I May Be Wrong About This… – Kogod Now
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Kogod Now / Spring 2012  / I May Be Wrong About This…
Close up of woman biting her lip

I May Be Wrong About This…

The Effect of Feminine Speech Patterns on Workplace Development –

I could be wrong, but I just think that there is some evidence out there that could prove that, like, women have this, like, different way of speaking?

Linguists who study the way women speak would label the sentence above as an accurate example of a feminine speech pattern. The sentence combines self-effacement, questioning tonality, and slang that is undeniably “female.”

As Deborah Tannen explores in her classic book, Talking from 9 to 5, men and women have a distinctly different approach to speech because each sex learns to speak in a particular way that is associated with their gender.

This gendered speech carries over into the workplace, where it often gets amplified. The result: some of the workplace differences and inequalities are pervasive even today.

I’m Probably Wrong, I’m Sorry…

We know the stereotype: men never ask for directions, never talk about their feelings, and never apologize. Women, on the other hand, would gladly stop at a gas station, engage the attendant in a conversation about how they’re so frustrated about being lost, and then apologize for bothering him.

There’s some truth to the latter. As Tannen suggests, women engage in conversational rituals that include apologies as a way of restoring balance in a talking relationship, even if they have nothing to apologize for.

In general, feminine speech patterns are marked by a constant search for commonality, which place a woman in a position within a group, instead of standing out on her own. Apologizing, thanking, sharing mutual credit, praising, the soft delivery of opinions, and conversational support are all examples of this behavior.

While a businessman might say: “I closed the deal,” research shows that businesswomen would more often say: “We closed the deal.”

Similarly, women tend to thank people more often than men, and will thank someone even when no thanks are due. Women tend to use “thanks” as a closing to a sentence, to acknowledge mutual understanding and restore balance, in the same way that they interject conversational support in the form of “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” to acknowledge they’re listening to a speaker.

Men, on the other hand, use a pattern of speech that stresses individuality, through the absence of apologies, fewer thank you’s or praise, and strong delivery of opinions.

By comparison, then, a woman’s speech undermines her achievements, which, as Fiona Sheridan suggests in her article Gender, Language, and the Workplace: An Exploratory Study, results in linguistic interactions in the workplace that place women at a disadvantage in relation to men.

Apologizing is just one of the many features of feminine speech that can make a woman invisible in the office. As a result, women in the workplace don’t stand out as much among their male counterparts.

While many of their speech patterns result in women blending in, there are also some habits that make women stand out—or become marked—and lead to adverse effects.

You Just Talk…You Talk Too Much

Joe Jones’ catchy 1960 hit, “You Talk Too Much,” is a comical, bubble-gum pop song that expresses one commonly-held stereotype about women’s speech patterns: “You talk too much / you’re boring me to death.”

In the workplace, at the least, Jones’ lyrics fall flat.

Sheridan’s research shows that in mixed-gender groups in a professional setting, men speak twice as much as women and are more apt to interject or interrupt to make themselves heard. Further, she showed that when women do speak up, they are labeled as someone who “talks too much.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg knows the conundrum well. In her TED talk from late 2010, she described MBA students who were given a case about a successful venture capitalist, Heidi Rozen. In half of the cases, Heidi’s name was changed to Howard. Students who read the Howard case said that he was competent and a great guy who they would like to work with, while the students who read the Heidi case felt that she was competent, but “a little out for herself, a little political.”

Thus, one effect of professional women speaking up is that they are often negatively labeled for doing so. But they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Women who do speak up, and speak more boldly, face the risk of not being liked, which contradicts women’s inherent inclination to foster good community relations. However, women who express themselves more femininely face the risk of losing their mark of credibility.

The more a woman stands out, the more criticism she faces. Interestingly enough, while women’s linguistic behavior may manifest itself in talking less, their speech patterns do the opposite.

He was Like, Yeah, and I was Like, Noooo Waaay…

Women are linguistic trendsetters. They adopt certain words and speech effects that quickly become part of common speech.

A recent study published in the Journal of Voice has sparked a hot conversation in the mainstream media about feminine speech patterns. The study suggests that, most of the time, speech trends originate from women. For example, “like,” a popular term from the nineties became intensely popular through that decade into the 2000s.

The trends begin as a way to self-identify as part of a particular group or community – again, marking feminine speech as inherently community-driven. But these slang speech patterns can have the effect of stereotyping women as unintelligent and immature.

As a result, the more frequently women use the slang, the more likely it is that they, as a group, are marginalized. That is, until the slang becomes so commonplace that both genders and all age groups begin using it, too.

Take the case of rising intonation, or “uptalk,” another female speech pattern that began as a “Valley girl” trend but has been adopted into gender-neutral speech.

Linguist David Crystal argues that uptalk helps avoid the lengthy back-and-forth of making sure the listener is following the speaker. In that sense, uptalk is another form of conversational support that helps break down the divide between speaker and listener.

The Journal of Voice study focuses primarily on the latest feminine speech trend: vocal fry. It has become quickly adopted into women’s speech patterns everywhere from the high school hallway to the corporate conference room. Vocal fry occurs when the voice drops to the lowest pitch, resulting in a guttural, creaking, growling sound. It is a trend that can be heard among most pop stars (Ke$ha, Britney Spears), but it’s also creeping up among women in the workforce as a powerful tool.

Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, a linguist from the University of Iowa, recently published a paper that shows how upwardly mobile, college-bound, professional young women are using vocal fry to lend a more masculine tone to their speech. By adopting it, young women are accomplishing two, seemingly opposing goals: they are projecting an image of authority and accomplishment, while also maintaining an image of desirability.

Though attention to vocal fry may be recent, it’s not new to women in the workplace. In her recent profile in The New Yorker, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson was described as someone with a particularly noticeable voice, “the equivalent of a nasal car honk, […] an odd combination of upper- and working-class.” And cleverly, Abramson habitually runs sentences into each other, so as the limit the prospect of being interrupted.

Abramson’s hard work is, no doubt, what earned her the newspaper’s top seat, but her commanding speech patterns may have had some effect on her influence.

So What’s a Woman to Say?

On the one hand, feminized speech patterns appear to sabotage a woman’s ability to break the glass ceiling, while on the other, adoption of some patterns actually helps open the door to the boardroom.

So what’s a woman to do? Start by noticing how she, her female colleagues, and her girlfriends speak. Know the major pitfalls (such as apologizing, overuse of slang), and avoid them. Learn how to use alternate patterns to her advantage, and teach the women around her to do the same.

But most of all, when she does find herself in a board seat, she should realize she is there not only because she knew how to talk the talk: she leveraged language to fully express her personal achievements.

And that’s, like, a victory.

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