The Power of Talk

Emily Wielk ’20

Communication is possibly one of the most complex aspects of human society. At some point in time, groups of humans decided that a collections of sounds could be recorded and signified by letters, and then those sounds could work together to form words. From here, a language was born and has been evolving ever since, but not without its difficulties.

Communication isn’t as simple as saying what you mean (67).

How often have you been in a conversation with a coworker, friend, or family member where you both nodded and left but neither of you actually knew what was said? At work, this could be the difference in completing a task or going all the way back to square one; with a friend it could mean the difference of showing up at a pizza place when you were really supposed to meet for ice cream. While in theory these examples may be trivial, in practice, the implications of miscommunication can be so much greater than one realizes.

Many times, even within a shared language, the way in which words are understood can be ambiguous. So much more goes into communication than just the words strung together to form a sentence or a paragraph. Oftentimes, it’s what’s between the lines that’s really talking.

Deborah Tannen uses the example of two coworkers, a man and woman, finishing a presentation. When they are on their way back, the woman tells him he did a great job, expecting a similar compliment in return. Instead, her coworker begins a soliloquy on all the things she could have improved, making her feel bad for even bringing it up. While a simple example, it demonstrates that while she did mean that her coworker had done a good job, she also assumed the underlying context of her statement was out of courtesy and that he would show the same courtesy in return. This we see did not happen, and sets the tone for the rest of this discussion.

Linguistic style is a set of culturally learned signals by which we not only communicate what we mean but also interpret others’ meaning and evaluate one another as people (68).

The example points toward the fact that cultural and social implications will underlie the ultimate meaning of what is being said, and it is wrong to assume that everyone has the same understanding of that meaning. Tannen brings up a core competency of leadership which is the awareness and engagement in cross-cultural communication. Essentially, this is having the ability to discern when communicating whether there is mutual understanding, but also altering communication style to meet the expectations of the people being communicated too. This could be cross-cultural in the sense of different cultures have different expectations, or even the recognition that within the same society, individuals may read a conversation differently given their varying experiences.

In every community known to linguists, the patterns that constitute linguistic style are relatively different for men and women (71).

While gendered differences exist in society for everything from the division of labor to the perceived innate qualities it bestows, it should come as no surprise that language has gendered implications too. Since socialization processes teach individuals specific gendered practices from the toys we play with to the clothes that we wear, it also teaches young boys and girls different pattern of speech that aligns with these gendered expectations.

Thus girls learn to talk in ways that balance their own needs with those of others – to save face for one another in the broadest sense of the term. . . . Boys learn to use language to negotiate their status in the group by displaying their abilities and knowledge, and by challenging others and resisting challenges (72).

It makes sense when gendered norms are named that young girls would be taught to speak in a more caring nature which speaks to the assumption that women are supposed to be nurturers and not necessarily in positions of power. On the other hand, boys are taught to take and authoritative stance and show aggression to prime them for their future as leaders and breadwinners in society.

Becoming more aware of these differences and how they play into the lack of women in leadership positions is key in finding a partial solution to the gender gap in leadership. Women’s tendency to be more indirect and account for one’s feelings when communicating typically lead to them being perceived as less competent, less confident, and not able to be a leader, but this is a lapse in judgment typically applied during the hiring process. If companies began to “read between the lines” so to speak and offer different ways of evaluating job candidates, we may find that women fair just as well as men, if not better. Additionally, changing the current hiring processes may be one step, but taking it one step further to teach children from a young age that anyone can be a leader is so important to the development of a new generation of leaders. We all know that communication is vital to survival in our world, so why start 50% of the population at a disadvantage right out of the gate?

To conclude, I’ll leave you with this thought which captures the heart of what I’ve described above:

You can’t assume that the other person means what you would mean if you said the same thing in the same way (73).


Quotes from HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Women and Leadership, edited by Herminia Ibarra, Deborah Tannen, and Joan C. Williams.