Deborah Tannen Gender Differences in Conversation Styles

Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from 9 to 5: Women and men in the workplace: Language, sex, and power. New York: Avon Books.

Summary: Tannen outlines differences in conversational styles between the genders. She claims that many of issues and tensions between gender are a result of not necessarily gender differences but rather differences in conversational styles of each gender.

Chapter 1: Women and Men Talking on the Job

  • The wage gap could be caused by a communication gap – a discrepancy in understanding of communication styles between men and women.
  • “Boys are expected to put themselves forward, emphasize the qualities that make them look good, and deemphasize those that would show them in a less favorable light. Too much of this is called arrogance. Girls are expected to be ‘humble’ – not try to take the spotlight, emphasize the ways they are just like everyone else, and deemphasize ways they are special. A woman who does this really well comes off as lacking in confidence. Ironically, those who learn the lessons best are most in danger of falling into traps laid by conversational conventions (p. 42).”

Chapter 2: “I’m Sorry, I’m Not Apologizing”: Conversational Rituals

  • “Whether criticism is best given ‘straight’ or best tempered to avoid seeming too harsh is also a matter of convention (p. 53).”
  • “Those who prefer criticism given straight are operating on a conventionalized agreement that says, ‘This is business; feelings have no part in it. Here’s the dope; I know you’re good; you can take it.’ Those who are used to ways of talking that soften the impact in consideration of feelings of the person addressed may find it hard to deal with right-between-the-eyes criticism (p. 53).”
  • “The rituals of apologizing, softening criticism, and thanking can be used by women or men. But they are more often found in the speech of women (pp. 56-57).”
  • “When presenting their own ideas, (men) state them in the most certain and absolute form they can and wait to see if they are challenged. Their thinking is that if there are weaknesses, someone will point them out, and by trying to argue against those objections, they will fund out how their ideas hold up (p. 58).”
  • “Those who expect someone who disagrees to challenge them openly may also respond to a colleague’s ideas by challenging – questioning, trying to poke holes and find weak links – as a way of helping the colleague see whether the proposal will pan out (p. 58).”
  • “Although cultural background is an important influence as well, fewer women than men engage in ritual opposition, and many women do not like it. Missing the ritual nature of verbal opposition, they are likely to take such challenges as personal attacks. Worse, they find it impossible to do their best in a contentious environment (pp. 58-59).”
  • “But if you are not accustomed to ritual opposition, or simply do not thrive on it, you will have a very different response. Knowing you are likely to be attacked for what you say, you begin to hear criticism of your ideas as soon as they are formed. Rather than making you think more clearly, it makes you doubt what you know. When you state your ideas, you hedge in order to fend off potential attacks, making your arguments appear weak. Ironically, this is more likely to invite attack from agonistic colleagues than to fend it off (p. 59).”
  • “When you feel attacked, emotion does not sharpen your wits, but rather clouds your mind and thickens your tongue, so you can’t articulate the ideas that were crystal clear before. Speakers with this style find their creative juices flowing in an atmosphere of mutual support but stopped up in the face of ritual opposition. People like this (many of whom are women) are not able to do their best work in the very environment that is bringing out the best in may of their co-workers – those who not only thrive in an agonistic climate but are probably helping to create it (p. 59).”
  • “Many people ask those they work with for their opinions (‘What do you think we should do about this?’) to get a range of opinions, to make others feel involved, and to create the appearance, or the reality, of making decisions by consensus (p. 62).”
  • “It is easier to approach someone to approach someone with a work-related issue if you are comfortable in each other’s presence and the lines of communication are open (p. 64).”
  • “She had to modify her style, taking some time to talk, to check in with people about their personal lives and exchange pleasantries. The feeling that their bosses are interested in them personally may be common to many people, but women are more likely to expect it to be displayed as interest in their lives outside of work – especially by other women (p. 65).”

Chapter 3: “Why Don’t You Say What You Mean?”: Indirectness at Work

Chapter 4: Marked: Women in the Workplace

Chapter 5: The Glass Ceiling