I Think This Is An Important Topic

And, um, I’d like to suggest that we should pay more attention to it?

A recent discussion on Twitter raised some provocative points about communication norms in workplaces, especially those norms associated with gender. The research of linguists and sociologists such as Deborah Tannen has shown that men and women communicate differently, especially in the context of work. Men tend to present their views and opinions directly, while women tend to frame their statements with qualifiers such as “I think” or “in my opinion”.

In any workplace, the dominant group’s norms – both linguistic and behavioural – usually become the accepted norms in that workplace, regardless of whether those norms are functional or dysfunctional.  So if the workplace is dominated by men, or if men are in key positions of power, male-identified communication styles will likely be the styles that are accepted as conveying knowledge and authority. That’s why women wanting to get ahead in their careers are often advised to ‘talk like a man’, because using phrases like “in my view” may cause them to be perceived as ineffective, indecisive, or not credible.

The Twitter discussion raised an interesting counter-argument to this advice. Some participants stated that speakers not framing opinions or interpretations as such – in other words, presenting information as factual when it isn’t – is a equally challenging problem in workplaces. Individuals not being clear about a statement being their own perspective on an issue, rather than being a statement of fact, can lead to those opinions being given undeserved credibility. That’s even more potentially dangerous when those opinions are based on misunderstandings or on incomplete information. Presenting opinions or interpretations as facts also makes it difficult for those opinions to be challenged or discussed. Thus, some of the Twitter commenters said, people in organization should use signifiers like “I think” and “in my opinion” more often, not less often.

Being in a job that requires a lot of verbal and written communication, I found this exchange of views fascinating. I completely agree that many men and women could be more assertive in stating their views. Good ideas often get overlooked or discounted when the speaker sounds hesitant when communicating thee ideas. Hesitancy may be related to a lack of self-confidence, or it may be related to uncertain knowledge of the relevant topic. But if an idea is just that – an idea – it may be valuable for the speaker to frame it as speculative, so that the other participants in the discussion understand its relevance or importance. I’ve also noticed that some people find it easier to think through or commit to what they’re saying if they frame their statements with a qualifier such as “I believe” or “I feel”.

Another dimension to workplace communication that wasn’t mentioned in the Twitter discussion is how the speaker looks and sounds when making their statement. The speaker’s appearance and tone also affects how their words are perceived. Are their arms defensively crossed across their torso? Do they make eye contact with others in the room? Are they speaking quietly or forcefully? A particular peeve of my own is when a speaker – and, yes, it’s usually a woman –  ends every statement with an uptick? Like this? And it makes everything sound like a question, even when it’s a fact? I’ve even heard this mannerism from very accomplished and very qualified women, and it really undercuts their credibility – especially when they’re the only one in a group doing it.

Conformity in behaviour and appearance at the workplace is impossible, and often not even desirable. Obviously, for legal and ethical reasons, there needs to be minimum standards and clear expectations for how people interact, to ensure that harassment and other forms of oppressive behaviour are discouraged. But individual differences in opinions and perspectives bring out different dimensions of issues, and that wider range of information can be incredibly valuable to an organization in making relevant and well-reasoned decisions. In that context, it’s interesting to think about what behaviour in a workplace is or isn’t perceived as conveying credibility and knowledge. It’s a problem if good ideas or input are being lost because of the way in which they’re framed by the speaker – and that’s true whether that presentation uses hesitant qualifiers or overweening bragging.

Counteracting and changing negative workplace norms, not only in communication but also in other forms of workplace interactions, can be difficult for organizations. Understanding how norms develop and become dominant may require acknowledging some uncomfortable truths about who holds power in the workplace and how they acquire that power. But if that understanding results in a workplace that values all forms of respectful and thoughtful communication, the outcomes can be rewarding for both the employees and the organization.

3 comments

  1. This is a brilliant post, Fiona! The fact that folks are talking about this on Twitter gives me hope that we’ll soon be having constructive conversations about different communication styles, and how we can *all* make some small accommodations to improve how we convey information.

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