Deborah Tannen is not a manager. And neither is she a management thinker. But she deserves her place in this blog, for her contribution to our understanding of the way men and women communicate in the workplace.
Tannen is no merchant of easy solutions, nor a broad system-builder. Rather, she is a detailed observer of what happens when people communicate through the medium of natural language. And she has made her focus the communication between men and women.
If your working world is inhabited by both women and men, then her work should be on your reading list.
Deborah Tannen was born in 1945, in Brooklyn, and studied English Literature at Harpur College. Following her BA in 1966, she went on to get an MA at Wayne State University in 1970, before moving to the University of California, Berkeley to study linguistics. There she was awarded an MA and then a PhD in 1979.
That year, Tannen became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University, where she remains today, since 1991 as a University Professor.
Tannen first came to public attention with her 1986 book, That’s Not What I Meant. This popularised her detailed research into how we converse with one another, and the effect our style has on our relationships. Her 1990 follow-up was a huge best-seller: You Just Don’t Understand. This analyses the different conversational styles of men and women, and the impact it has on us.
However, it is Tannen’s third book for the popular market that will interest us. In 1995’s Talking from 9 to 5, she looked at the impact of the different ways men and women use language on the workplace. It links differences in style to the differences in perception and power that arise.
Since then, Tannen has written four more books that will be of interest to anyone curious about language, gender and family relationships.
Deborah Tannen’s Research and Ideas
Deborah Tannen is a sociolinguist; she studies the way different people in society use language. We are familiar with the idea of dialect: different versions of the same language arising from regional variations. Sociolinguists recognise different sociolects; different versions of a language arising in different parts of society. Sociolects can arise from just about any societal differences. Ethnolects arise from the ethnic backgrounds of the language speaker, and genderlects from the gender. Ultimately, we all speak our own personal ideolect.
Tannen’s methodology is observational and rigorous. She observes, transcribes, and analyses conversations. She does not see her role as offering solutions, but as one of relating and classifying what happens.
At the heart of Tannen’s explanation is the idea of a tension in all of us, between the need for independence from other people, and the need for involvement with them.
If your goal is to communicate information and you have no interest in involvement, then your communication is likely to be short, clear and factual. But in a social world, what it is necessary to say, and how to make it clear is far from obvious. So we add a tier of politeness that seeks to balance the need not to impose, with the desire to connect.
Many of our differences in the way we tackle day-to-day communication challenges arise from how our social norms dictate we should handle this balance.This manifests very clearly at work.
Men and Women at Work
The patterns Tannen observes are of more indirect and polite communication among women and more direct and factual communication among men. Problems arise when we fail to recognise the differences as arising from style and assume they are communicating substance.
Or, worse still, problems also arise when we do see the differences as arising from style, but we then go on to judge that style difference as representing a difference in capabilities to which it bears no relation. Glass ceiling anyone? And, although Tannen focuses on the differences arising from genderlects, let’s remember that ethnolects mean that cultural differences between people of different family heritage can also cause the same two problems: misunderstanding and prejudice.
Let’s end this brief overview with a concrete example. I’m drawing the idea for this example from Talking from 9 to 5, but embellishing it from my own experience. Let’s look at Jacqui, a female manager, and her male direct report, Anil.
Anil creates a poor report summarising the project he and Jacqui are working on. But he is new, and Jacqui does not want to demotivate him. So in giving feedback, she works hard to identify the strong points of his work, before highlighting the need for changes.
Anil re-does his report, but Jacqui is horrified. He has made few changes and the report remains inadequate. With little time left, she sees no alternative but to work late and re-write it herself.
If all of this seems reasonable, let’s look at it from Anil’s point of view. When he hears the next day about what she has done, he is angry and upset. Firstly, Jacqui lied to him. His report was not good, with the need for a few changes; it was poor. Why didn’t she tell him? Her diplomacy comes across as dishonesty.
And then Jacqui took it upon herself to re-write the report. Clearly she does not trust Anil. Jacqui’s concern to avoid asking him to work late seems to Anil like distrust.
But it gets worse. When Anil tells Jacqui what he thinks, she is upset. So when her boss comes around and asks her about how the reporting process went, she gives plenty of credit to Anil for the final report. Yet when her boss speaks to Anil, he tells the boss that Jacqui was indecisive about the report, and left her final changes to the last minute.
Jacqui’s boss leaves with the impression of Jacqui as a weak manager and Anil as a strong subordinate.
Deborah Tannen: That’s Not What I Meant! – Signals, Devices, and Rituals