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.

The Memo Every Woman Keeps On Her Desk

Grace Torrance ’21
Women and Leadership Participant

The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Deskpresents a workplace dilemma on how to initiate change in an environment not conducive to complete equality and inclusion relating to gender. Moreover, it challenges the roots that initiate these sentiments and weighs the consequences of bringing these to light. It relates the general decision to speak up when suffering from gender-based offenses to whether or not the audience is ready to receive and modify the actions of society. The basis of the article is a woman, working a well-respected job for 10 years at her company, who writes a memo pointing at the disturbing pattern of sexism present within the company.  She faces the dilemma of sending her memo to the CEO. Either the CEO accepts her criticisms and applies them to transform the company, or he dismisses her writing and effectively ruins her chances of advancing further within the company. Even though she feels it is critical that someone at the top knows the true dynamics of the work environment, the opportunity cost of sending it could have major consequences. The reaction of one of her friends who she attempts to confide in over whether or not to send the memo, who is a male colleague, demonstrates a further lack of clarity on this decision. One important point, as made clear later on in the article, is that the colleague fails to question whether he should cosign or offer to support the memo in an act of solitude. Coupled with an array of other professional opinions, most of them center around two ideas. One is that she should send the memo right now in order to shed light on the issue immediately, no matter the consequences. The other is that she should revise the memo and include more concrete evidence and background in order to gain support from others and have the capacity to incite the necessary change. 

There comes a time, however, that the pressures of the effects become so unbearable that something has to be done to spark the change.

Even though this narrative was written in 1993, it remains as relevant as ever in the current climate of today’s society. Similar dilemmas as to when, how, and where to point out faults in the environment that are detrimental to the inclusion and equal acceptance of women, just as with any other identifying factor such as race or sexual orientation, are potent and current predicaments. The entire rise of the #metoo movement came as a result of women making the leap to have their story of sexual assault to become public. Each and every person who said, is saying, and will say those words, faces the construct of the benefits and consequences of this language. The differing opinions make it apparent that there is no clear answer as to which atmosphere, if any, one should come out to say they have been sexually assaulted. There comes a time, however, that the pressures of the effects become so unbearable that something has to be done to spark the change.

In the company in the memo, the atmosphere is one that “slowly erodes a woman’s sense of self-worth and place.” Similar sentiments were felt that sparked the #metoo movement. With the objective of creating a warm and inclusive environment to all, there must be dramatic change stemming from the very top in order to actually make a difference. However, an important aspect of this is a collective effort; simply attacking it from the top leadership will not have an impact on the whole. There needs to be a collective effort and dedication to mediating the issue in order to effectively and completely combat it.