Social Science


Women and Men at Work



Dedication Preface A Note on Notes and Transcription

Chapter One: Women and Men Talking on the Job Chapter Two: “I’m Sorry, I’m Not Apologizing”: Conversational Rituals Chapter Three: “Why Don’t You Say What You Mean?”: Indirectness at Work Chapter Four: Marked: Women in the Workplace Chapter Five: The Glass Ceiling Chapter Six: “She’s the Boss”: Women and Authority Chapter Seven: Talking Up Close: Status and Connection Chapter Eight: What’s Sex Got to Do with It? Chapter Nine: Who Gets Heard?: Talking at Meetings Acknowledgments References Index Afterword

About the Author Notes Praise for Talking From 9 to 5 Copyright About the Publisher




In my mind, this book is the third in a series. In That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Your Relations With Others , I laid out the framework of conversational style that I have spent the last two decades researching. That framework is a linguistic approach to understanding relationships: People have different conversational styles, influenced by the part of the country they grew up in, their ethnic backgrounds and those of their parents, their age, class, and gender. But conversational style is invisible. Unaware that these and other aspects of our back- grounds influence our ways of talking, we think we are simply saying what we mean. Because we don’t realize that others’ styles are different, we are often frustrated in conversations. Rather than seeing the culprit as differing styles, we attribute troubles to others’ intentions (she doesn’t like me), abilities (he’s stupid), or character (she’s rude, he’s inconsiderate), our own failure (what’s wrong with me?), or the failure of a relationship (we just can’t communicate).

In You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation , I narrowed the focus to patterns of conversational style influenced by gender. Based on the assumption that we learn styles of interacting as children growing up, and that children tend to play in sex-separate groups in which very different styles are learned, practiced, and reinforced, the book proceeded from the metaphor of male-female conversation as cross-cultural communication.

The two earlier books are about private speaking, focusing primarily (though not exclusively) on one-on-one conversations between intimates and friends. This book is concerned with private speaking in a public context—the talk that goes on at work, particularly in offices. It is private in the sense that many of the conversations I analyze are still one-on-one, except for meetings and presentations. They are also “private” compared to the public con-texts of speaking on radio or television, or giving a lecture. Yet the work setting is public, in that most of the people you talk to at work are not family you know intimately, nor friends or partners you have chosen, but strangers into whose midst you have been thrown by the circumstances of your job. Another way that work mixes public and private is simply a matter of time: Although our private relationships with family and friends are the center of our emotional lives, many of us spend more hours of our lives at work with colleagues and coworkers, some of whom eventually become friends or even family.

There is another sense in which talk at work is public. No matter how private a conversation is, in most work settings your performance will be evaluated at some

point, by a boss, a board, a client, a colleague, or a subordinate. Conversations at work can be, in a sense, like a test. What we say as we do our work can become evidence on which we are judged, and the judgments may surface in the form of raises (or denials of raises), promotions (or their lack or their opposite), and favorable (or unfavorable) work assignments.

These three books make up what social scientists call an implicational hierarchy. Everything I said in That’s Not What I Meant! applies to the two books that follow, and everything I wrote in You Just Don’t Understand applies here, even though I obviously cannot repeat those books as a preface to this one. Although I may talk about “women” and “men,” I am always aware, and remind readers to be aware, that — as That’s Not What I Meant! shows in detail—gender is only one of many influences on conversational style. Each individual has a unique style, influenced by a personal history of many influences such as geographic region, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, occupation, religion, and age— as well as a unique personality and spirit. Patterns that I describe are always a matter of degree, of a range on a continuum, not of absolute difference, when it comes to gender as well as the other influences and affiliations I just mentioned. In other words, our ways of talking are influenced by every aspect of our communities, so no two women or two men are exactly alike, any more than any two New Yorkers or Spaniards or forty-year-olds are necessarily alike. Yet understanding the patterns of influence on our styles is crucial to understanding what happens to us in our conversations—and our lives.

