Deborah Tannen and the Work Environment


Social workers have to know how to effectively help make marriages work effectively.  For years I have been alerting students to the fine work of Deborah Tannen and urging them to read her work so that they understand how men and women use language in very different ways.  Those differences are quite frequently at the heart of many of the misunderstandings going on in otherwise healthy relationships. 


However, Tannen’s work is also very important in terms of the work environment.  She first wrote That’s Not What I Meant! and showed her readers how people have different conversational styles that are influenced by the part of the country they grew up in, their ethnic backgrounds, and their age/class/gender.  “Unaware…of (how) our backgrounds 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).” (pp. 11-12).


In her next book, You Just Don’t Understand, Tannen narrowed the focus to patterns of conversational style influenced by gender.  In her third book, Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power, Tannen focuses on the talk that goes on at work, particularly in offices---for the most part she focuses on white middle-class workers.  (All quotes in this summary are from this third book, published by Avon Books, N.Y., 1994.)


“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. …Patterns that I describe are always a matter of degree, of a range on a continuum..”  (pp. 12-13).


“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 exchange 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 account, they maybe 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” (p. 23).


Why don’t men like to stop and ask for directions?  The answer is that this puts them in a one-down position.  Asking for any kind of help does this and men try to avoid that type of situation (p. 24). 


“From childhood, girls learn to temper what they say so as not to sound too aggressive---which means too certain.  From the time they are little, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers” (p. 36).  “The social inhibition against seeming to boast can make women appear less confident than they really are…part of the reason many women censor themselves from proclaiming their confidence is that they are balancing their own interests with those of the person they are talking to...they modify their speech to take into account the impact of what they say on the other person’s feelings.  There may be something peculiarly white middle class and American about the cultural constraint against women boasting…the pattern is not necessarily found, or is not as strong, among black American teenage girls.  For middle-class American women, though, the constraint is clear: talking about your own accomplishments in a way that calls attention to yourself is not acceptable.” (p. 38).


“The expectation that women should not display their own accomplishments brings us back to the matter of negotiating that is so important in the workplace.  A man who owned a medium-sized company remarked that women who came to ask him for raises often supported their requests by pointing to a fellow worker on the same level who earned more.  He considered this a weak bargaining strategy because he could always identify a different coworker at that level who earned less.  They would do better, he felt, to argue for a raise on the basis of how valuable their own work is to the company.  Yet it is likely that many women would be less comfortable ‘blowing their own horn’ than making a claim based on fairness” (p. 39).


“Being a leader often involves giving directions to others, but girls who tell other girls what to do are called ‘bossy.’  It is not that girls do not exert influence on their group---of course they do---but…many girls discover they get better results if they phrase their ideas as suggestions rather than orders, and if they give reasons for their suggestions in terms of the good of the group.  But while these ways of talking make girls---and, later, women---more likable, they make women seem less competent and self-assured in the world of work.  And women who do seem competent and self-assured are as much in danger of being negatively labeled as are girls” (p. 39).  The labels men may give assertive women range from “bossy” to “bitch.”


“Boys are expected to play by different rules, since the social organization of boys is different.  Boys’ groups tend to be more obviously hierarchical: Someone is one-up,, and someone is one-down.  Boys don’t typically accuse each other of being ‘bossy’ because the high-status boys are expected to give orders and push the low-status boys around…Giving orders and telling the others what to do are ways of getting and keeping the high-status role.  Another way of getting high status is taking center stage by telling stories, jokes, and information.  Along with this, many boys learn to state their opinions in the strongest possible terms and find out if they’re wrong by seeing if others challenge them.  These ways of talking translate into an impression of confidence” (p. 40).


Remember, that Tannen said “impression” because often these boys and the men they grow up to become are not really as confident as they pretend to be.


Women are more likely to speak in the styles that are less effective in getting recognized and promoted.  But if they speak in the styles that are effective when used by men---being assertive, sounding sure of themselves, talking up what they have done to make sure they get credit for it---they run the risk that everyone runs if they do not fit their culture’s expectations for appropriate behavior: They will not be like and may even be seen as having psychological problems” (p. 40).


“Both women and men pay a price if they do not behave in ways expected of their gender: Men who are not very aggressive are called ‘wimps,’ whereas women who are not very aggressive are called ‘feminine.’  Men who are aggressive are called ‘go-getters,’ though if they go too far, from the point of view of the viewer, they may be called ‘arrogant.’  This can hurt them, but not nearly s much as the innumerable labels for women who are thought to be too aggressive” (p. 41).




Now take the above knowledge and apply it to a job interview situation that you are going to role play.  Assume that the person interviewing you is the opposite gender.  How are you going to conduct your interview?  Assume next that the person is the same gender?  How are you going to conduct the interview?  Now let’s get really tricky.  Let us assume that you are being interviewed at the same time by both a man and a woman.  Now how are you going to conduct the interview?