Why Men and Women Miscommunicate at Work

A number of years ago I worked with an international company that had one woman among its entire senior management community. After a strategy meeting, the conversation at dinner deteriorated to the point where I felt uncomfortable on her behalf. She happened to be sitting next to me, so I asked her how she coped. ‘I behave like a man,’ she whispered.

In all probability, none of the men felt there was any problem; if challenged, they would have said, ‘It’s fine, she’s one of us.’ Their willingness to include her as a member of their tribe was – in their eyes – a badge of recognition, but acceptance was predicated on conforming to their norms of behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised when women struggle to find their voice, or to figure out what form their voice should take, in work environments that are skewed toward male ways of communicating.

Men and women don’t always conform to stereotypical rules, but research shows that the following characteristics are true for a greater proportion of women than men in a Western culture, and vice versa. Understanding these differences helps explain clashes of the sexes. The next time you’re sitting in a boring meeting, look out for these Top 5 characteristics of women-talk:

  1. Women tend to have more focus on affinity, connectivity and group consensus than men.
  2. Women are more likely to ask questions. In research based on 100,000 interviews by John Gray and Barbara Annis, 80 per cent of women said they prefer to ask questions even when they know the answer, because it encourages others to contribute.
  3. Men and women both use minimal responses such as ‘mmm’, ‘yeah’ and ‘oh’, but women use them more as a way of showing support and encouragement, while men tend to use them as a way of driving the conversation forward, demonstrating expertise or competing for status.
  4. Women use more pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’. In fact social scientist Professor James W Pennebaker estimated that, on average, women use 85,000 more pronouns a year than men. This is significant because pronouns are used in reference to relationships and people.
  5. Rather than giving orders, women are more likely to make suggestions or proposals, so as to increase rapport.

Now contrast this with the Top 5 characteristics of men-talk:

  1. Men tend to have more attention on displaying their skill, knowledge or humor, especially in group situations. This trait is well evidenced from studies of young boys and girls in school classrooms, and extends into adult life.
  2. When they hear a complaint, men are likely to see it as a challenge to give their advice or find a solution. While they think they are being helpful, women will see this as mansplaining.
  3. As they walk away from a conversation, men are inclined to wonder whether it’s put them in a ‘one-up’ position, whereas women will question the impact of the conversation on their sense of connection. This is the conclusion of Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, after three decades of research.
  4. While women use more pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’, men tend to use more articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’, in reference to objects and things.
  5. Men are more prone to interrupting a speaker or challenging a comment than women. They use more mechanisms for influencing or controlling the topic of a conversation, in line with their goals or objectives.
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While these characteristics aren’t always true at an individual level, the rituals associated with gender difference are accentuated in group situations. This explains why members of either sex who are in the minority can feel pressure to adapt their conversational style in order to be accepted by the group.

So what’s the solution? Here are three ways to navigate through the choppy waters of miscommunication between the sexes:

  1. Observe male-female dynamics. In most conversations we’re preoccupied with listening, forming opinions, or replying, and don’t pay attention to the underlying structure of the interaction. Start noticing who’s asking questions, interrupting, or using the most pronouns. Resist the temptation to draw judgments, at which point you’ll cease being an observer.
  2. Initiate dialogues. Many people are anxious to raise the ‘gender’ word, due to the fear of being seen as prejudiced, but exploring differences in a spirit of curiosity is the secret to effective collaboration. Whether your team is predominantly male or female, pay particular attention to those in the minority. Do they feel heard and expressed? Can they speak up without fear of being ejected from the group? The best way to find out is by asking them.
  3. Value differences. When it comes to communication, we mustn’t forget that men and women share far more similarities than differences. However, it’s our differences that provoke righteousness and blame. If we can celebrate our contrasting styles instead of seeking conformity, men can value their female colleagues who ask questions to create rapport. In equal measure, women can recognise that competing for status is part of the male ritual, and probably isn’t intended to be inconsiderate or rude.

The strongest teams are the ones in which people embrace opposites instead of seeking homogeneity. If they adopted this principle, the leaders in the oil and gas company would be encouraging their lone female leader to find her own voice instead of expecting her to speak like a man. True equality in the workplace is not just about equal representation; it’s about freedom of self-expression too.

 

References:

D Tannen, ‘He Said, She Said’, Scientific American, May/June 2010.

PM Fishman, ‘Interaction: The Work Women Do’, Social Problems, vol. 25, no. 4, 1978.

B Annis and J Gray, Work with Me: How Gender Intelligence Can Help You Succeed at Work and in Life, Piatkus, London, 2013.

James W Pennebaker, ‘Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality’, Harvard Business Review, December 2011.

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