Although I am aware of the many influences on conversational style and have spent most of my career studying and writing about them, in this book, as in You Just Don’t Understand, style differences influenced by gender receive particular attention. This is not only because these are the differences people most want to hear about (although this is so and is a factor), but also because there is something fundamental about our categorization by gender. When you spot a person walking down the street toward you, you immediately and automatically identify that person as male or female. You will not necessarily try to determine which state they are from, what their class background is, or what country their grandparents came from. A secondary identification, in some places and times, may be about race. But, while we may envision a day when a director will be able to cast actors for a play without reference to race, can we imagine a time when actors can be cast without reference to their sex?

Few elements of our identities come as close to our sense of who we are as gender. If you mistake people’s cultural back-ground—you thought they were Greek, but they turn out to be Italian; you assumed they’d grown up in Texas, but it turns out they’re from Kentucky; you say “Merry Christmas” and they say, “we don’t celebrate Christmas; we’re Muslim”—it catches you off guard and you rearrange the mental

frame through which you view them. But if someone you thought was male turns out to be female—like the jazz musician Billy Tipton, whose own adopted sons never suspected that their father was a woman until the coroner broke the news to them after his (her) death—the required adjustment is staggering. Even infants discriminate between males and females and react differently depending on which they confront.

Perhaps it is because our sense of gender is so deeply rooted that people are inclined to hear descriptions of gender patterns as statements about gender identity— in other words, as absolute differences rather than a matter of degree and percentages, and as universal rather than culturally mediated. The patterns I describe are based on observations of particular speakers in a particular place and time: mostly (but not exclusively) middle-class Americans of European background working in offices at the present time. Other cultures evince very different patterns of talk associated with gender—and correspondingly different assumptions about the “natures” of women and men. I don’t put a lot of store in talk about “natures” or what is “natural.” People in every culture will tell you that the behaviors common in their own culture are “natural.” I also don’t put a lot of store in people’s explanations that their way of talking is a natural response to their environment, as there is always an equally natural and opposite way of responding to the same environment. We all tend to regard the way things are as the way things have to be—as only natural.

The reason ways of talking, like other ways of conducting our daily lives, come to seem natural is that the behaviors that make up our lives are ritualized. Indeed, the “ritual” character of interaction is at the heart of this book. Having grown up in a particular culture, we learn to do things as the people we encounter do them, so the vast majority of our decisions about how to speak become automatic. You see someone you know, you ask “How are you?,” chat, then take your leave, never pausing to ponder the many ways you could handle this interaction differently—and would, if you lived in a different culture. Just as an American automatically ex-tends a hand for a handshake while a Japanese automatically bows, what the American and Japanese find it natural to say is a matter of convention learned over a lifetime.

No one understood the ritual nature of everyday life better than sociologist Erving Goffman, who also understood the fundamental role played by gender in organizing our daily rituals. In his article “The Arrangement Between the Sexes,” Goffman pointed out that we tend to say “sex-linked” when what we mean is “sex-class-linked.” When hearing that a behavior is “sex-linked,” people often conclude that the behavior is to be found in every individual of that group, and that it is somehow inherent in their sex, as if it came hooked to a chromosome. Goffman suggests the term “genderism” (on the model, I assume, of “mannerism,” not of “sexism”) for “a sex- class linked individual behavioral practice.” This is the spirit in which I intend

references to gendered patterns of behavior: not to imply that there is anything inherently male or female about particular ways of talking, nor to claim that every individual man or woman adheres to the pattern, but rather to observe that a larger percentage of women or men as a group talk in a particular way, or individual women and men are more likely to talk one way or the other.

That individuals do not always fit the pattern associated with their gender does not mean that the pattern is not typical. Because more women or men speak in a particular way, that way of speaking becomes associated with women or men—or, rather, it is the other way around: More women or men learn to speak particular ways because those ways are associated with their own gender.

And individual men or women who speak in ways associated with the other gender will pay a price for departing from cultural expectations.

If my concept of how gender displays itself in everyday life has been influenced by Goffman, the focus of my research—talk—and my method for studying it grow directly out of my own discipline, linguistics. My understanding of what goes on when people talk to each other is based on observing and listening as well as tape- recording, transcribing, and analyzing conversation. In response to my book You Just Don’t Understand, I was contacted by people at many companies who asked whether I could help them apply the insights in that book to the problem of “the glass ceiling”: Why weren’t women advancing as quickly as the men who were hired at the same time? And more generally, they wanted to understand how to integrate women as well as others who were historically not “typical” employees into the increasingly diverse workforce. I realized that in order to offer insight, I needed to observe what was really going on in the workplace.

