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Masculine-Feminine Difference: How We Talk

07/16/2014 09:08 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014

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I have introduced the masculine-feminine continuum and the prototypes (Max and Fran) for masculine vs. feminine ways of thinking, working and leading. Remember, both men and women operate on both sides of this continuum -- i.e., have both Max and Fran characteristics. In my book, I follow Max and Fran into the workplace to learn how the difference shows up in 10 different areas. A key area is "How We Talk," often called "gender communications." Max and Fran speak differently. On Max's (the masculine) side of the masculine-feminine continuum is "confidence"; on Fran's (the feminine side) is "humility."

Think of these as two different "languages." Deborah Tannen calls them "report talk" (masculine) and "rapport talk" (feminine). Because men got to the business workplace before women, it is natural that the "first language" of business is the masculine way of speaking ("Max"). Both men and women can and do speak both languages. Being aware of their differences enables us consciously to use whichever is more effective in a circumstance. Taking someone literally, rather than translating from Max to Fran (or vice versa) can lead to judgment and misunderstanding.

Different structures of speech show up in the two languages. The masculine language is full of declarative statements. Max is objective and "to the point"; he focuses on facts more than feelings. His direct, more forceful kind of speech sounds confident, competent and authoritative; all are important in Max's world view, in which status is highly valued. In Fran's world view, maintaining relationships matters more than status. Power is shared more horizontally than vertically. As a result, the feminine style of language has speech structures that maintain flatness. Fran uses more questions than declarative statements; and she uses what Dr. Pat Heim calls disclaimers, hedges and tag questions. She also uses the language of apology more.

• Disclaimers are phrases that precede a statement but discount its content or importance. The word "but" often bridges the disclaimer and the statement. Examples are: "This may be stupid," "You've probably already thought of this," "I could be wrong," "I'm not sure. . . ."

• Hedges soften and hedge a statement. Hedges include words like "try," "hope," "believe," "think," "feel," "maybe" and "sort of."

• Tag questions come at the end of a statement and turn it into a question: "Right?" "Okay," "Do you know what I mean?" Or inflection of the voice can convert a statement to a question.

Research shows that women apologize -- or use the language of apology -- more than men. In "Fran" language, saying "I'm sorry" may express empathy while in "Max" it is an acceptance of fault or responsibility. Apologizing lowers one's status in Max's worldview. In Fran's worldview, it brings people together. Understanding this difference can avoid misunderstandings.

Fran sounds less confident -- and some people believe she is. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) asserts that women have more self-doubt than men. In the recent Atlantic article, The Confidence Gap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman analyze the roots of the lower confidence level of women. But Fran may be very confident and use these speech structures to level things out, to be sure her listener doesn't hear her as "talking down" or thinking too highly of herself or her idea.

Speaking "Fran" works well to invite others' opinions and participation. It also works well to soften language, to promote negotiation and to reflect relative rank. For example, an Air Force Colonel at the U.S. Air Force Academy told me he uses disclaimers when speaking with an older superior officer to make sure he acknowledges his own lower rank. But if Fran uses these forms of speech unconsciously in a group that speaks "Max," she may be heard as lacking confidence or not believing in her own ideas. She may be seen as weak and be "talked over."

The area of "how we talk" poses the "double bind" trap for women. If women speak "Fran", they may be seen as lacking confidence, being unassertive, and not being "leadership material." (Or she may not be heard at all.) That's because the definition of leadership is associated with being confident and assertive. But if a woman speaks "Max" (sounds sure of herself and asserts her position), others may say or think, "Who does she think she is?" Speech that may pass for assertiveness in a man can be seen as aggressiveness in a woman.

Have you seen differences in structures of speech? When is each most effective? How do you avoid the "double bind"?