For Women Only: How to Sound Less Competent at Work

In a meeting recently I heard a woman soften what she said with disclaimers such as “You probably already know this…” and “I am not sure how feasible this suggestion is…”

It sent off alarm bells in my head.

What I observed was one of several patterns sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her classic book Talking 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, writes about.

Women generally (as well as some men) offer disclaimers, and frequently end sentences in a rising intonation i.e., ending the sentence as if it were a question rather than a statement. This is in contrast to most men who make an assertion like a statement of fact, and end with a falling intonation.

The perception? Men are perceived as more confident and competent–and women less so.

What influences these behavioral habits? Gender, birthplace, culture, and education all have an impact. Unfortunately, while a man can speak in assertions with no negative consequences, a woman has to tread a finer line to avoid being labeled pejoratively as bossy, overbearing, or worse.

So what’s a woman to do?

As Tannen writes, changing the style is something not everyone is going to want to do–our conversational styles reflect embedded intrinsic values.

My suggestion? If you are in the habit of using disclaimers in business settings, drop them and use a more direct delivery. Claim your expertise and authority.

If that feels or seems uncomfortable, distinguish between an appropriate “claiming”–i.e., owning your own expertise–versus “proclaiming,” i.e., boasting. Expect it to take practice because it is like learning a new language: the language of confidence and competence.

U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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