Making yourself heard

August 12, 2014

The latest episode of The Broad Experience focuses on what must be one of the biggest issues in any office: communication. I studied sociolinguistics at college and loved it. I've never forgotten the thrill of discovering how much more lay beneath our words than meets most people's ears. 

Robin Lakoff

In this show I feature two guests, sociolinguist Robin Lakoff, who put the topic of gender and language on the map 40 years ago, and Barbara Annis, author most recently of the book Gender Intelligence.

Barbara Annis

We look at how men and women use language at work, and why so often the sexes seem to be talking, but not really communicating. Why do men interrupt? Why do some of us women take so long to get to the point? Can we ever hope to understand eachother? 

There's a simple curiosity side to all this, but there's also an important career aspect for women. Since we still (most of us anyway) work in male-dominated environments, we're the ones who usually have to fit into the male paradigm, the male way of doing things. We are judged by a male standard. This Harvard Business Review blog, Women, Find Your Voice, is a great read that will have a lot of you nodding, regardless of your sex. It's about how women, even senior ones, often get drowned out at meetings, or fail to speak up. They bristle at all sorts of perceived slights. The men actually recognize the problem, but they don't understand why the women behave the way they do. The reason? We're each primed to communicate differently (more on that in the show), but most of us have no idea that's the case. So we usually fail to appreciate eachother's communication styles. Instead, they drive a wedge between us and can perpetuate problems for women at work.

One of Barbara Annis's pieces of advice is for women to tweak their style to communicate a little more forcefully, to be more up-front, in order to get men to pay attention. One thing I didn't get to in the show was that this may only work to an extent. An African-American woman I interviewed earlier this year told me about her difficulties communicating at work. She has to cope with her white supervisor's perceptions of who she is (which, she says, include 'intimidating' and 'aggressive'), and feels she often has to think long and hard before she opens her mouth. 

“I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Not all of us have to work that hard to get our points across. 

This is the second in what I hope will be a continuing series of shows on communication. The first was my show on the way men and women use humor at work. I couldn't get to body language in this show, so am saving that for a future episode. Amy Cuddy, on the offchance you're reading, I'd love to talk to you for that one.