Are you double-voiced?

February 6, 2014

"You're adjusting what you have to say in light of what you think they want you to say." - Judith Baxter

We spend a lot of time speaking, but most of us don’t focus on the way we use language. Yet language is one of those often imperceptible, everyday things that subtly affects the way women come across at work. And, according to my next guest, using it well is part of being a good leader.

In the next episode of The Broad Experience we'll talk about the use of language at the office. My guest is linguist Judith Baxter, a professor at Aston University in the UK and author of The Language of Female Leadership. In the podcast we discuss how senior men and women use humor in the workplace, specifically in meetings, and how that affects the way they come across (hint: if you’re a woman, it does not generally go down well - tune in to find out why). But our interview covered other aspects of language use, something I’m particularly interested in because sociolinguistics formed part of my degree. It was my favorite bit, so it’s great to be able to dabble in it once more.

As she's studied men, women, and language use in corporations, Judith has witnessed a lot of what she calls ‘double-voice discourse’. She describes it like this: “It’s the awareness that when you’re talking you’re always considering the agenda of person you are talking to.” Which sounds quite positive, and, dare I say, very female: All that taking into account of other people’s feelings as we interact with them, all that careful treading and subtle flattery. But then she adds this: “You’re aware of what they’re thinking and adjusting what you have to say in light of what you think they want you to say.” Which sounds less positive and more needy.

For example, you’re in a conversation with a colleague or manager and you suspect they may not rate you much. You pre-empt them with something like, “It may not be the best idea, but…” or, “I realize I’m no expert like the rest of you, but…”

Judith gathered over half a million words of data from men and women and found that, statistically, women were four times as likely as men to use this type of hedging language.

“I worked out double voicing is a means of guarding a person from criticism,” she told me. “For example, ‘That person thinks I’m stupid, that person doesn’t take me seriously, doesn’t think I’m an expert,’" so by adjusting your language, you’re deftly adding some criticism before it can emerge from the other person’s mouth. Rather like making a joke about yourself before the other person can. 

I've used language this way over the years, and although I try to keep an eye on in now, it probably still happens. The issue for women in the workplace is that this kind of language can make us look hesitant and wishy-washy. When I look back on the number of times I’ve started a sentence with an apology or a ‘I could be wrong, but…’, I’m horrified. Why would anyone else trust me if that was the way I was presenting myself? If you sound unsure of your convictions, others are unlikely to have faith in you.

Still, Judith says double-voice discourse isn’t all bad. She’s seen women use it to their advantage. “They can be very responsive to events and prevent trouble that way. If they see something brewing, they’re onto it right away." So the 'female' tendency to be alive to others' wants and needs can work to our linguistic advantage when a situation is getting heated.

Tune in here to find out what Judith's research says about why women aren't funny. (Just kidding. We are. Details to be revealed in the podcast.)