Thursday, 3 July 2014

Talking the Same Language?

I’ve been talking with clients this month about how men and women use the same language but mean entirely different things. Really Sarah, I hear you say? That’s not news to me. Well hang on; whilst it may not be anything new, it’s fascinating to think about why and how men and women use language as a mechanism to relate to the rest of the world, where this comes from, and what it means as adults in the workplace.

Linguistics studies have repeatedly shown that we learn language and infer from it completely different things as little boys versus little girls. Deborah Tannen (Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University) has been researching gender differences in communication for over 20 years and has published extensively. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, Tannen says communication differences between the genders start early. Parents talk differently to male and female children, often without a clue that they are making any distinction.

One of her discoveries is that women and men see the world very differently, which influences how they relate to it. The main difference between the way boys and girls communicate is that girls generally use the language to negotiate closeness - that is, to establish intimacy as a basis of friendship (collaboration-oriented), whereas in comparison, boys generally use language to negotiate their status in the group (competition-oriented).

The theme of using power to negotiate status by males and cooperation to establish rapport by females is consistently played out throughout adulthood and repeated in the social and linguistic communicative styles between the two sexes at all levels: at home, work, meetings, social occasions, and in personal, casual and formal contacts. Consequently women and men tend to have different habitual ways of saying what they mean.

Men see the world as a hierarchy. After all, was it a group of little girls who came up with the idea of playing “King of the Castle”? Whereas females see the world as a community. What kinds of games do little girls tend to play? “House, School, Dolls, etc.”

What does all this mean for how we communicate with the opposite sex at work? Look, it means a lot more than time and space in this month’s newsletter will allow. Don’t worry; I’ll come back to it. However, some key things to think about:

  • Use talk to assert their independence 
  • Do not view sitting and talking as an essential part of friendship 
  • Hear talk of problems as a request for advice or help 
  • Give orders as a way of gaining social status 
  • Use more small talk 
  • Use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy 
  • Perceive talking as the essence of intimacy; so sitting and talking means friendship 
  • Speaking about problems is the essence of connection 
  • May rule by consensus and get the input of others before making a decision 
  • Go in-depth on a topic 
Usually those distinctions are enough to fire up a debate so I’m going to stop now. However, as leaders, it’s worth considering what this means for us and our communication style and approach to others. Leadership is a relationship business, and irrespective of the gender split in your professional world, understanding difference increases our ability to exquisitely influence.