I approached this in a number of ways. At some companies, I followed individuals around, sitting in on formal interactions like meetings as well as informal ones like chats at the coffee machine and lunch. At other companies, I undertook more formal research in which individuals volunteered to tape-record their conversations. I was not present at these tapings, so my presence would not interfere with what was going on (although I realize that the presence of a tape recorder can be an intrusion that results in distortion too). I also spent time shadowing the individuals, to become familiar with the settings they worked in and who was who, and to get my own impressions of the situation and the people. Later, I had the taped conversations transcribed, and then I examined the transcripts and listened to the tapes.

Finally, at all these companies, and in other companies and contexts, I talked at length to individuals and in many cases tape-recorded our conversations. In a sense, these were interviews, but I did not go in with a list of questions. There were, however, certain questions I usually asked, such as “What are your impressions of the

people you work with?”; “What is your idea of a good manager?”; and “Looking back on your work life, what were some of your best and worst experiences with managers or with people you managed?” I also drew on my own experience and the experiences of friends, family, and chance acquaintances who happened to tell me incidents from their own lives.

My students, too, are invaluable sources of examples and in-sights. I have drawn (always with acknowledgment) on material they provided in class assignments, term papers, and notebooks I ask them to keep in which they record experiences and their analyses of them. Finally, I refer to the research of others. I have not attempted to give a comprehensive review of the literature (such an endeavor would constitute a book in itself), but have simply selected a few studies that dramatize points I consider important. I offer apologies to the many researchers who have done relevant studies that I have not cited.

Since the publication of You Just Don’t Understand , I have often been told, “Your book saved my marriage.” Clashing conversational styles can wreak havoc at the conference table as well as at the breakfast table, with consequences as frustrating and even more dangerous, since people’s welfare and even lives can be at stake. Everyone’s frustration will be reduced, and companies as well as individuals will benefit, if we all begin to understand and accept each other’s styles. In this spirit, I hope this book will give similar support to people who are struggling with coworkers, with jobs, and with companies. That is the reason I now turn my attention to talking at work.

A Note on Notes and Transcription

Since my training is as a scholar, I believe it is important to give credit whenever I write something that was informed or inspired by someone else’s writing, and to tell readers how they can track down my references or get more information on a topic that interests them. This requires footnotes. I have followed the convention of trade books and include notes at the end of the book, but these notes are not flagged by numbers in the text. I know this will frustrate those readers who want to know whenever a statement is accompanied by a note; to them I offer apologies and the following explanation: A majority of readers find little numbers distracting; many feel compelled to interrupt their reading and search for the note, then feel tricked when the note offers only bibliographical information about which they care little. For those who do care, whenever I quote someone, I provide information on where that source is to be found in notes and/or references. If the source is a book or article and I am citing only one book or article by a particular author, I simply include the source in the References section at the end of the book. Since the References are listed alphabetically by author, finding sources there should be easier than searching for the right page for notes.

A word also is in order on transcription. Conversational transcripts are the stock in trade of sociolinguists, and we have developed conventions intended to capture, as much as possible, how the dialogue sounded. Three dots separated by spaces (. . .) show that something has been omitted, but three unspaced dots (…) indicate a slight pause. When a bit of talk was inaudible, it is represented by a question mark in slashes: /?/. Uncertain transcription is also surrounded /by slashes/. Words are always written as the speaker spoke them, without correcting for written “grammar.”

Chapter One: Women and Men Talking on the Job

Amy was a manager with a problem: She had just read a final report written by Donald, and she felt it was woefully inadequate. She faced the unsavory task of telling him to do it over. When she met with Donald, she made sure to soften the blow by beginning with praise, telling him everything about his report that was good. Then she went on to explain what was lacking and what needed to be done to make it acceptable. She was pleased with the diplomatic way she had managed to deliver the bad news. Thanks to her thoughtfulness in starting with praise, Donald was able to listen to the criticism and seemed to understand what was needed. But when the revised report appeared on her desk, Amy was shocked. Donald had made only minor, superficial changes, and none of the necessary ones. The next meeting with him did not go well. He was incensed that she was now telling him his report was not acceptable and accused her of having misled him. “You told me before it was fine,” he protested.

