Ashley Milne-Tyte is a US/UK hybrid, a writer and a public radio reporter. She specializes in communication issues and the role of women in modern life. You can read more about Ashley on her website or follow her on Twitter @ashleymilnetyte.
Have you ever wondered why you apologize so much? Or perhaps you’ve been in a meeting and noticed yourself or other women begin sentences with something like, “This may not be the perfect solution, but…” or “I could be wrong, but…” Maybe you’ve cringed at the tide of squeaky female voices, infused with upspeak, that seem so prevalent these days, even when the speakers are well into their thirties.
Language is power. Communicating well helps get us what we want. Most of us probably don’t give much thought to the way we use language at work. I never used to. But over the years it gradually dawned on me that I didn’t like to own my statements. Speaking indirectly, hedging around the topic with lots of ‘sorrys’ was OK, but speaking directly felt almost scary. It pinned me down. I wasn’t comfortable putting my verbal stamp on anything. When I finally began to analyze my behavior, I realized it was all about staying within a common female comfort zone: being liked. When we don’t commit to our ideas, when we make statements sound like questions, there’s no danger of offending anyone. We’re off the hook.
But if we don’t *sound* sure of ourselves in the workplace, will anyone else want to entrust us with anything?
A recent British study carried out by Aston University linguistics professor Judith Baxter looked at women’s language in senior meetings, where they were far outnumbered by men. The study suggests that women’s faltering, apologetic tones in men-filled meetings may impede their progress to the top of the corporate ladder. Here’s one quote from an Observer story on the study:
“The study found women were four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humor and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members in order to avoid conflict.”
Those tactics keep women in their comfort zone, but tend to rob us of authority. The key words here are “avoiding conflict.” Women, on the whole, can’t stand it. So we perform linguistic somersaults to get around a hairy situation without upsetting anyone. But to men, being self-deprecating and speaking indirectly can come across as weak.
Still, as linguist Deborah Tannen has pointed out, women are in a double bind. If women are as direct as men, they are often perceived, by both sexes, as being aggressive, rather than assertive. Miami-based Michelle Villalobos teaches marketing and communication skills to women. One of her seminars goes by the title, ‘How to Communicate Powerfully (Without Being a Bitch)’.
When it comes to hedging, “If [women] qualify what they’re going to say, that’s really bad, especially when dealing with men,” she says. “They’ve just belittled their opinion.” And if you’ve done that all on your own, why should anyone else respect it?
Villalobos has some tips for those of us inclined to fall back on comfortable linguistic props during the work day.
First, she says, “Women need to speak up. They need to be seen and heard.” But being heard and listened to, rather than just heard, may involve some work. One thing she counsels against is running on and on. “Sometimes we babble,” and overuse the word “and”, she says, stringing it together multiple times in an overlong sentence. “Know when to shut up.” And don’t apologize so much. “Often we’ll apologize for things that aren’t even our fault,” she says. I’ve done this more times than I can possibly remember.
Now there may be people reading this who will be furious at the mere idea that women should have to do anything differently to be heard and respected at work, or anywhere else for that matter. A comment I’ve heard when discussing this topic before goes something like this: “Men and women are different – why can’t we just enjoy our differences and why the hell should women have to behave like men?”
To which I reply, unfortunately we still live in a male world when it comes to the workplace. Most of us have male bosses and the top bosses are nearly always male. So to be noticed, to have our ideas heard, we have to tread a fine line. If we come across too strong (in other words, behave exactly like men) it upsets both sexes’ perception of how a woman should behave. But we do need to sound authoritative for our ideas to carry weight with colleagues and superiors. That means speaking in measured tones, not making statements sound like questions, and not using the word ‘sorry’ so much – in short, having the courage of our convictions.
Category: Career Girl