Episode 46: Communication at the office

August 11, 2014

"We have misinterpreted men’s transactional style as being dismissive or exclusionary. And men have misinterpreted women’s style as not being logical...whereas they're very complementary to one another.” 
- Barbara Annis

A lot of women run up against communication problems at work - everything from a failure to be heard in meetings to giving orders to having male colleagues misread something they've said. In this show linguist Robin Lakoff and gender expert Barbara Annis discuss how differently men and women communicate in the workplace. And we find out what each sex can do to better understand the other's style, from interrupting to taking...a while...to get to the point. 22 minutes.

Reagan-Thatcher cabinet talks, 1981. Courtesy of White House photographic office.

This is the Pantene 'Not Sorry' ad I mention in the show. Do professional women apologize too much?

Further reading:

If this show has tickled your interest in men, women, and language you'll enjoy the book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in  Conversation, by linguist Deborah Tannen. It's eye opening, particularly if you're in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. I studied some of Tannen's work as part of my sociolinguistics course at university. Re-reading the introduction to the book the other week I saw that Tannen was inspired to become a linguist after attending one of Robin Lakoff's classes on language and gender. 

Robin Lakoff is professor emerita of linguistics at UC Berkeley. 

Barbara Annis is the co-author, most recently, of Gender Intelligence - Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line.

This is a great piece from the Harvard Business Review blog about how senior women fare in meetings, and why the sexes fail to 'get' the other's point of view.

Here's a Fast Company piece quoting Barbara Annis and the co-author of her last book, John Gray of Mars and Venus fame: Are We Speaking a Different Language? Men and Women's Communication Blind Spots.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, women, men, and communication at the office.

“Men use ‘I’m sorry’ almost always as a true apology. ‘I did something wrong and I need your forgiveness.’ Women say ‘I’m sorry’ as a way of smoothing things over.”

And why each sex needs to understand and appreciate the other’s communication style…

“Because it really is about capitalizing on differences and moving away from ‘great minds think alike’ to ‘great minds think un-alike’, and really looking at that un-alike.”

Coming up.

But first, a word from our sponsor.

This episode of The Broad Experience is brought to you by Foreign Affairs, the best resource for nonpartisan analysis on important global issues.  Recent articles have covered everything from net neutrality to the crisis in Gaza, and Broad Experience listeners may be particularly interested in the female game-changers who have written pieces for the magazine in recent years, including Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton.

Foreign Affairs is offering me a special low rate for my listeners – only $19.95 for an entire year. Subscribers also get an exciting new product that just launched: audio editions created in a partnership with Audible.com. You can listen to the latest issue online or on-the-go by downloading it or streaming it directly from their website.  To take advantage of their offer, go to ForeignAffairs.com/broad.

I’ve always found language fascinating.  As my first guest says, language is how we construct our identities. How we express ourselves reveals a lot about who we are.

And so much of what goes on at work – what can make the workplace a tricky environment for women – goes on beneath the surface. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we speak and interact with the opposite sex. To begin this show about how men and women communicate at work, I wanted to get a historical perspective on how each sex uses language.

Robin Lakoff is professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1975 she wrote a book called Language and Woman’s Place. It really started a conversation in academia about language and gender. She says men and women have always signaled their gender through the language they use – even if it’s not conscious. And they start young.

“One of the things that we discovered – it was work that was done that shows that little children who are barely able to be fluent in their language…by age 3 or so can recognize how a boy should talk and how a girl should talk, and they think those who talk the opposite way than they should are silly and they laugh at them. So at that young age boys and girls know what it is to be a boy or a girl. And it’s very important.”

And by the time men and women get into the workplace, she says, those conversational styles are firmly established. Even if they’re somewhat less rigid now than they were in the ‘60s when she first started working. Watching the ad agency drama Mad Men brings it all back…

“I thought that show was, according to my memory of back then, pretty darn realistic about how men could talk to women and what women had at their disposal to make things better which was very little. There were no laws, so men naturally assumed that they owned the workplace. Women either stayed out of it, or they were in naturally subordinate positions like secretary. And, you know, the guy could be as bossy and as mean and as cruel as he wanted linguistically and otherwise and there was not too much they could say. And in fact the best woman employee was often the most silent, it was felt.”