Amy thought she had been diplomatic; Donald thought she had been dishonest. The praise she intended to soften the message “This is unacceptable” sounded to him like the message itself: “This is fine.” So what she regarded as the main point—the needed changes—came across to him as optional suggestions, because he had already registered her praise as the main point. She felt he hadn’t listened to her. He thought she had changed her mind and was making him pay the price.

Work days are filled with conversations about getting the job done. Most of these conversations succeed, but too many end in impasses like this. It could be that Amy is a capricious boss whose wishes are whims, and it could be that Donald is a temperamental employee who can’t hear criticism no matter how it is phrased. But I don’t think either was the case in this instance. I believe this was one of innumerable misunderstandings caused by differences in conversational style. Amy delivered the criticism in a way that seemed to her self-evidently considerate, a way she would have preferred to receive criticism herself: taking into account the other person’s feelings, making sure he knew that her ultimate negative assessment of his report didn’t mean she had no appreciation of his abilities. She offered the praise as a sweetener to help the nasty-tasting news go down. But Donald didn’t expect criticism to be delivered in that way, so he mistook the praise as her overall assessment rather than a preamble to it.

This conversation could have taken place between two women or two men. But I

do not think it is a coincidence that it occurred between a man and a woman. This book will explain why. First, it gives a view of the role played by talk in our work lives. To do this, I show the workings of conversational style, explaining the ritual nature of conversation and the confusion that arises when rituals are not shared and therefore not recognized as such. I take into account the many influences on conversational style, but I focus in particular on the differing rituals that typify women and men (although, of course, not all individual men and women behave in ways that are typical). Conversational rituals common among men often involve using opposition such as banter, joking, teasing, and playful put-downs, and expending effort to avoid the one-down position in the interaction. Conversational rituals common among women are often ways of maintaining an appearance of equality, taking into account the effect of the ex-change on the other person, and expending effort to downplay the speakers’ authority so they can get the job done without flexing their muscles in an obvious way.

When everyone present is familiar with these conventions, they work well. But when ways of speaking are not recognized as conventions, they are taken literally, with negative results on both sides. Men whose oppositional strategies are interpreted literally may be seen as hostile when they are not, and their efforts to ensure that they avoid appearing one-down may be taken as arrogance. When women use conversational strategies designed to avoid appearing boastful and to take the other person’s feelings into ac-count, they may be seen as less confident and competent than they really are. As a result, both women and men often feel they are not getting sufficient credit for what they have done, are not being listened to, are not getting ahead as fast as they should.

When I talk about women’s and men’s characteristic ways of speaking, I always emphasize that both styles make sense and are equally valid in themselves, though the difference in styles may cause trouble in interaction. In a sense, when two people form a private relationship of love or friendship, the bubble of their interaction is a world unto itself, even though they both come with the prior experience of their families, their community, and a life-time of conversations. But someone who takes a job is entering a world that is already functioning, with its own characteristic style already in place. Although there are many influences such as regional background, the type of industry involved, whether it is a family business or a large corporation, in general, workplaces that have previously had men in positions of power have already established male-style interaction as the norm. In that sense, women, and others whose styles are different, are not starting out equal, but are at a disadvantage. Though talking at work is quite similar to talking in private, it is a very different enterprise in many ways.


If conversational-style differences lead to troublesome outcomes in work as well as private settings, there are some work settings where the outcomes of style are a matter of life and death. Health-care professionals are often in such situations. So are airline pilots.

Of all the examples of women’s and men’s characteristic styles that I discussed in You Just Don’t Understand , the one that (to my surprise) attracted the most attention was the question “Why don’t men like to stop and ask for directions?” Again and again, in the responses of audiences, talk-show hosts, letter writers, journalists, and conversationalists, this question seemed to crystallize the frustration many people had experienced in their own lives. And my explanation seems to have rung true: that men are more likely to be aware that asking for directions, or for any kind of help, puts them in a one-down position.

With regard to asking directions, women and men are keenly aware of the advantages of their own style. Women frequently ob-serve how much time they would save if their husbands simply stopped and asked someone instead of driving around trying in vain to find a destination themselves. But I have also been told by men that it makes sense not to ask directions because you learn a lot about a neighborhood, as well as about navigation, by driving around and finding your own way.

