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Girls tend to play with a single best friend or in small groups, and they spend a lot of time talking. The showed that more women than men predicted lower grades for themselves if they made their predictions publicly. If they made their predictions privately, the predictions were the same as those of the men—and the same as their actual grades.
Individual speakers vary in how sensitive they are to the social dynamics of language—in other words, to the subtle nuances of what others say to them. Consider the following example: A focus group was organized at a major multinational company to evaluate a recently implemented flextime policy.
These linguistic patterns are pervasive; you can hear them in hundreds of exchanges in the workplace every day. Both men fail to realize that differences in conversational style are getting in their way. Thus slight differences in conversational style—in these cases, a few seconds of pause—can have a surprising impact on who gets heard and on the judgments, including psychological ones, that are made about people and their abilities.
The group concluded that it was excellent, but they also agreed on ways to improve it. This might seem like a reasonable approach. Consider turn taking, one element of linguistic style. Furthermore, we judge others not only by how they speak but also by how they are spoken to.
Although there were women in every group, not one of them made the cut. They usually play in larger groups in which more boys can be included, but not everyone is treated as an equal. But that would be inaccurate. The division head began to doubt his ears. Many have argued that the growing trend of asing work to teams may be especially congenial to women, but it may also create complications for performance evaluation. This is not to say that all boys and girls grow up this way or feel comfortable in these groups or are equally successful at negotiating within these norms.
Boys learn to use language to negotiate their status in the group by displaying their abilities and knowledge, and by challenging others and resisting challenges. Women tend to react more strongly to the rapport dynamic, speaking in ways that save face for others and buffering statements that could be seen as putting others in a one-down position. He noticed that many of the ideas coming out of the group were hers but that often someone else trumpeted them around the office and got credit for them. In other words, in this instance, the women evaluated the contribution of another woman more accurately than the men did.
But as I typed up my notes, I noticed that Cheryl had made almost all those suggestions. Judgments about confidence can be inferred only from the way people present themselves, and much of that presentation is in the form of talk. These habits with regard to appearing humble or confident result from the socialization of boys and girls by their peers in childhood play.
Studies show that women are more likely to downplay their certainty and men are more likely to minimize their doubts.
Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. A pause of that length never comes because, before it has a chance to, Joe senses an uncomfortable silence, which he fills with more talk of his own. Consider the many women who have left large corporations to start their own businesses, obviously exhibiting enough confidence to succeed on their own. The division head who was dumbfounded to hear that all the talented women in his organization lacked confidence was probably right to be skeptical.
Even so small a linguistic strategy as the choice of pronoun can affect who gets credit. He said he uses this rule: If the person making the proposal seems confident, the CEO approves it. I had left the meeting with the impression that Phil had been responsible for most of the suggestions adopted by the group. As a form of social behavior, language also negotiates relationships. But my field of research, socio-linguistics, suggests otherwise.
But that solution is problematic because we associate ways of speaking with moral qualities: The way we speak is who we are and who we want to be. The senior managers were judging the women in their groups by their own linguistic norms, but women—like people who have grown up in a different culture—have often learned different styles of speaking than men, which can make them seem less competent and self-assured than they are. Boys tend to play very differently.
In every community known to linguists, the patterns that constitute linguistic style are relatively different for men and women. Meetings like this take place daily in companies around the country. And, as in the case of Cheryl and Phil, they affect who gets heard and who gets credit.
SinceI have been researching the influence of linguistic style on conversations and human relationships.
How you say what you mean is crucial, and differs from one person to the next, because using language is learned social behavior: How we talk and listen are deeply influenced by cultural experience. Her boss even suggested she take an assertiveness training course. Men tend to be sensitive to the power dynamics of interaction, speaking in ways that position themselves as one up and resisting being put in a one-down position by others.
How could it be that all the talented women in the division suffered from a lack of self-confidence? The research of sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists observing American children at play has shown that, although both girls and boys find ways of creating rapport and negotiating status, girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships whereas boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension. Giving orders is one way of getting and keeping the high-status role. Some subjects were asked to make their predictions privately by writing them down and placing them in an envelope; others were asked to make their predictions publicly, in the presence of a researcher.
Conversation is an enterprise in which people take turns: One person speaks, then the other responds. Girls learn to downplay ways in which one is better than the others and to emphasize ways in which they are all the same. As adults, both women and men find these behaviors reinforced by the positive responses they get from friends and relatives who share the same norms.
But the next day, I was in for a surprise.
Unless managers are unusually good at listening closely to how people say what they mean, the talents of someone like Cheryl may well be undervalued and underutilized. The second level is mostly invisible to us, but it plays a powerful role in communication. The pattern of answers was revealing. So what was the problem?
In this sense, they grow up in different worlds. But, for the most part, these childhood play groups are where boys and girls learn their conversational styles. The head of a large division of a multinational corporation was running a meeting devoted to performance assessment. Every utterance functions on two levels. Psychologist Laurie Heatherington and her colleagues devised an ingenious experiment, which they reported in the journal Sex Roles Volume 29, They asked hundreds of incoming college students to predict what grades they would get in their first year.
I went back and asked all the participants they thought had been the most influential group member, the one most responsible for the ideas that had been adopted. If not, he says no.
In the past four years, I have extended that research to the workplace, where I have observed how ways of speaking learned in childhood affect judgments of competence and confidence, as well as who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done. It includes such features as directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, and the use of such elements as jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions, and apologies. There are many women and men—but probably relatively more women—who are reluctant to put themselves forward in this way and who consequently risk not getting credit for their contributions.
In a group, if only one person asks questions, he or she risks being seen as the only ignorant one.
Through ways of speaking, we al—and create—the relative status of speakers and their level of rapport. Similarly, when Sally relocated from Texas to Washington, D. Although in Texas she was considered outgoing and confident, in Washington she was perceived as shy and retiring. My research in companies across the United States shows that the lessons learned in childhood carry over into the workplace. Everything that is said must be said in a certain way—in a certain tone of voice, at a certain rate of speed, and with a certain degree of loudness.
The two other women in the group named Cheryl. Whereas often we consciously consider what to say before speaking, we rarely think about how to say it, unless the situation is obviously loaded—for example, a job interview or a tricky performance review. Two of the three men named Phil.
From childhood, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers—although nobody really takes such modesty literally. Cultural factors such as country or region of origin and ethnic background influence how long a pause seems natural. The CEO of a major corporation told me that he often has to make decisions in five minutes about matters on which others may have worked five months.
But the norms of behavior in the U. Although asking the right questions is one of the hallmarks of a good manager, how and when questions are asked can send unintended als about competence and power. Another is taking center stage by telling stories or jokes.
They use language to negotiate how close they are; for example, the girl you tell your secrets to becomes your best friend. That is because we learn ways of speaking as children growing up, especially from peers, and children tend to play with other children of the same sex. Boys with high status in their group are expected to emphasize rather than downplay their status, and usually one or several boys will be seen as the leader or leaders.
The CEO obviously thinks he knows what a confident person sounds like. Of the men, only Phil named Cheryl.
The CEO who based his decisions on the confidence level of speakers was articulating a value that is widely shared in U. Here again, many women are at a disadvantage. The participants sat in a circle and discussed the new system. But his judgment, which may be dead right for some people, may be dead wrong for others.
Each senior manager stood up, reviewed the individuals in his group, and evaluated them for promotion. Veronica, a senior researcher in a high-tech company, had an observant boss.
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