confidence and the skills to lead.

In a work environment, these socialized manners of talking benefit men regarding promotions, hiring, and having their ideas and opinions heard. But for women, their indirect conversational style is unfairly viewed as less effective, negatively impacting their career by receiving fewer promotions and not being confident in their ideas.

Tannen also states that women are forced to abide by a double bind of having to choose between being likable or competent but never both. This double-edged sword is not something that men in the workplace have to face.

Deborah Tannen route: We tend to look through language and not realize how much power language has.

Women often exert leadership influence differently, making suggestions instead of commands. This style stems from their early socialization in which equality (avoiding a one-up and one-down situation) and connection reign. 

Self-confidence isn’t socially acceptable for girls, and as an extension, for women. As a result, females are more apt to play down their certainty (to avoid boasting and the possibility of others losing face) while men downplay their doubts (to assert their status and leadership.) 

But, says Tannen, “Ways of talking don’t always represent our confidence or lack thereof in ourselves or a particular subject or stance.”

The socially and culturally ingrained social inhibition of many women to boast makes them appear less confident than they are. It also negatively impacts women when it comes to raises and promotions. Many prefer to request raises based on fairness (“Tim does the same job, has been here less time, and makes more money”) VS tooting their own horn about their value to the company, which feels too much like bragging.

Because of their rapport-talking style, women more often censor themselves in public to balance their interests against those with whom they are talking; females tend to consider the impact of what they say on others.

Other conversational styles used more frequently by women include:

  • self-deprecation to soften the blow of criticism given to others 
  • asking the opinions of others before making decisions to create an inclusive environment 
  • giving praise and showing appreciation 

Females also employ what Tannen calls ritual apologies. These alleviate others from losing face, or offer a space for the other person to apologize. 

Sandra is Peter’s manager. Peter owed her a revised report first thing Monday morning but by 9:30am, it hasn’t landed in her email inbox. Picking up the phone, she calls Peter.

“Hi Peter, how are you this morning?”

“Good morning, Sandra. I’m great. How can I help?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t see that revised report in my Inbox. Maybe I missed it…?”

“No, I’m sorry. I should have called and updated you. I haven’t sent it yet; I had technical issues with my laptop this morning.”

Based on her research, this manner of apologizing is a conversational style, not an actual apology. Sandra has done nothing to apologize for; it is merely a way to ease into a conversation, allowing Peter to explain rather than making a declaration, “Peter, that report you owe me is late.” The issue arises, Tannens states, when the other person doesn’t understand and reciprocate with the ritual.

Men frequently use ritual opposition, making a unilateral decision and seeing if anyone will openly challenge it. If no one does, silence equates to consent. But, if the decision is challenged, the male rises to the occasion, arguing their case, potentially even when they have doubts or aren’t fully confident of their decision. This is how the opposition ritual is supposed to play out for those who use and understand it.

Many women don’t like this approach and see it as a personal attack, which keeps them from functioning at their best if they feel the environment is contentious and antagonist. As with the example of ritual apologies, when a ritual is misunderstood, that is the ignition point of conflict, assumptions, and judgment.

Tannen found that both women and men pay the price for not speaking in socially acceptable manners. Men who aren’t aggressive are wimps, while bold, boastful women are the B-word. But overwhelmingly, she discovered that women find their careers hampered more significantly by their ingrained speaking styles than men, especially in America.

Tannen clarifies that conversational styles are neither good nor bad-they just are. The issue is, our society, especially corporate America, believes that the direct, report-talking style better indicates confident leaders than the indirect rapport-talking style.

We all have differing ideas of what is polite speaking; Those who are direct in their manner of talk aren’t necessarily being rude but believe they are saving time for others by getting straight to the point. Those who speak more indirectly believe creating connection and relationship is a polite and valuable asset.

The power of talking lies in awareness and understanding of your default style and that of others. Instead of defaulting to, “Oh, he is so rude for making that decision without anyone’s input,” or “Why did she ask for my opinion (advice) if she wasn’t going to use it?” we should instead see these for what they (most likely) are – ingrained conversational styles.

Not only will this enable us to step away from automatic judgment and assumptions about the intention of others, but it can also guide us to ways of broadening our communication abilities. 

It’s worth taking stock of how you naturally approach others in conversation while also analyzing the styles of others. 

Being able to employ different conversational styles effectively broadens our influence. Just like speaking to someone in the language they naturally speak ensures better understanding, talking to another person in the style they default to allows us to be heard and understood. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you practice, the better you’ll become at harnessing your power using conversational styles.

“The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation – or a relationship,” explains Tannen.

Gail Rudolph

Gail Rudolph