Deborah Tannen

Language, Sex, and Power, Part I

VTR Date: October 30, 1996

Guest: Tannen, Deborah


Guest: Deborah Tannen
Title: “Language, Sex and Power”
VTR: 10/30/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it’s been almost five years since my guest today joined me to discuss her then number-one bestseller, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation”. Earlier, of course, many of us had read her “That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships”. And now I’ve asked Deborah Tannen, University Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown, to talk with me about “Talking from Nine to Five”, her new international bestseller about the workplace, where, as she notes, “The ways in which we communicate with each other can determine who gets heard, who gets ahead, and what gets done.”

Now, last time, when she signed my copy of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation”, Dr. Tannen wrote, “To Elaine and Dick Heffner: Keep talking,” which we’ve done, though how well I won’t say. But I will ask Dr. Tannen whether, with this move from home to the workplace, we needn’t assume that sex and language take a backseat to power and language, or is it all the same thing?

TANNEN: I think sex, power, and language are all intertwined, which is why we call the subtitle of the paperback is, right there, “Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power”. They’re all intertwined. It’s interesting that, when a woman is in a position of authority, in other words, she has power, she’s in a special, what I call, double-binder. It’s a special challenge. Because the way we have associated with, ways of talking we associate with someone in power is not what we expect or associate with women. And so a man as a boss, anything he does to be seen as a stronger boss also makes him a better man. But for a woman, anything she does to seem a stronger boss starts to undercut people’s impression of her as a woman. Now, it’s not to say that it really has any effect on her femininity, but in people’s impressions. So, for example, a woman has a decision to make. If you think back to the private conversation kind of thing we talked about making a decision, she may start by asking you what you think. And then she doesn’t expect you to say, if it were, for example, “Are you thirsty? Would you like to stop for a drink?” she doesn’t expect “No” or “Yes”; she expects, “Well, I don’t know. How do you feel about it?” And then she could say, “Well, I don’t know. How do you feel about it?” And you would talk about it and make a decision after you found out how everybody felt about it. Well, now she’s the boss, she’s the manager, and she has a decision to make. Many women will start by asking everybody what their opinion is. Not to ask them to decide, but just to take their thoughts into account, make them feel included. Well, this can often end up with her being seen as not a good manager. People can see it as, “It’s her decision, but she can’t make it. She’s trying to get other people to decide for her”, whether or not a woman admits if she doesn’t know something. Many managers learn if you don’t know something, better to cover it up. And I actually observed this. I was observing a conversation where someone was on a speakerphone. It actually was a lawyer. And he accidentally elbowed the phone and disconnected the call. Well, I was sure that when his secretary reconnected the call I was going to hear him say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I disconnected the phone.” No, he said, “Hey, what happened? One minute you were there and the next minute you’re gone.” Well, this amazed me. He didn’t admit he had done something wrong. He didn’t have to. The other people didn’t see what had disconnected the call. Now, this can be very frustrating to some people, and I actually have been taken to task for excusing the man for doing this. One reviewer said, “Why doesn’t Deborah Tannen just admit he’s a jerk?” Well, I don’t think he’s a jerk. Sometimes it is very effective and a smart thing to do not to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Other times it doesn’t work very well. Fidelity Investments, I don’t know if you remember, but some years back didn’t have the correct numbers to report on a fund. They didn’t want to admit they didn’t know, so they used the fund’s numbers from the previous day. It happened that the stock market had changed drastically that day and they were in big trouble. So you have to know when it’s right to admit that you’re wrong, and when it’s wrong to admit that you’re wrong.

Well, this “I’m sorry” is especially interesting, because so often women are told, “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault” because she said, “I’m sorry.” But very often a woman will say, “I’m sorry,” and she doesn’t mean, “I apologize. I made a mistake”; she means, “I’m sorry that happened.” It’s her way of taking into account that something has happened to the other person. You’re kind of thinking in terms of them rather than you when you say, “I’m sorry.” But in our culture we tend to interpret anything people say as a sign of their internal psychological state. And so women are often seen as lacking in self-confidence because they said, “I’m sorry,” or because they asked people their opinion. And it’s kind of a misunderstanding, taking too literally something that is really just a conversational ritual.

