Women’s Words vs The Message Their Voice Sends

Ashley Milne-Tyte | July 29, 2011 | Comments (14)

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.

Tags: , voice, ,

Category: Career Girl

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Comments (14)

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  1. [...] Women’s Words vs The Message Their Voice Sends | femme-o-nomics.com Everything in this article applies to women who are trying to come across authoriitatively in their voiceover performances, too. I’ve had to remind my fellow female voice actors NOT to phrase a statement in the form of a question so many times, that I feel like the Anti-Trebek. (And I’ve caught myself doing it, too.) It does undermine your power, authority and confidence; which are all, of course essential, if you aspire to book narration work. You can change it, if you’re aware that you’re doing it. Just takes work, vigilance and patience. Femme-o-nomics.com:”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?’” Source: femme-o-nomics.com [...]

  2. says:

    This is a great observation. Career women could learn from voice actors.

  3. says:

    “Men and women are different – why can’t we just enjoy our differences and why the hell should women have to behave like men?”

    Your response to this question was great, but I also want to add that it is a good possibility that women’s self-deprecating and unassertive “nature” is really learned behavior that serves to uphold male authority. We question ourselves not because it is in our nature to do so, but because we have been taught that our thoughts and opinions simply have less merit. By buying into the idea that this is just how women are, we perpetuate the cycle of patriarchy.

  4. JC says:

    BRAVO! Amazing work. Every female leader needs to read this!

  5. Susan Wilson says:

    I don’t disagree but I’m not sure the answer is simply that women need to stop being self-deprecating. If we’re being completely honest, isn’t that part of how those self-deprecating survived and rose to the top so they could be in the room AND at the table participating.

    If I just started out this response declaring my reasons for disagreeing, would that make me more powerful, more accepted or more effective? I’ve spent a great deal of time w/FundHer digging into this and I truly believe this is how women ARE asserting their power. We’re manipulating to get what we want. It’s not bad. It’s just different and it works more effectively for women and men.

    We could debate and disagree on whether it’s right but given women now control the economy and are finally getting the opportunity and the forum (i.e., your article and website :) , I’d argue the world is proving that women’s communication styles are actually more effective and sustainable.

    Yes? No? Maybe So?

  6. says:

    Well-written reminder of the things that cannot be said often enough, i.e. that equality can’t depend on mere assumptions of meritocracy. Pinged ya and you may be interested in this article on workplace strategy, one of my faves from when I used to teach gender.

  7. Susan, thanks for your comment. I believe there’s far more to this than being self-deprecating (which I’m sure I’ll continue to be to the end of my days). There are degrees of self-deprecation. What bothers me so much about women’s use of language is that tendency to apologize and hedge around what we mean to say (which can only weaken us in the eyes of others, and not just men: when I hear my friends using these tactics during conversation, I’m struck by how their point is lost amidst all the ‘I could be wrongs’ and ‘it may not matter, buts’. Manipulation can work fine sometimes, but the study I mentioned makes the point that it does not necessarily work in situations where women are outnumbered by men (which is still a lot of offices, especially at senior levels). Women are brilliant communicators in many ways. I believe most of us are far more effective communicators than men on most fronts. But I’ve seen and heard so many women belittle their own statements by appearing to divorce themselves from what they just said with hedging language. This, I think, is ultimately harmful.

  8. says:

    [...] a recent Femmenomics post discussed how women’s apologetic tone almost inevitably undercuts what they’re actually saying (unsurprising, really, that men’s well-documented overconfidence affects their listening [...]

  9. @Susan “I truly believe this is how women ARE asserting their power.” – I agree.

    I agree with Ashley that we shouldn’t caveat our ideas/opinions but when it comes to conflict-avoidance, surely we could look at this as diplomacy?

    I read a piece once about stress-management and the common idea (reviled by men) that women go for a cry in the toilets when it all gets too much and it occurred to me (as someone who has definitely cried in the loos) that there’s no real reason I should feel bad about that. Just because crying isn’t culturally viewed as a sign of strength doesn’t mean it has no positive benefits. If it helps, it helps – I’m not inflicting it on anyone else and it allows be to regroup and then get back to the task in hand. Personally I’d rather do that than go outside for a cigarette even though this is deemed an acceptable way of dealing with stress.

    Anyway, my point is not so much that we should just enjoy our differences but rather that we should stop defining our differences in male terms. Speaking indirectly need not be viewed as belittling ourselves but rather a sign of empathy and maturity when dealing with others.

  10. I largely agree on the diplomacy point, but I think the point the UK study was making was that when surrounded by men, as so many women at the top are, their diplomatic efforts don’t always have the desired effect. So as long as women in these positions are still largely flanked by men rather than other women, their communication style may backfire, mature though it may be.

  11. says:

    his is a great observation. Career womens could learn from voice actors.

  12. Kai Tapper says:

    Kai Tapper…

    I really enjoy the article.Much thanks again. Cool….

  13. [...] with different expectations of what they can do in life (and what they should do) and develop different communication styles, and these cultural factors affect the way we navigate the world. They can also affect the level of [...]

  14. Christopher says:

    Somewhat in support of Susan Wilson’s point, the communication styles are different and I reject the notion that women should change to reflect those that work better for men.

    In fact, insofar as a style is wired to gender, I prefer the one described as being female. Humour and diplomacy vs. arrogance and assertion of power? I’ll accept the meeting request from the women.