It quickly becomes apparent to anyone involved in today’s business world that men and women communicate in very different fashions. Dr. Deborah Tannen addresses this in her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. She cites humorous situations that people face on a day to day basis, from why men can easily tell jokes and entertain people in public but clam up at home to why women want to know every detail about a friend’s conversation but become uncomfortable commanding the attention of strangers, to shed light on our inherent differences. Her theory for why men and women become frustrated when attempting to communicate boils down to one basic concept: connection versus status. We, as human beings, value feeling connected to others as well as feeling respected due to our status (through wealth, influence, or expertise in our field of study). The difference between gender communication patterns arises from our prioritization.
Women, as a whole, place connection above status. This means that when they are put in difficult situations, they gravitate towards the role of peace maker over being the loudest voice in the room. Women would rather find a compromise that works for everyone than have a winner and a loser. While being in such a situation may not be ideal for men due to the risk of “losing” their argument, it is a lose/lose situation for women. Being both below or above someone else would result in a lack of balance and create a tense environment to try and work in. An example that many of us observe both in a business setting and in our everyday lives is seeing how women discuss problems. While it is true that sometimes they are looking for solutions, most of the time they are looking to continue the conversation and thus may not desire a solution. It also keeps the balance which might be threatened if solutions were readily found, creating the “solver” as well as the “afflicted.”
Men, on the other hand, value status over connection. That is not to say that men don’t desire meaningful relationships. Rather, it shows that most men strive for positions of power and are willing to forgo being liked by all in order to achieve their goals. Daily activities like reading the morning newspaper or having conversations that are geared towards transfers of information reinforce this as well. They know better than anyone that having information is one of the best ways to gain the upper hand in a situation, and thus an elevated status. Many of us have seen, then, why it is so difficult for men to admit that they are wrong. Losing an argument due to lack of information or being lost due to wrong information displays their lower status. It also simultaneously puts the other person in a position of power because they are the ones with the accurate information (sometimes that the man must ask for such as whenever he is lost). While women would quickly bounce back because of what they see as positive ramifications (having correct information or arriving at a destination), men will not move on so easily. More than likely he will continue to feel as though he is in a lower position, and he will do whatever he can to avoid this position in the future.
Our different styles of communication have many ramifications for the business world if not handled properly. The Harvard Business Review on Women in Business cites that one in three white women with an MBA is not currently employed full time as opposed to one in twenty white men. It continues to state that prestigious white women like former CEO of PepsiCo Brenda Barnes, influential member of the Bush Administration, Karen Hughes, and prestigious lawyer Lisa Freylinghuesen, all left their jobs at what many would consider their peak in order to shift their focus towards family. Why would such powerful and influential women leave at the height of their careers unless something in the system was not working for them and all other women in the workplace? A clue lies in the statistics gathered by Women’s Media, stating that women only make up approximately 11% of Fortune 1000 company boards and 25% of Fortune 1000 companies do not have any women on their boards. As long as we have a corporate culture that is predominately set up by men, the communication patterns that are generally acknowledged and accepted will continue to be male. The expectations in order to be promoted, such as displays of overt confidence, will continue to punish women’s conversational habits and actions. They will force women to either acting “like a man” in order to advance, causing others to dislike her, or acting like herself and risking being overlooked by a “stronger candidate.” Even if women are successful in gaining acceptance into the upper echelon of a corporation, such as being part of the board or CEO, she may very well become exhausted with trying to balance being the ultimate business woman with being a good mother who is devoted to her family. Therefore, as part of the next generation that is about to enter into the business world, we must not only see the different ways in which we communicate, and thus behave, we must accept and incorporate them into how a business functions on a day to day basis. By equally revering both styles, companies will be better equipped to hire and retain a balanced workforce on all levels of the brightest women and men, of which the positive results will be innumerable.
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• You Just Don’t Understand Women and Men in Conversation By Deborah Tannen
• The Harvard Business Review on Women in Business By Harvard Business School Press