So 40-plus years ago it was all about blending in and shutting up. But today, even when that’s not expected, women at all levels have trouble communicating effectively at work. Women in senior positions may be powerful, but they often come across as if they don’t want to be seen to be using that power. And that’s because most women have been conditioned from birth to communicate more gently than men. Robin says, for example, a lot of women smile when they try to get subordinates to do things…

“And then of course she’s criticized for smiling too much, and of course you can’t take a person seriously when they do that. But if she doesn't smile, then she doesn't smile enough. And somebody who doesn't smile enough is a bitch, or something like that. So it’s very hard. So men in other words have had many generations to learn how to be in the public sphere, learn how to be at work in an office among other men. For women it's just a couple of generations really, and the rules aren’t set, and therefore practices differ from one office place to another.”

Meanwhile, men and women can mean different things while using the exact same words.

“And it’s often pointed out that women say “I'm sorry” a lot more than men do. Men use “I'm sorry” almost always as a true apology: "I did something wrong and I need your forgiveness". Women say “I'm sorry” sometimes for that reason, but a lot of the time as a way of saying -- just smoothing things over. As a way of saying, “I hope this won't be a problem for you, I hope you can work with it.” But men hear “I'm sorry” as they would say “I'm sorry”, that is, they hear it as a literal apology.”

And they wonder why women are so apologetic.  The research on apologies suggests women who apologize a lot are seen as weak, as not believing in themselves. Which can undermine other people’s faith in them at work and hurt their progress.

“Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?”

That’s from a shampoo ad that’s had millions of views on YouTube lately. That hesitant woman is in a meeting surrounded by men. The entire commercial is bursting with apologetic professional women.

“Sorry, sorry…sorry…”

The ad then urges women to stop apologizing and have the courage of their convictions.

“I have a question: why don’t we go back to that thing that we did?”

I thought it was pretty good when I first saw it. Over-apologizing is something I’ve noticed about myself and I’ve tried to curb it. But one of the women I interviewed for a recent story I did on these ads - she felt the message was patronizing. She says most female apologies are simple politeness, and why should women have to change their behavior? Why can’t they just be themselves at work, sorrys and all?

The whole thing comes back to whose habits are the default setting at the office. And as Robin Lakoff said earlier, men did rule the workplace for decades… that means the way they do things is still is still seen as the norm.

“Men tend to be more aggressive or assertive. They say things directly. They tell people to do things right out, and they often interrupt. Particularly they interrupt women. Women are, first of all they’re better listeners – they tend to be more able to listen for the man or the other woman, to get to the point, to get to the end and then stop. And then they hope they’ll get to take a turn. Of course sometimes people don’t stop and they never get to take a turn because you’re not willing to do interruption.”

That resonates with me. I’ve let myself be plowed down time and again because the thought of interrupting back just wears me out. I can’t be bothered. But men aren’t being obnoxious when they interrupt, despite what women may think – they’re wired to solve things, to get straight to the point. We’ll talk more about this later, but women are wired quite differently. And we’re bound by all the social norms for our gender.

“Women tend to be more indirect particularly when it comes to getting someone else to do something. You tend not to give direct orders, to frame your desire as a request, as a hint or a suggestion, not a direct order. And you tend sometimes – when somebody else takes your idea and takes credit for it, you tend to let them do that, because a) nobody else will support you and say, hey, that was your idea…”

And b), she says, because if you do demand credit, you’re breaking an unwritten rule for women: that we always be nice and modest. A rule you can bet everyone in the room – of either sex – will hold you to.

And now to someone who’s trying to get men and women to appreciate one another’s communication styles. Barbara Annis grew up in an egalitarian household in Denmark. As far as she was concerned, men and women were exactly the same. She couldn’t wait to conquer the workplace. We spoke on Skype.

“And I was the first woman in sales at Sony, and of course then went through various levels of management. And I saw a huge need for developing successful women. But I had a huge blind spot back then. My blind spot was because I was so successful I really thought if I could do it, any woman could do it. So I embarked on delivering workshops for women, and it only lasted about one year because what I realized, my big ‘aha’ moment, was that I was training women to fit in to a male paradigm and to be more like men.”

She’s now run her own company, Barbara Annis & Associates, for more than 20 years. It works with clients, usually big global brands, and it teaches them what she calls gender intelligence – that’s also the title of her latest book.  She and her colleagues train men and women to recognize and understand eachother’s communication styles so no one feels left out or just mystified – and so that women aren’t constantly misunderstood.