HEFFNER: Now, has anyone, in reviewing the book or commenting on it, said, “Professor Tannen is saying women should stay out of positions of authority in business because they don’t deal with those positions correctly”? In a sense that’s, you’re not saying they shouldn’t, but you’re saying what the downside is.

TANNEN: Actually, I’m glad you expressed that, because it is very much not what I’m saying. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I know you’re not saying it.

TANNEN: And I’m lucky that no reviewer has. They’ve said a lot of things about me; not that one in particular. Because actually women’s styles work very well. The problem is often that their talents are misevaluated.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Do they or don’t they?

TANNEN: No, all the examples that I gave you, like saying, “I’m sorry” and you’re mistaken as apologizing or asking people’s opinion, this is very fascinating. People like to have their opinions asked. It’s not that the people that work for her don’t like working for her because she asks their opinion. No one ever complained, “I don’t like my boss because he takes my opinion into account.” It’s often her boss that misevaluates her abilities. So another example, a woman who actually was the college president and said to her secretary, “Could you do me a favor and type this?” Her secretary loved working for her. She was a terrific college president. She did her job extremely well. But a member of the board of trustees who overheard her said, “Don’t forget, you’re the president.” So it often means that women are not getting the promotions they deserve, are not being ranked as high as they deserve, perhaps are not getting the credit they deserve. But it is not that they aren’t doing a very good job. And it isn’t that they aren’t liked by the people that work for them. Women managers very often are extremely well liked by the people that work for them.

Another example would be, my research shows, and other research actually has shown as well, that women as managers are often more likely to praise the people that work for them. Everybody likes this. Nobody complains, “My boss praises me too much.” [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I haven’t heard it yet, anyway.

TANNEN: But it can sometimes mean that someone overhearing her giving praise thinks, “Gee, she hasn’t done it; he did it.” You know, after all, she’s praising him. It can lead to misunderstandings, as any difference in conversational rituals can lead to misunderstanding. So, for example, a woman manager had to tell a man to rewrite a report because it wasn’t sufficient. She started by telling him everything that was right with it. Then she told him what was wrong with it. When he redid it and gave it back to her he hadn’t made all the changes that she had asked for. When she complained to him, he said, “Well, you told me it was fine the way it was.” So he heard the praise as the main point because she started out with it. To her, the praise was a preamble to the main point, which was the criticism.

Now, having to fix a problem like this, you could say she’s doing something wrong, she has to learn to give him directions in a different way. But it works just as well if she can simply talk to him about it and call his attention to the fact that even though she’s giving this praise and she appreciates what he did, he really does have to make the changes.

HEFFNER: But you say, “If she can.” On the other hand, you’re saying that’s not, essentially, the woman’s style.

TANNEN: This really varies in every individual case. If you realize that there’s a style difference going on, you have three choices: You can change your way of speaking; you can discuss it with the person that you’re working with so that they will understand how you mean what you said; or you might decide you can’t do anything in a particular situation, but it feels better to know what’s happening. I’ll give you another example. A bookstore owner who was a woman and had to have a talk with the manager because she felt she had told him to do something, he had said he would do it, and then a week later it wasn’t done. Well, when they had a talk it turned out she had said to him, “The bookkeeper needs help with the billing. How would you feel about helping her out?” And he said, “Fine.” By which he meant, “Fine, I’ll think about how I would feel about helping the bookkeeper out.” He thought he would do it, but he thought he would do it a little bit later. He didn’t realize that he had been asked to do it right then. I later talked to that bookstore owner and asked her how things were with the manager. She said, “Fine. We have no more problems.” I said, “Have you changed your way of asking him to do things?” And she said, “No. I talk the same way, but now he knows how I mean it.”

HEFFNER: Yes, I was fascinated by that example in the book. What would you have done in that situation? Because my tendency would have been to have said she should have fired him the hell out of there.

