Language rituals

If I’ve made myself too clear, you must have misunderstood me.

Alan Greenspan


Communication is considerably more complex than “simply saying what you mean.” What matters is how we say something and what we mean by it – and this differs from one person to the next. Given that language is a learned social behaviour, how we talk and listen is deeply influenced by cultural experience. However, we often feel that the way we communicate is “natural” and, as a consequence, we tend to evaluate and interpret what others say in our own language.

The American sociolinguist Deborah Tannen investigated how men and women communicate in the workplace and she found considerable cultural differences, which to a large extent stem from gender-specific socialisation. This culture- or gender-specific way of speaking significantly affects how people are perceived in terms of competence and self-confidence. In addition, the effect we have on others is determined not only by volume, pitch, and tone of voice, but also by word choice, directness, use of jokes and stories, apologies, justifications, and many other elements.

As long as we are communicating within our own language culture, we tend to be perceived as we want to be perceived. Leaving our cultural circle soon causes linguistic misunderstandings, which can have an impact on our reputation. Misinterpretations often arise between the genders, in particular.

Women, for example, use apologies and justifications much more frequently than men. In doing so, they intentionally downplay their status on the assumption that their counterpart will do the same.

Ms A: “Oh, I am so sorry, I have forgotten the copies.”

Ms B: “That doesn’t matter at all!”

This “game of apologies” is a typical element of communication between women. As long as they are both playing the game, there is nothing to lose. However, if the other person communicates differently and plays according to different rules, the following may occur:

Ms A: “Oh, I am so sorry, I have forgotten the copies.”

Mr C: “Yes, that was a bit foolish. Try and remember them next time.”

This now results in a double loss of status for the woman: the loss of face she initiated herself and the subsequent belittling by her male counterpart. This was “natural” communication for both parties. However, in the professional environment, this comes across as an insecure woman meeting a directive man.

Women sell their achievements differently to men. By playing them down, they diminish themselves in their linguistic world because they do not want to seem to be boasting. If they have achieved something good, they use words such as: “The circumstances were favourable, we were really lucky, everybody contributed.” If they have performed poorly, they relate the event to their own failure and say: “We should have put in more effort, I realised too late that…” Men often do the opposite in such situations. Because they tend to behave more competitively, they attribute success to their own contribution and blame failures on unfortunate circumstances.

As long as everyone stays in his or her linguistic world, nobody wins or loses through communication. As soon as the different languages come together, women unconsciously portray themselves as less competent.

Increased awareness of the language and cultural code used by one’s counterpart enhances the sphere of action of both parties. Women can learn to stop unintentionally demeaning themselves or coming across as insecure. Men can learn not to underestimate their counterpart on the basis of linguistic details, and to adapt their self-marketing to their environment so that they are not perceived to be boasting.