“We do diagnostics all the time, and we ask men and women the same questions. And we say things like, do you feel valued? Are you recognized for your diversity, or your strengths? Do you feel you have an opportunity to advance? Those types of questions. And you see some interesting deviations between men and women. Do you feel heard and respected by a member of the opposite gender? Men outscore that and women don't. And it’s not that men have any ill intentions, it’s just that they have blind spots about how do we value and empower and coach and give feedback to women. And women feel that so they go, you know, I'm not really truly valued here. And that’s the number one reason why women leave corporations today. It's not the myth, what I call the myth, of work life balance.”

She’s not saying that isn’t a challenge. But it’s not the main reason women leave companies. They leave because they feel they don’t mesh with company culture.

Often, one of the big differences between men and women at work – and at home – is how they deal with conflict.

“So there are a couple of things around conflict: When something goes wrong, women tend to internalize it. They go, Oh what did I do? And they ruminate about it, etc. And for men, men tend to externalize it, like what happened? So it becomes much more analytical or rational and when women internalize and ruminate about it, it looks irrational when it’s not. And I was just speaking to a CEO from a Silicon Valley technology company last week, and we had just conducted some diagnostic on some conflictual situations and he said to me, ‘Why don't they just stop the drama?’”

“They” being the women in the company – they were stewing too much as far as he was concerned.

“So I talked about hard-wiring of the brain, I talked about the neuroscience. And he went, ‘Oh…’ - he swore, you know, holy you-know-what – ‘I had no idea men and women resolved conflict differently.”

Then he realized how different his own family life could be in future with his wife and daughters.

“So that's a communication difference, and that's a conflictual thing. But even just natural communication styles such as the question, what do you think? Men react to and answer that question very differently than women do. Men tend to say, ‘Oh what do I think? Well, I'm being asked to give my opinion. So I'm just going to give the bottom line. I think this, or I think you should do this.’ And women hear it as much more of an opening to a conversation. And bringing a bigger context. And often that can get misinterpreted to mean she doesn't have an opinion, when she's actually really sharing very complex thoughts.”

So many women start start talking – they delve into that context. Meanwhile men can interpret that as she’s going off topic, why hasn’t she just answered the question?

This came up in a Harvard Business Review piece this spring that I thoroughly recommend. It’s about how even senior women struggle to get their points across in meetings. The women the authors surveyed were frustrated. The men recognized the problem, but didn’t understand the women’s behavior around the table.

AM-T: “The guys felt they were being direct and to the point and they couldn’t understand why these women were sort of waffling and beating about the bush. And one guy talked about two senior women – one woman he said was caught up in her passion for the topic so she said the same thing three times, and the other woman he said she kept picking up disparate points along the way and it was like seeing a snowball going downhill picking up debris.”

“I know I do that. Why do women tend to do that, what is going on, and why are men the way they are?”

“So here it is, so men, the hard-wiring of the brain in much more unifocal, so it's focusing in. We call it convergent thinking versus divergent thinking. So men look at convergent thinking: let's read to the bottom line, let's stay on the agenda. And women use divergent thinking: what are we not seeing here, what are we not catching? What do we need to include in this decision making? We have many more neuron firings in our brain, right, we process information differently, more contextually…our pre-frontal cortex is more refined …and that's the consequential thinking of the brain, right, it’s more connected in women, and also we have more long distance centers in the brain. So we look at it contextually, web-like thinking, so we catch these things. But here's the thing, catching these things is important in the decision making.”

Otherwise she says it’s only the male reading of a situation that goes into that final decision. And you need both sides to get the best result.

“Because it really is about capitalizing on differences and moving away from ‘great minds think alike’ to ‘great minds think un-alike’, and really looking at that un-alike, like you do and I do. But it's viewed today, because we do have a male system, as we're going off agenda: wait a minute, where are you going with this, you’re going off agenda, when you're not. You're actually just bringing a richer, deeper perspective to it that will enrich your problem solving and innovation.”

I went back to that HBR article on women in meetings. It was clear many female managers had trouble breaking into the conversation in the first place, or they felt their voices got lost. Barbara says she runs workshops where clients get to see this exact scenario play out.

“So what we do is we show actors simulating a typical meeting in a workshop, and we ask men and women, what do you notice? Women of course notice most things: She spoke up, but she was drowned out. Or, three chairs down, he re-stated what she said and then it was heard.’ And the men say, I didn’t see that at all. Play that tape again. And then they look again, and they say oh yeah, you’re right, I just saw that. If you don’t have the eyes to see it, you perpetuate it. The equal learning for both men and women is that men need to see that that actually happens. Not like a blame, but just like an ‘aha’ moment. And women also need to speak to the listening. So if we speak, and we’re just being suggestive in how we speak, versus really speaking to the way they can hear it. Like, ‘I have a great idea.’ Just declare it. Versus, ‘Have you considered this possibility?”