TANNEN: I imagine he was very good in many other ways, so she had reasons not to want to let him go. But if this had happened repeatedly, if he always misunderstood her and never did what he was told, then I think she probably would have fired him. But…

HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny, I saw willfulness in that example that you gave, on his part.

TANNEN: That’s interesting. A lot of people point out to me: Can’t it be the case that a man really knows what she means, but he thinks he can get away with it because of the way she asked? And, of course, that does happen at times. And nothing that I say is ever meant to imply that everybody means well, that nobody ever had bad intentions. In all my books I’m simply saying you can’t assume a person has bad intentions until you’ve checked out this issue of conversational style.

HEFFNER: Once, on one of our early programs, you said something. I forget exactly what I had said. And you said, “Well, that’s interesting. Most men make that point about the book.”

TANNEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Would you say this question that I just asked you was, and the question that others have asked you that are similar, are male questions, untrusting questions?

TANNEN: I would say no. Both women and men raise the issue, “But what about when people have bad intentions?” What’s interesting to me is that often women will be rather annoyed at me for, quote, “Letting men off the hook,” because in my books I don’t say, “Women are good communicators; men are bad communicators. Men have to learn how to communicate like women.” I don’t say that. And so…

HEFFNER: You mean it though, don’t you?

TANNEN: No. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You don’t?

TANNEN: No, no, no. I truly believe that both styles make sense, both styles can work well. As I said just earlier, sometimes it makes sense not to admit that you’ve done something wrong. Other times it can count against you. I truly believe that both women and men can learn a lot by realizing that the way they tend to do things isn’t the only way. Consider that at times you might try the other style. It might work for you. I think we all will do better if we’re flexible. Give another example: a woman who got a bad evaluation. She was a resident in a medical residency program. She was the only woman. This was some years back. And she had a bad evaluation. She asked the supervising physician why. He said, “You don’t know as much as the others.” She felt this wasn’t true. So she asked why he drew that conclusion. He said, “Well, you ask so many questions.” [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I loved that example in the book. Absolutely loved it.

TANNEN: So that’s an example where it was working against her. And I think this goes back to the way boys and girls growing up learn to pay attention, where they are putting their concerns, you might say. So boys’ groups tend to be hierarchical. And the high-status boys will push the low-status boys around. So you have to learn to watch out, not to talk in a way that’s going to lower your status, that’s going to put you in that one-down position, because you realize over time that the other boys will take advantage of it. And a lot of the impulses that many — and obviously not anything is true of all men or all women; there are a lot of cultural differences too — but many men will learn that people will take advantage of you if you admit you don’t know, if you show weakness. All of these things can put you in a one-down position. This gets to the, what has turned out to be the most popular example from “You Just Don’t Understand”: Why don’t men like to stop and ask for directions? Because that experience of asking for help can feel like you’re putting yourself in a one-down position.

And it’s interesting that — this is related to whether or not you admit you don’t know — many men will tell me, “Well, if you ask directions, the person you ask may not know either, and he’ll tell you the wrong thing because he won’t want to admit he doesn’t know.” And I less often hear from women, “The person who doesn’t know won’t want to admit they don’t know.” But there is some truth to that. And I have been led on a wild goose chase when I’ve asked directions of someone who didn’t know and made something up and told me the wrong thing.

So I truly believe that there is truth on both sides and there is logic to both styles.

HEFFNER: Well, as I was reading “Talking From Nine to Five”, I realized I thought this as I read the other books and wanted to ask you: I have the sense, male chauvinist sense perhaps, that women are, talking about being a good communicator, women are better talkers and poorer listeners. They hear less well, and speak much better. How would you evaluate that?

TANNEN: Well, it’s a unique view. Most research shows, and mine shows it somewhat, that women often are better listeners. So that’s surprising…

HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t mean at listening. At hearing. Willing to listen, cultural artifact.

TANNEN: Can you think of an example that…

HEFFNER: Yes, yes. Being more sensitive to what is being said and therefore misinterpreting.

