Language Differences Between Men And Women Have Impact In Workplace, Says UB Linguist

Release Date: February 17, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- He said this. She said that.

And how they said it can have an effect on which one gets a promotion in the workplace, says a linguist at the University at Buffalo whose specialty is the structure and history of language.

Studies have shown that the main goal of men's speech is to get something done, while the objective of women's is to get along, according to Jeannette M. Ludwig, Ph.D., associate professor of French.

Because women's use of language differs from men's -- they use much more indirect language and hesitant tones to elicit behaviors -- they may be excluded from office team-building efforts, she notes.

For example, men assume that people want to hear what they have to say. "They pass around the megaphone," Ludwig says. Women don't.

In the workplace, if a woman says: "I wish that you would call me by my title like everyone else," others may write off the request as "a stupid little detail.

"But these 'stupid little details' over the course of time can make a tremendous difference in how people perceive themselves," says Ludwig. "We need to tune up the performance of everyone. Everyone can be alert to what it is they are doing when they think they are talking."

While they may be less likely to win them a promotion, studies have shown women's language patterns may be more effective than men's in some instances. For instance, Ludwig refers to one study of female and male doctors and their patients that showed that women's softened requests received nearly a two-fold level of compliance compared to men's. Implicit imperatives were at the heart of the female's success rate. While a man would simply say: "Take off your shirt." A female doctor would say: "This could be easier if you took off your shirt."

Ludwig notes that some male students who have taken her course, "Women's and Men's Language," have become defensive when she has pointed out language patterns that uphold the male-dominant paradigm.

People are sensitive to criticism, she adds, because language is extremely personal and invisible. "Language is who we are. It's like giving out a piece of yourself."

Ludwig offers tips for women and men about language that should help "level the playing field" in the workplace.

-- Speak up. Don't hang back. Women should support and encourage other women to do the same.

-- Be direct. Eliminate detail. "Others can ask for detail later if they want it," she says.

-- Be ready with evidence or arguments. "Be just as prepared as Cliff Claven to shoot your mouth off," Ludwig says. Men are more likely than women to give their best guess when they don't know the answer.

-- Be prepared to take it and dish it out, to take risks and fail. "Men don't let defeat set them back," she says. "Don't apologize for stuff and carry on. It makes it look like it's your fault and it's probably not your fault."

-- Maintain "gravitas." Speak with as low and controlled a voice as possible -- it has a grounding effect. When speech becomes high and excited, it undoes the impression that you are trying to maintain.

-- Listen. Really listen. "There's a tendency for men to let their eyes wander," she says. But maintaining eye contact is important in feeling listened to.

-- Acknowledge thoughtfully the contents of the message. Men lean toward replying "Yes, but," instead of "Yes, and," she says.

-- Do not assume that your opinion or observation is of interest. She calls this the "Cliff Claven Effect."

-- Acknowledge the success and contributions of others.

-- Do not tell others how they feel or should feel or give the impression that they are not supposed to have feelings.

-- Extend the simple courtesy of being inclusive. Do not "play clubhouse."

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