 AM-T: Yeah. Using the conditional tense…

“You got it. Boy do they pay attention when you frame it up. Not change who you are, but just frame it up in your language. There’s a beautiful example of a woman who was the chief diversity officer at American Express, her name is Jennifer. She called me and she said, ‘It’s interesting, people say I’m not strategic enough.’ And I said, Jennifer, you’re the most strategic person I know.  She said, ‘I know, I think strategically all the time.’ And I said, well let’s explore how you’re communicating it. And she said, ‘Oh yeah, you know I’m throwing it out there in a suggestive way because I want to be inclusive, right, I don’t want to impose my strategy,’ etcetera. And I said, why don’t you do this, why don’t you put the word ‘strategic’ in your sentences. Such as, let’s think about this strategically for a second, or let’s be strategic about this, how this fits to our strategic priorities…”

It worked. No more complaints about her not being strategic.

“So there’s some very simple language tools that you can use where you can end that water torture of feeling drowned out, not feelings heard, and not really being able to be part of the A- team that has equal air time and is valued for the contributions you bring.”

She says yes, men’s style is much more direct – she calls it transactional – and women’s style tends to be less direct, more inclusive of other people’s views…but they don’t have to clash.

“It’s really about appreciating both. Because we have misinterpreted men’s transactional style as being dismissive or exclusionary. And men have misinterpreted women’s style as not being logical or – know what I mean – or thinking strategically as I mentioned earlier. Whereas it’s just a style difference that is very complimentary to one another.”

One thorny communication problem persists in a lot of workplaces: feedback – or the lack of it. Research shows men feel awkward giving women honest feedback about their performance.

“So every time we do a diagnostic, we ask men, are you comfortable giving direct feedback to men? And they score very high. And then we ask them, to what degree are you comfortable giving direct feedback to women? And they score it very low. And that’s on an online survey that we do. And then in the workshops and focus groups we look at the implications of that, and we find that women don’t get direct feedback, so they can’t learn as much as men. Men will - Bob will go over to Steve and say, ‘Oh Steve, you’ve got to fix these three things.’ And then Bob will go over to Kathy and say, ‘Oh Kathy, how are you, how was your day?’ They soft-pedal the feedback. And when I speak to executives and CEO men, they’ll say, I have a great team. I’ve got eight men and two women who report to me. And they’re all great. Now these two women, if they could only fix this thing, they would be even better.

And then I ask, ‘Have you ever told them?’ And you see that kind of eyes wide open, uh-oh...And that’s what we need to break through. We need to increase a comfort zone for men to provide the feedback in a way that’s empowering for them and empowering for women. So it is a huge challenge.”

And we’re going to be coming back to that challenge in a future episode of the show.

Before we finished our conversion Barbara and I came back to the topic of how much women tend to dwell on things that happen at work…

“So women tend to worry more. And as I mentioned, ruminate more, that internal dialogue that goes on. And I always say to women, think about this, is there any cheese down that tunnel, first of all, to worry about this?”

Is there any cheese down that tunnel…a real problem, in other words.

“Or is it time to, you know, say OK, I’ve handled it to the degree that I can, and now I’m going to let it go. So I do that because I tend to worry and I’m going OK, is this good enough, am I good? Okay, let it go. Just let it go. And I literally say that and it frees me up to not be worried about that. Now there are some things that it’s really important to worry about, so I’m not saying dismiss on things that are really vital. But the small things, if they are on your worry list I would strike them off and create a clean slate.”

Barbara Annis. Her latest book is called Gender Intelligence.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. I’ll post links to some of the books and articles I’ve mentioned on the show under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

You can comment there or on the show’s Facebook page.  Let me know if any of what we’ve discussed today has happened in your workplace.

Thanks very much again to those of you who’ve reviewed the show on iTunes. If you haven’t, and you like what you hear, please consider adding a review – it helps the show get noticed and reach more people’s ears. That helps me continue to attract sponsors, and I need their support to keep going.

Talking of which, you can also support the show by visiting our sponsor.

Check out their website and support my work here at The Broad Experience by going to foreignaffairs.com/broad.That’s foreignaffairs.com/broad.  

It all helps. I really appreciate it.

Thanks again to April Laissle for her help in making this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in September.