TANNEN: Ah, okay. This is interesting. It’s often said that women are more sensitive than men. And I like to point out women and men are both sensitive, but we often are sensitive to different secret signals. So men are often amazed at what women pick up. And often what they pick up, and the men think isn’t there, is some kind of rejection. For example: “I’m going for a walk.” The woman’s hurt. “I wanted to go with you.” “Well, tell me if you want to go with me.” “But you didn’t invite me.” Or a man’s making himself a sandwich. The woman’s hurt. “You didn’t offer me any.” “Well, ask for some if you’re hungry.” So women seem to be more likely to pick up signals of, “You don’t love me enough. You’re pushing me away.”

HEFFNER: Whether they’re there or not?

TANNEN: Whether they’re there or not. Yes. However, men often pick up signals of being put down when women wonder where did they come from. And I’ll give you the example that I started out “You Just Don’t Understand” with: My husband and I teach in different cities. And people will often express sympathy for us. “Oh, that must be terrible.” My reaction often is to say, “Well, it’s not so bad.” You know, that we don’t mind. Or, “Well, we fly a lot.” You know, “We run up a lot of frequent-flier miles.” My husband is often inclined to respond as if the person is putting him down, saying, “You’re unfortunate. My life is better than yours because my wife and I live in the same city.” And many men tell me they react that way. So it’s different sensitivities. Again, going back to the way boys and girls learn language and are socialized as children, that the boys’ and then the men’s antenna often are rolled out for any signal that someone’s trying to put you down or push you around; whereas women are tuned to a channel that says looking for any signals that someone is trying to push you away. It’s different sensitivities.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying we’re both lousy listeners when, or hearers, when certain chords are sounded.

TANNEN: Or you might say that we both tend to hear certain signals and miss others. So I think women often may miss a signal that someone’s putting them down, and men may miss a signal that someone’s pushing them away.

HEFFNER: Well, let me go to the other end, and that is having to do with speaking, communicating, the act of acting communication. Women or men, better or worse?

TANNEN: I think, again, the good communicator is the person who is understood by the person they’re speaking to. So, if you’re speaking to someone whose style is similar, you’re a good communicator; if you’re speaking to someone whose style is different and you’re not adjusting, you’re not as good.

HEFFNER: You’re not going to take sides here, huh?

TANNEN: [Laughter] I don’t take sides. Just to go back to the workplace with this question of sensitivities.


TANNEN: Very often women in a high-up management position don’t have their signals attuned to any attempt by people who work with them to undercut their authority. And yet it often is the case in the workplace that people are trying to undercut the person in authority. One person that I interviewed commented that if a man is on the rise in a corporation and he’s trying to move in on somebody else’s territory he often will be more likely to go after a woman because he feels she’ll be easier prey. In other words, she won’t have her guard up quite as much. So there are situations in which it makes sense to have your antenna tuned to that channel. On the other hand, you can overreact. So I think there are, again, there are strengths and weaknesses to both styles. And I want not to forget that there are cultural differences in all of this as well, and we can…

HEFFNER: In the workplace too?

TANNEN: In the workplace as well. Another example of… In fact, this is a good example because I’ve talked a lot about conversational rituals that are common among women which men take too literally, like the “I’m sorry.” There also are rituals that are common among men that women don’t realize are ritual and take too literally. An example would be what I call “ritual opposition.” So one woman, for example, shared an office with a man. She heard him arguing quite, quite angrily with another colleague, and then later she heard them joking. So she said to her officemate, “How can you pretend that fight never happened?” And he said, “Well, it happened, but it’s over.” From her point of view, if you have an angry interchange with a colleague, you really have to talk it over; you can’t just ignore it, forget it, and move on. From his point of view, this is just part of the work. “We were arguing about some issue at work, and it’s passed.” Very often, if a woman raises an idea, a man may play what he calls “devil’s advocate,” try to poke holes in the idea, try to find everything that’s wrong with it. This is just part of exploring the idea, but using, as if you were fighting, just like two little boys play-fighting, which they do much more than little girls do. Not that little girls don’t fight. They do fight. But as a game, as entertainment, little girls are less likely to say, “We’ve got a half-hour. Let’s fight.” Whereas boys might pick up something and start fighting. So many women will mistake this devil’s advocate ritual for a true opposition to her ideas and may think, first of all, she may take it literally, “These are terrible ideas; I’m going to drop them,” or she may take it personally, “He’s got something against me. Every time I raise an idea he’s arguing with me about it.” So she may take these ideas, the ritual opposition, too literally. And this is something, you know, that can actually hurt the company as a whole, because very good ideas are sometimes dropped because of this. She can then also attribute very negative attitudes toward him. For example (and I’ve heard this in my own research and corporations), where a woman will say, “I brought up the idea. He pretended that he didn’t like the idea, and criticized it, and so I dropped it. And then I heard him talking about it to someone else.” So, from her point of view, he simply stole the idea and criticized it so that she would drop it. You know, it could be. Again, let’s take your point of view. It could be. But it also could be that he was exploring the idea, he thought it was a good one, he really didn’t think he had argued against it, and then he was talking it up because he thought it was a good idea.

