In Talking from 9 to 5 (1994), author Deborah Tannen examines the role of communication in the workplace. Ranging from communication rituals, and power dynamics, she focuses on how the two genders’ communication style impact their career success.
About the Author: Deborah Tannen is an American linguist professor and researcher and she also writes for a general audience at her blog.
Women Speak to Maintain Appearances of Equality
Women tend to speak to each other in a way that maximizes harmony. It downplays the speaker’s authority and takes into account the effect that the speaker’s words will have on the receiver.
Men instead use language that often involves opposition.
They banter, tease, and put each other down in an effort to avoid the one-down position.
Women Using Women-Style in a Man’s World Can Be Seen As Weak
Men using their typical oppositional style can be seen as confrontational and arrogant by women, even when they’re actually not.
And women’s typical style to avoid looking like boasting at all costs can be seen by a man as lacking confidence and competence.
Workplace With Men on Top Use Male-Style Communication
Women who move within male organizations can start off at a disadvantage if they don’t learn to function within the male’s rules.
Says Deborah Tannen:
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.
And a little later:
Ways of talking typically associated with men are more likely to impress many job interviewers as well as those making decisions about promotions to managerial levels.
The female style can be equally effective. But when there are also men around, then the male style leads them to talk more. And, being judged on the male scale, they tend to be seen as more competent and confident.
In Negotiations, People Seem to Prefer Those of Their Same Sex
Research by Nadler showed that the highest final offers in negotiating salaries were made when the negotiators were of the same sex.
And, worryingly for women, the lowest raises happened when women playing the subordinate role negotiated with men playing the boss’ role.
Ritual Apologies: Make Sure Your Speaking Partner Speaks the Ritual (Or Take Too Much Blame)
Some people engage in what Tannen calls “ritual apologies”.
Such as, they say “sorry” a lot, as a ritual, not because they’re really sorry. Within that ritual, one person says “I’m sorry”, while the other person takes the blame for himself.
When both people use the ritual, then the ritual works and the conversation is both polite and constructive.
The problem arises when one person uses “I’m sorry” as a ritual, but the other does not. When that happens, the person who says “I’m sorry” might come across as being at fault, or as being the “one-down”.
When a person who uses “sorry a lot” does not see any concessions from the other side, they might also feel resentful.
So the smart, emotionally-intelligent player, will say sorry back when they meet someone who says sorry when there is no real reason for it.
My Note: “I’m sorry” can also be a power move.
Also read here:
“Thank you” As A Ritual: Play the Same Game, or You Make Others Resentful
Thanking people can also be a ritual, and some people thank others, even when they are simply doing their job.
When both players play the ritual, then a boss might say “thank you for running this by me” and the subordinate is expected to thank the boss back: “no, thank you for checking this”.
The problem, again, can arise when one party uses the ritual and the other does not.
Imagine if the subordinate were to reply to the boss “you’re welcome”. In that case, the boss would become the “one down”, and likely resent the subordinate.
My Note: Forcing people to say “thank you” is can also be a social strategy for power.
Asking For Help To Make a Decision Can Make You Look Weak
Asking for opinions before making a decision might lead to better decisions, but if you do it too often, people might take it a signal of either weakness, or lack of competence.
I agree with Tannen here that a good way of avoiding that while still getting valid inputs is to say something like this:
I’m going to make this decision ultimately, but I’d like to know your opinion.
Men Are More Guarded Against Being Put in The One-Down Position (& Ask Less Feedback)
Men are less likely to ask for candid feedback on their performance because that might invite criticism that would put them in the one-down position.
Women are more likely to ask for feedback, but some men might take advantage of it and deliver criticism from a position of superiority.
Indirect Or Direct Talk Is A Matter of Preferences & Culture, Not Power
There is this wrong assumption in many people’s minds:
Being direct is powerful, while being indirect is weak.
Deborah Tannen explains why that’s not true.
While sometimes giving direct orders is the prerogative of those with power and official authority, being indirect while giving orders is also the prerogative of those in power and authority.
And the direct/indirect is heavily influenced by personality and culture. Both methods can work great in the right context and both methods can rub people the wrong way when used out of place and with people who prefer the opposite style.
Deborah Tannen expands plenty on it.
But if you’re a person high in power, you know how annoying it is when a boss tells you what to very directly “because he’s the boss”.
On the other hand, if you’re talking indirectly to someone who likes direct directives, you can come across as wishy-washy and, at the extreme, also manipulative.
I like this example from Kobe Bryant:
Kobe Bryan was clearly annoyed by Phil Jackson’s indirect style, something that Jackson failed to understand in his own book “Eleven Rings“.
Indirect talk can be more easily missed -or purposefully ignored by superiors-. And that’s how some famous airline crashes happened.
But albeit one might think that direct-speaking crews are more effective, Linde’s research found out that crews using the most indirect speech were the best ones.
Read more on the power dynamics of giving orders and executing orders:
Expectations Change Reality
A clever Rubin’s experiment found out that when students were lead to believe their teachers was a foreigner, they literally understood him less well.
The study was based on a German man in Japan: when the German spoke Japanese on the phone, people could understand him well.
But when speaking in person, the Japanese struggled more to understand him. The Japanese simply did not expect they could communicate in Japanese with a foreigner.
Do Men Refer to Women More With Their First Name Because of Power.. Or Because of Friendliness?
Deborah Tannen says that it’s both.
While it might be true that women are referred with their first name more than men, it’s not necessarily because men want to assert power, or because they don’t respect women nearly as much.
It can also be, Debor… Tannen says :), that it’s also because of friendliness.
