Tannen Talks Shop: Men and Women in the Workplace

Article excerpt

IMAGINE what life must be like for Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist who has made a career of explaining men and women to each other by enlightening them on the different ways they tend to use language.

Every day must be full of raw material. After all, men and women talk with each other all day long. And each book she publishes brings readers out of the woodwork to let her know how she's helped them understand the communications bafflements in their lives.

Now she has published a book called "Talking From 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work." For anyone who has ever sat through a meeting at the office, this book has the ring of truth. For managers the book has insights that will help them enhance opportunities for their staffs and improve the whole group's effectiveness.

Dr. Tannen's thesis, in brief, is that women tend to use language in ways that emphasize equality, whereas men tend to use language in ways that emphasize hierarchy.

Women will tend to use various modes of indirect speech - making points in meetings by phrasing them as questions, for instance - whereas men will tend to make flat assertions. Women are culturally conditioned not to appear too smart or bossy, whereas men are conditioned to be assertive, to claim the floor.

Before you cringe at this kind of generalization, give Dr. Tannen credit for pointing out repeatedly that she is speaking of tendencies, not absolutes. She also strives to be evenhanded in making the case for both styles.

And she points out that "indirect" communication is not necessarily defensive, or the province of the powerless.

On the contrary, in situations where hierarchy is firmly established - the military for instance - communication can be accomplished minimally, by what appears to be indirection. …