HEFFNER: Is this matter of women and men in the workplace, language, sex and power, are corporations or large companies, is the workplace becoming aware of the dynamics, as you describe them?

TANNEN: Corporations are very much becoming aware, because of the glass ceiling.

HEFFNER: Why would that…

TANNEN: Because there’s a concern now. Many corporations have made very great efforts to recruit women. They find that they’re very successful at recruiting excellent women. And then five, ten years down the line, they find that many of the women they recruited who were either as qualified as the men hired at the same time or even more qualified, five, ten years down the line they haven’t been promoted or they haven’t been retained. Often they leave. And it’s a very interesting thing because often, when women are not promoted, reasons are given. And I’ve found this in my own research if I ask, “Why wasn’t a certain woman promoted?” The reason given often is, “She lacked self-confidence. She just didn’t seem to have the confidence to have that higher job.” And I write about this in “Talking From Nine to Five”, because it was such a pervasive pattern. Often these same women who seem not to have confidence, they leave the company, they start their own companies where they do extremely well. And, as you probably know, the percentage of women starting their own companies is very, very high.

HEFFNER: You make that point very, very well.

TANNEN: Yes. And so it isn’t a matter of their not having the abilities, but something is going on, and it gets back to what I said before, that their true abilities are not being recognized, and it has to do, often has to do with these conversational-style issues.

HEFFNER: Do your studies go over time so that you can see a shift, a change?

TANNEN: No. I pretty much describe the situation during the time that I did my research.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen?

TANNEN: I’m hopeful… Well, first of all, women starting their own companies is hopeful in itself because if a woman is the boss she doesn’t have to worry about whether somebody else is evaluating her accurately.

HEFFNER: No, no, I mean about the movement to independently owned…

TANNEN: Whether women leaving the… Yeah.

HEFFNER: Will continue to do that.

TANNEN: The situation has not improved as quickly as everybody hoped that it would. But I’m still hopeful that, as this becomes more, better understood, that it will gradually improve over time. And there is some evidence that when the boss is a woman she’s better able to identify the people, the coming-up that are capable. And there were situations in the companies that I observed where a woman boss was able to see the talents of a woman that some of her male colleagues were not able to see. She convinced them that the woman deserved to be hired or promoted, the hiring or promotion took place, and the woman did well.

HEFFNER: In 30 seconds, how do you account for that? The male/female difference.

TANNEN: Again, I think it goes both ways. Women will often appear to men as less confident than they really are; men will often appear to women as more arrogant than they really are. Because we are judging each other by the standards that we were taught as children; so the women are taught, “Don’t boast about your abilities. Do your best job, and depend on other people to recognize it.” Men are often taught, “Put your best foot forward. Hide your weaknesses so that you’re sure you get the credit you deserve.” That can come across as arrogance to women; women’s modesty can across as lack of self-confidence to men. And women and men, of course, also can, we can misjudge people of the same sex too.

HEFFNER: I’m told, Deborah Tannen, that I’m supposed to say goodbye. But just for a moment, because if you’ll stay where you are, the moment will be a week for those who watch us, next week we’ll be back with more. Thanks, Deborah Tannen.

TANNEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.