The Mentorist

It’s Not What You Say, It’s the Way You Say It: Women at Work


I’ve just finished reading Lean In and am convinced Sheryl Sandberg has been spying on me from birth.

Most women who read the book will likely feel the same.  Lean In captures the ways women sabotage themselves in the workplace — and does a good job of explaining the sociological reasons why.

In my experience, conversational style — that is, how we say something — is at the root of most problems women have in getting promoted to top positions.

Let’s face it:  The corporate world is, in large part, still ruled by men.  That means most interactions that determine whether a woman will reach ‘the top’ are going to be with men.

And — plain and simple — they don’t talk like us.

As a result, men sometimes interpret ‘our’ way of talking as signaling a lack of self-confidence or leadership.  I can understand why they think this:  Just like the five blind men asked to describe an elephant after each has touched only a single body part, we all tend to interpret what we see and hear against our own standards for how people ought to act.

The linguist Deborah Tannen does a superb job of explaining how, from an early age, groups of boys are socialized to talk in a way that differs radically from the style of talking used by groups of girls.  (If you haven’t read her book, Talking 9 to 5:  Men and Women at Work, immediately stop what you’re doing and order a copy.)

Both boys’ and girls’ conversational styles are about negotiating relationships.  However, Tannen points out that boys develop conversational rituals focused on establishing status within their group, while girls learn rituals that focus on establishing group rapport.

Boys don’t even pretend that equality exists within their groups (cue here for ‘Leader of the Pack’), and their conversations tend to focus on establishing who’s in the ‘one-up’ position and who’s ‘one down.’

By contrast, when groups of girls talk, they tend to downplay the ways in which one of them is better than another and emphasize ways in which they are all the same.  Any girl who breaks the mold risks being called ‘bossy.’  (When’s the last time you heard that term applied in a group of boys?)

So what does all of this have to do with being an adult in the workplace?  It lies at the root of how male coworkers talk in groups and why they often think a woman who follows female conversational rituals lacks self-confidence and leadership potential.

Lean In advocates for a society where female CEOs are a common occurrence in major corporations . But, until that day comes, the book advises women to find ways to play within male rules if they want to reach the corner office.  I don’t like that advice, but I know that it’s right.

So, what’s a woman to do?

First, become hyper-aware of the conversational rituals that girls (and the women they become) follow. Realize that, in all likelihood, you are bringing at least some of those rituals to work with you.

They include making ritual apologies, mitigating criticism with praise and exchanging ritual compliments.  (Tannen’s book explains each of these tendencies in depth.)

Similarly, come to understand that men have their own conversational rituals that are foreign to women.  One of the most significant of these is ‘ritual opposition’:  Men expect a discussion of ideas to be a ritual fight — an exploration through verbal opposition.  The conversation begins with the man presenting his own ideas in a certain and absolute form, then waiting to see if they’ll be challenged.  Men fully expect to have to defend their ideas — and don’t interpret a challenge as a personal attack.  In fact, after the ritual ends, they generally revert to being as friendly as ever.  The fight is over.

Both male and female conversational rituals have their positive aspects — but only if everyone in the group shares the same style.  If not, each person tends to interpret the meaning of a ritual interaction against the conversational conventions followed by his or her own gender.

Now that you’re attuned to these rituals:  Step back and examine your own conversational patterns.  When you’re talking to men in the workplace, listen to yourself from a male perspective.  Ask yourself: Would a man express himself that way? What are the status implications of what I just said? Will a man hear my statement as one that weakens my status — in other words, puts me in a ‘one-down’ position?

Finally, consciously try to adapt your conversational style, downplaying female rituals when in groups of men. They’re apt to misinterpret those rituals as signs of weakness.

I’ll use myself as an example:  I can think of two stylistic rituals commonly used among groups of women that, I know, have hurt me in the workplace.  In both cases, my style was called out by a mentor and, since, I’ve worked on changing it.

The first ‘ritual’ was my tendency, in groups dominated by very vocal men, to phrase my opinions or ideas as questions:  ‘Do you think this might be why…?’ ‘Do you suppose we should try…?’

Even though I firmly believed my view was the right one, I felt uncomfortable with the ‘ritual Sheryl Sandberg Lean In Communication Stylesopposition’ that would follow if I phrased it as a declaration.  By using a question, I could easily back down if aggressively challenged, because I had phrased my view tentatively in the first place.  Besides, any woman would understand that my question was just a convention for expressing a firm opinion. Why didn’t these guys catch on?

The second stylistic gaffe that I have since worked to get rid of was my tendency — when sitting among a pack of would-be alpha males — to preface my opinions with disclaimers:  ‘What do I know about this, but I think….’ or ‘I don’t know anything about this, but I’m guessing that….”

Talk about putting myself in a ‘one-down’ position!  Truth be told, I usually felt dead certain that what I was about to say was right.

Is it any wonder I long for the day when women and men co-rule the world?

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

7 thoughts on “It’s Not What You Say, It’s the Way You Say It: Women at Work

  1. Duh, it DID!!! Great!!


  2. Jane,

    Your comments are right on the mark. You touched on a key issue often overlooked by women professionals.

    Cathy Manncik

  3. Years ago a man said to me, “can’t you make a single declarative sentence?” It was a painful shock at the time but over the years I have realized he was, harshly, welcoming me into the world in which I could claim my point of view and share it.

    • How liberating! The mentor who pointed out my two ‘female conversational rituals’ was also a man. Although his feedback smarted at first, I’m glad he felt invested enough in my career to point them out.

  4. Pingback: Dial ‘M’ for Mentor | The Mentorist

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