Tannen Talks Shop: Men and Women in the Workplace

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IMAGINE what life must be like for Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist who has made a career of explaining men and women to each other by enlightening them on the different ways they tend to use language.

Every day must be full of raw material. After all, men and women talk with each other all day long. And each book she publishes brings readers out of the woodwork to let her know how she's helped them understand the communications bafflements in their lives.

Now she has published a book called ``Talking From 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work.'' For anyone who has ever sat through a meeting at the office, this book has the ring of truth. For managers the book has insights that will help them enhance opportunities for their staffs and improve the whole group's effectiveness.

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Dr. Tannen's thesis, in brief, is that women tend to use language in ways that emphasize equality, whereas men tend to use language in ways that emphasize hierarchy.

Women will tend to use various modes of indirect speech - making points in meetings by phrasing them as questions, for instance - whereas men will tend to make flat assertions. Women are culturally conditioned not to appear too smart or bossy, whereas men are conditioned to be assertive, to claim the floor.

Before you cringe at this kind of generalization, give Dr. Tannen credit for pointing out repeatedly that she is speaking of tendencies, not absolutes. She also strives to be evenhanded in making the case for both styles.

And she points out that ``indirect'' communication is not necessarily defensive, or the province of the powerless.

On the contrary, in situations where hierarchy is firmly established - the military for instance - communication can be accomplished minimally, by what appears to be indirection. The commanding officer need only remark, ``It's cold in here,'' and a subordinate will scurry to crank up the thermostat or close a window.

The astute reader will take Tannen's latest book as more than a guide to decode ``he said, then she said'' exchanges. Individuals can see the benefits of learning how to be flexible in their communication styles, direct or indirect as appropriate, and of seeing how others are likely to see their styles. Managers can adopt a habit of going around the table at a meeting to get ideas from everyone, not just the ones who usually take the floor. Better communication means better ideas, and that means more success for the organization.

Organizations of all kinds - workplaces, civic and political groups, nonprofit institutions - are striving to open up, to be more inclusive, for reasons ranging from enlightened self-interest to legal pressures. Businesses are considering how their hiring and promotion practices can help them reach new customer groups. Newspapers want staffs that look more like the readers they hope to have. Police forces want officers that look more like the citizens they will be policing. President Clinton has said he wants a Cabinet that ``looks like America.''

As these opening-up processes continue, the question is being asked, What is the job that we need done, really? Managers are looking beyond hiring or bringing along just ``people like us'' (whoever ``we'' are or have been). They are finding that jobs can be, or are already being, done effectively by people with different backgrounds and methods.

This is where ``diversity'' ceases to be a buzzword and becomes a real asset for the organization.

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