But some situations are more risky than others. A Hollywood talk-show producer told me that she had been flying with her father in his private airplane when he was running out of gas and uncertain about the precise location of the local landing strip he was heading for. Beginning to panic, the woman said, “Daddy! Why don’t you radio the control tower and ask them where to land?” He answered, “I don’t want them to think I’m lost.” This story had a happy ending, else the woman would not have been alive to tell it to me.

Some time later, I repeated this anecdote to a man at a cocktail party—a man who had just told me that the bit about directions was his favorite part of my book, and who, it turned out, was also an amateur pilot. He then went on to tell me that he had had a similar experience. When learning to fly, he got lost on his first solo flight. He did not want to humiliate himself by tuning his radio to the FAA emergency frequency and asking for help, so he flew around looking for a place to land. He spotted an open area that looked like a landing field, headed for it—and found himself deplaning in what seemed like a deliberately hidden landing strip that was mercifully deserted at the time. Fearing he had stumbled upon an enterprise he was not supposed to be aware

of, let alone poking around in, he climbed back into the plane, relieved that he had not gotten into trouble. He managed to find his way back to his home airport as well, before he ran out of gas. He maintained, however, that he was certain that more than a few small-plane crashes have occurred because other amateur pilots who did not want to admit they were lost were less lucky. In light of this, the amusing question of why men prefer not to stop and ask for directions stops being funny.

The moral of the story is not that men should immediately change and train themselves to ask directions when they’re in doubt, any more than women should immediately stop asking directions and start honing their navigational skills by finding their way on their own. The moral is flexibility: Sticking to habit in the face of all challenges is not so smart if it ends up getting you killed. If we all understood our own styles and knew their limits and their alternatives, we’d be better off—especially at work, where the results of what we do have repercussions for coworkers and the company, as well as for our own futures.


An intern on duty at a hospital had a decision to make. A patient had been admitted with a condition he recognized, and he recalled the appropriate medication. But that medication was recommended for a number of conditions, in different dosages. He wasn’t quite sure what dose was right for this condition. He had to make a quick decision: Would he interrupt the supervising resident during a meeting to check the dose, or would he make his best guess and go for it?

What was at stake? First and foremost, the welfare, and maybe even the life, of the patient. But something else was at stake too—the reputation, and eventually the career, of the intern. If he interrupted the resident to ask about the dosage, he was making a public statement about what he didn’t know, as well as making himself something of a nuisance. In this case, he went with his guess, and there were no negative effects. But, as with small-plane crashes, one wonders how many medical errors have resulted from decisions to guess rather than ask.

It is clear that not asking questions can have disastrous consequences in medical settings, but asking questions can also have negative consequences. A physician wrote to me about a related experience that occurred during her medical training. She received a low grade from her supervising physician. It took her by surprise because she knew that she was one of the best interns in her group. She asked her supervisor for an explanation, and he replied that she didn’t know as much as the others. She

knew from her day-today dealings with her peers that she was one of the most knowledgeable, not the least. So she asked what evidence had led him to his conclusion. And he told her, “You ask more questions.”

There is evidence that men are less likely to ask questions in a public situation, where asking will reveal their lack of knowledge. One such piece of evidence is a study done in a university class-room, where sociolinguist Kate Remlinger noticed that women students asked the professor more questions than men students did. As part of her study, Remlinger interviewed six students at length, three men and three women. All three men told her that they would not ask questions in class if there was something they did not understand. Instead, they said they would try to find the answer later by reading the textbook, asking a friend, or, as a last resort, asking the professor in private during office hours. As one young man put it, “If it’s vague to me, I usually don’t ask. I’d rather go home and look it up.”

Of course, this does not mean that no men will ask questions when they are in doubt, nor that all women will; the differences, as always, are a matter of likelihood and degree. As always, cultural differences play a role too. It is not unusual for American professors to admit their own ignorance when they do not know the answer to a student’s question, but there are many cultures in which professors would not, and students from those cultures may judge American professors by those standards. A student from the Middle East told a professor at a California university that she had just lost all respect for one of his colleagues. The reason: She had asked a question in class, and the offending professor had replied, “I don’t know offhand, but I’ll find out for you.”

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