Whose Speech Is It Anyway?


Earlier this week, I caught myself on the phone saying to a coworker, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but…” As those words came out of my mouth, I wondered why I had felt the need to introduce my thought that way. Firstly, I was fairly certain I was not wrong. I was merely stating a fact about the case that was relevant to the discussion. Secondly, as the first-year associate on a call with other more experienced associates, I was confident that had I in fact been wrong, they would have corrected me (very politely, of course) even without my prompting. Yet, for some reason, I automatically added this qualifier, one that would assure the listener that I was not confident. Is this a result of my own insecurity? Or is it a habit that I developed to ensure that my thoughts were well-received? Whatever the reason, it has been well-documented that the tendency to downplay one’s authority and confidence, particularly in the workplace, is more common in women than men.

The first episode of the new Harvard Business Review podcast, Women at Work, explores the ways in which women’s speech habits affect their workplace reputation and performance. The podcast features Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University Linguistics professor, who explained that men and women are conditioned differently from childhood: Girls are conditioned to speak in ways that downplay their authority, to avoid other girls criticizing them for being bossy or stuck-up; while boys are conditioned to speak in ways that emphasize their leadership and gain the respect of other boys. This is reflected both in how men and women speak in the workplace, as well as how they are perceived by others when they do. Tactics most commonly employed by women include: introducing thoughts as questions; using qualifiers to express self-doubt; using “we” when discussing something the speaker did herself; starting sentences or emails by apologizing; and using the word “just” to soften requests or minimize contributions.

It should be noted, however, that according to at least one study, these behaviors do not necessarily imply that women are in fact less confident than men. In the study, freshmen in college were asked to predict their grades for the semester. Half of the participants were made to predict their grades in a public setting, while the other half disclosed their predictions privately. When the predictions were public, women predicted they would receive much lower grades than men; however, when the predictions were made privately, there was no significant difference between men and women. This study indicates that women’s tendency to sound less confident may not reflect an actual difference in confidence levels.

The first half of the Women at Work podcast covered all of the ways women undermine themselves at work by using diminutive and apologetic language, and encouraged women to avoid these pitfalls. The second half presented a fascinating contrast, albeit seemingly unintentionally. The podcast hosts introduced a second expert, Amy Gallo of the Harvard Business Review, who was there to discuss the problem of women being interrupted at work. Gallo, who had not been present for the previous conversation, demonstrated how a woman who had been interrupted at a meeting should push back, but in doing so, she used all of the language that the previous expert had just identified as “weak” and undermining to the speaker. Gallo recommended that a woman who had just been interrupted ask if it would be okay for the interrupter to wait until she finished her thought and even blamed herself for having a “hard time keeping [her] thoughts together” when interrupted. When the hosts, realizing the conflict, asked whether this response may in fact undermine the speaker’s authority, Gallo conceded that her recommended language was not authoritative, but expressed the exact opposite view of the previous expert: that women worry too much about sounding weak, and that when women use assertive language, it is often perceived as uncollaborative and abrasive. According to Gallo, the fact that women have to speak this way and men do not is a fact of life, and one that women need to learn in order to be successful. While the podcast hosts did not dwell on the profound divergence in the advice of its experts, it raises important questions about how women should communicate at work. Do women need to transform the way they speak to become the confident leader they aspire to be? Or will a more authoritative way of speaking only serve to alienate their audience?

After listening to the podcast, I began to analyze the way I communicate, taking a mental tally of which of the tactics I employ and with what frequency. I realized that I do in fact routinely downplay myself, and upon reflection, discovered that my own opinion on what to do about it is complicated. As a woman, and dare I say feminist, I feel compelled to do my part in changing how women are perceived in the workplace, rather than merely accepting the status quo and speaking in such a way as to perpetuate stereotypes. There are certain habits I should change to avoid undermining myself (as with the situation described at the outset of this article). However, there are others I hesitate to drop, either because I see them as simply being polite or because they feel more consistent with my personality.

The question becomes even more complex if one considers the role of hierarchy within the workplace, an aspect that was not discussed in the podcast. As a first-year associate, it is important to me that my manner of speaking convey that I am open to learning from others, which naturally translates into a certain humility and, perhaps unwittingly, a lack of confidence. While this may also be true for some of my first-year male colleagues, they are less likely to be conditioned to speak in a humble or tentative way and perhaps even less likely to analyze the way they speak at all. While women’s speech tendencies are a common topic of research and discussion, the speech habits of men are not as frequently evaluated.

In fact, it may be worth considering whether the discussion of the “right” way for a woman to speak at work does a disservice to all. Regardless of which side of the debate one takes, the current dialogue on this issue analyzes only women, grouping an entire sex together, while failing to consider the effects that hierarchy, personality and workplace atmosphere may have on a person’s speech patterns. Moreover, this approach adopts speech patterns born of male social conditioning as the standard to which women should aspire. Perhaps we should focus less on changing women’s speech habits and more on developing the ability to recognize leadership potential in diverse array of communication styles.

Katie Aber is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.