The "Tentative" Language of Women


The "Tentative" Language of Women

Weakness? Strength? Strategy?

If you're a woman, you've probably gotten the advice to avoid "weak language," those disclaimers (I might be wrong, but …), hedges (maybe, sort of), and tag questions (don't you think?) that make your statements sound less like bold demands and more like friendly suggestions. The idea is, if you want that raise or promotion, you've got to speak up like a powerhouse, right?

Well, if you read Adam Grant's opinion piece in the NY Times a few weeks ago, you'll know that it's a little more complicated than that, and that this well-intentioned advice isn't always such good strategic advice. It also shines a light on something that I had already believed. Grant writes that using more "tentative" language doesn't reflect a lack of conviction; rather, it's a reflection of our (women's) innate interpersonal sensitivity—interest in other people's perspectives. This is our strength. I see no sign of weakness in this behavior. And yes, it's also likely been conditioned into us by societal norms for how men and women should behave.

I have been working with professionals to improve communication and leadership for over twenty years. I can tell you that one of the main issues that men have is that they need to develop the traits that seem to come more naturally to women, such as active listening, empathy, and vulnerability. Oftentimes, they are sent by HR and sometimes independently. 

At some level, men understand, or have been told, that these traits are essential for building strong teams and motivating people. When leaders connect with their team members, listen to their ideas, and share their own, they create a more collaborative and productive environment. This approach can help to build strong teams and motivate people, which can lead to less attrition and a stronger team overall.

At the same time… the business world might not be solely a man's domain, but echoes of the past still linger. Many of my women clients still face obstacles in meetings. While some men thrive in free-for-all meetings, many women prefer a more structured, turn-taking setting. It ensures that their voices get heard.

In addition, women still come to my office because they are struggling with coming across as "assertive" and not "aggressive." I have also have several women tell me that they have been called "emotional" when they get passionate about an idea or issue. More than a few have been called "emotional" when expressing passion for their work.

Back to Grant's article…

Here is a breakdown of what the recent research experiments found:

Women who use weak language when asking for raises are more likely to get them. This is because society expects women to be more polite, deferential, and less assertive than men. When women use weak language, they are conforming to these expectations, which makes them seem more likable and trustworthy.

In one experiment, experienced managers watched videos of people negotiating for higher pay and weighed in on whether the request should be granted. The participants were more willing to support a salary bump for women — and said they would be more eager to work with them — if the request sounded tentative: "I don't know how typical it is for people at my level to negotiate," they said, following a script, "but I'm hopeful you'll see my skill at negotiating as something important that I bring to the job." By using a disclaimer ("I don't know …") and a hedge "(I hope …"), the women reinforced the supervisor's authority and avoided the impression of arrogance. For the men who asked for a raise, however, weak language neither helped nor hurt. No one was fazed if they just came out and demanded more money.

This is not because women are naturally less assertive than men. In fact, studies have shown that women are just as assertive as men, but they are penalized more for it. When women assert themselves, they are often seen as being bossy, aggressive, or unlikable.

This is a problem because it prevents women from being able to advocate for themselves and their ideas. It also contributes to the gender pay gap, as women are less likely to negotiate for higher salaries or promotions.

Grant's insights aren't just about women. They're a glimpse into how communication styles merge with power dynamics, shaping both women and men. Straightforward men are typically seen as strong, but a straightforward woman can still be perceived as aggressive. It's a maze of perceptions, with more than just language at play. It's not just about communication; it's about a revolution, or evolution in perception.