Or because of both. Men might expect women to be lower in power, and higher in friendliness.
Switching from names to surnames can also be used to create distance or warmth. Calling
The same duality applies to topics such as generosity, and asking “where are you from”.
Both can be read in terms of power dynamics, or in terms of friendliness. And both apply, says Tannen.
Compliments and Judging: The “Judger Power”
Reading “Talking from 9 to 5” I knew Tannen was a competent, well-read, and intelligent woman.
But when I read this part, I also thought “wow, think similarly and reached the same conclusions!”.
Tannen says that compliments usually flow from more powerful, to less powerful.
I quote her:
Those who offer compliments can seem to be setting themselves up as in a position to judge, so someone of lower rank who compliments someone of higher rank can appear to be cheeky
Interrupting Is Either A Power Move, or A Way of Bonding
Deborah James and Sandra Clarke reviewed all the research they could find on gender and interruption and did not find a clear pattern of males interrupting females.
On the other hand, a bit later, Tannen cites research proving that boys truly pay less attention to what women say. And, she says, that stays the same later in life.
What’s most interesting though is that in all-female groups, women interrupt more than men do in all-male groups. That’s because women often talk over each other to voice agreement and understanding, and it’s a way of bonding.
Tannen calls it “enthusiastic listening”.
And that’s why “overlapping”, as Tannen calls it, must be considered within the environment within which it takes place. In some cases, it can be a way of bonding, while in some others, it can be a power play and a sign of status.
My Note: At work, interruptions are about power, not bonding
Tannen is right. But since work functions more with the male style, and the efficient “we talk to understand each other and to make business”, than interruptions are more commonly about status than bonding.
Styles of Speaking Impact How Much You Talk (& How Powerful You’re Perceived to Be)
It’s not true that powerful people always talk more.
They can talk more if they want, but some powerful people prefer to talk less, instead.
Furthermore, how much you talk also depends a lot on your style of speaking. If someone with a slower rate of speech moves into an area where people talk more lively and quickly, he will find it difficult to get a word in, because he is waiting for some silences that never happen.
And people will interrupt him more, because he takes longer pauses between sentences.
Tannen says that’s the case for Brits -speaking more slowly- moving in the US -speaking more quickly-.
However, an impression of dominance, or having more things to say, can result from a difference of style, instead of a difference in either power or amount of wisdom to share.
Some Men Hate Attractive Women Because of The Power They Wield
This observation was very deep.
Some men resent attractive or sexually liberated women for the power they wield over them.
And their way of handling that threat to their ego and their perceived “one-down” position is to attack her. Take her down a peg, “put her back in her place” or, in extreme cases, violate her.
This is all the truer for successful women, who make average men feel even worse.
The hovering awareness of violence against women has particular relevance when a woman has risen beyond the level expected of women, reinforcing the point that physical attack, or the threat of it, is a show of anger (or fear) against a woman who is perceived as trying to get power over men
I agree that the patriarchy is real, and much of it is fueled by that darker motive that most men would never admit.
The Relevance for Dating
This great insight is what some women don’t understand when they follow the “make him chase mantra“.
Some men don’t chase because they like the woman or because they want a relationship. Some men will chase because they resent her power, and want to have her just to get even.
Also read more in “nasty dating power moves that backfire“.
Men Don’t Understand Women’s Constant Fear of Violence
Tannen says that sexual harassment can happen because men and women don’t understand each other.
Men think that sexual harassment only happens when there is a physical move, while women also include verbal harassment.
Whether or not it is associated with sex, women often perceive the specter of violence lurking when they are in the company of men, however vague and in the background it may be
Some men respond with indignation, because not all men are aggressive or rapists.
But that doesn’t change the fact that some are. And women’s fears and perceptions are based on the real threat of that minority.
Also keep in mind that as Evolutionary Psychology researcher Geoffrey Miler says, sociopaths are a minority, but women experience them 10x more often and more frequently than other men do.
- Women are more likely to downplay their certainty, men more likely to downplay their doubts.
- The “tail of the curves” shows up with far more women who are considered as underconfident and disproportionately far more men who are considered arrogant
- Women want bosses who care personally: everyone prefers a boss who cares about them personally, and women are more likely to demand it and appreciate it. Especially by other female bosses
- Women give more compliments, especially to other women
- Some women complain to bond, but some men might take it literally
- Expectations are lower for women: Well-qualified managers are evaluated more highly if qualified as men, but they are also more criticized if performing poorly
- Verbal aggression can be a way of bonding: many cultures trade barbs with each other as a way of bonding. Tannen, for example, was uncomfortable in Greece, where people spoke to each other with a more confrontative style
- Good stories sometimes feel like anecdotal evidence
Just to be clear, the book is very well-researched, which is one of the things I appreciated the most.
And there are also stories and, sometimes, analyses of plays or myths.
Sometimes they served to reinforce the analysis and provide examples.
But some other times, I would have preferred more evidence from bigger studies.
- Level-headed approach to gender issues: if everyone could approach gender issues and differences like Tannen does, we wouldn’t have feminists and The Red Pill
- A treasure trove of power dynamics wisdom: Tannen understands social and power dynamics so deeply that this book was enlightening even for a more advanced student like myself
“Talking from 9 to 5” is a true gem of a book for a social scientist like myself.
It contains more psychology and power dynamics wisdom than ten normal books put together.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a more practical manual, this might not be your thing since it’s more academic-oriented.
If you’re looking for ready-to-apply strategies and tips, you will get something here, but it will require you to wade through some theory.
If on the other hand, you are looking for high-quality information, then this is your book.
I learned a lot from Debora Tannen and I am grateful for her work.