Foreign Languages How Men and Women Talk Differently at Work - and Why

Article excerpt

SUPPOSE YOU were the editor of this story about Deborah Tannen and her book, "Talking From 9 to 5."

Suppose you like the story generally but find these first few paragraphs annoying. Suppose you want them changed.

How would you approach the writer?

If you're a man, you might say:

"I've got a problem with the way you've started this story."

And if you're a woman:

"I really enjoyed your story. It's incisive and very creative." You pause here to allow the writer to bathe in the warmth of those compliments. "The story wrote itself," he responds modestly.

But then you add tentatively, "These first few paragraphs aren't nearly as crisp as the rest of the story. I want to understand why you decided to start the story in this manner."

Both approaches carry risks, Tannen says.

The problem with No. 1: The writer might be offended by your frontal assault on his story. He has no idea that you think the piece is overall a winner. He's not listening, he's circling the wagons.

The problem with No. 2: He might not get it. After all, you've told him how splendid his story is. And by now he's explained why he likes the beginning just the way it is.

If you come back at him by saying, "You know, I really wanted that story changed," he might respond:

"Why didn't you say so in the first place!" He feels manipulated.

And so it goes in newsrooms and, under parallel circumstances, in offices nationwide, says Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and a fabulously successful author of books about how men and women talk to one another.

Tannen's previous book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," spent four years on the New York Times best-seller list and eight months as No. 1 on the paperback list. She's appeared on the significant talk shows, morning programs and newsmagazines.

But she isn't one of those relationship experts who tell you how to find a lover, get married, stay married, relate to your kids, deal with your parents, talk to your doctor or tangle with your therapist. Doesn't even read their books. More like Carl Sagan than Dr. Ruth. "I read language books," she says.

No how-to lists, 10-point plans or 12-step programs. She outlines how men and women talk, suggests why. You take it from there.

Her books cite authoritative sources and include footnotes. Her new one (William Morrow and Co. Inc., $23) involved thousands of hours following people around in the workplace and listening to tape recordings of those who volunteered to be miked with tape recorders.

The book is subtitled: "How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done At Work."

"It was like anthropological field work," Tannen said. "I observed. Hung around. I shadowed people over a long period, and I interviewed as many people as I could in the same workplace. I talked to the people they reported to, their peers as well as the CEOs of the companies where they worked."

Painstaking, numbing research. But as a result the book teems with real-life encounters - and Tannen includes some of her own.

"What I love to hear best is when people say, `I saw myself on every page. I thought you were hiding in my living room or in my car.' "

Or in this case, perhaps, under my desk.

The first few paragraphs of this story are based loosely on experiences Tannen describes with her editors - and writers and editors with whom I work. Note to future editors: Tannen prefers the "indirect" approach. As for me, you can hit me with a 2-by-4.

But then Tannen's a woman. I'm a man. And we often are like that.

Yes, Tannen believes men and women frequently exhibit separate and distinct conversational styles that can either inhibit or facilitate performance in the workplace. …