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May 31, 2007

The perils of girl talk

Why can’t men ask for directions? It’s a classic quirk that often leaves women wondering as well as wandering. Melissa McNeil of Pitt’s School of Medicine tackled that question in a lecture to female colleagues in the health sciences, “The Perils of Girl Talk: How to Survive in a Man’s World.”

McNeil’s talk on gender differences in communication outlined research by Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen.

“This is information I wish I’d had as a fellow and new faculty member,” McNeil told her audience of more than 50 women in her May 10 Sunrise Series lecture sponsored by the Health Sciences’ Office of Academic Career Development.

The lecture series offers women clinicians a venue to network and hear speakers on topics relevant to the unique challenges women in the medical field face. In recognition that the low numbers of women in some academic departments make female role models scarce, the series was initiated in 2004 as a way for senior women physicians to share their career stories with junior colleagues. Held twice a year, the events typically draw about 40 women, according to Darlene Zellers, director of the office.

Additional information on the series is available online at

McNeil, associate chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine and chief of the section of women’s health in the School of Medicine, was among the senior faculty members who conceived the Sunrise Series idea.

Prefacing her talk with the disclaimer that the research highlights generalities and that “not every male or female falls into these patterns of speech,” McNeil urged the audience to listen at the next meeting they attend for differences in the ways men and women tend to communicate.

“Once you start looking for the gender differences in the way people handle themselves, they’re everywhere,” she said.

She also emphasized that the female way isn’t wrong, but that women need to be aware of the differences. “It’s just if you communicate differently, you may be misunderstood,” she said. “Maximize what you say so you can feel heard.”

Returning to the question of why men won’t ask for directions, McNeil said, “This particular question crystallizes much of what gender differences in communication are all about.”

Tannen’s research has found that men are sensitive to the “one-up, one-down” principle. To women, asking for directions may seem to make a driver less vulnerable, McNeil noted — knowing where you are and where you’re going is a less vulnerable spot than being lost — but to men, it’s perceived as a vulnerability because they’ve been put in a position in which they must depend on someone else for their success. “They are conceptual differences in your perception of power,” she said.

A video based on Tannen’s work showed gender differences in conversational style that are evident among adults in the workplace also can be observed in small children at play.

Tannen has found that boys tend to play more outdoors and in larger groups. Higher-status boys give orders to lower-status boys — an act that would be perceived as bossy among girls, but identifies a boy as a leader.

Girls tend to have a best friend and spend time talking and sharing secrets. Rather than try to one-up each other, as boys do, girls often emphasize similarities.

As adults, men continue to be attuned to one-upmanship, viewing interaction through a “status lens,” while women approach with a “connection lens” that highlights teamwork and similarities.

“It occurs so early, it’s hard to believe it’s all socialized,” McNeil noted of these communication habits.

In the workplace, eye contact during interaction isn’t necessary for men — a habit that can make women feel as though they’re not being listened to. Tannen’s video showed that women at a meeting would crane their necks and lean in order to make eye contact with a speaker to demonstrate they were listening. Men tended not to do so, looking at the papers in front of them.

The video showed these habits also are seen in children. Boys, given a pair of chairs, would sit side-by-side but look around the room, avoiding direct eye contact. Girls would turn sideways in their chairs to face one another while conversing.

McNeil said Tannen also found that verbal rituals differ by gender.

Male rituals involve play-maneuvering to one-up one another through joking, banter, teasing or playful put-downs. Women make an effort to emphasize connection, perhaps in sharing “trouble talk” on day-to-day annoyances or health issues.

While women may share talk of their troubles as a way of creating rapport, men tend to be more information- and data-based, sharing by reporting information. Where a woman might welcome an inquiry about how she’s feeling, a man might become uncomfortable because it could expose a potential weakness, the research showed.

Ritual opposition is a verbal habit men use as a way to examine ideas. They may point out weaknesses, but view their arguments as no more than playing devil’s advocate. A woman may perceive this response to her idea as a rejection, and may back off or feel attacked, when a man had no such intention but merely wanted to delve deeper.

Ritual apology is one verbal device that can be observed frequently in women. Used too much, it can make a speaker appear to be disorganized. Tannen’s video showed a woman apologizing for having one additional point to make during a meeting — certainly nothing to apologize for, McNeil noted, cautioning the women to watch for needless apologizing in their speech.

Men tend to be able to tell others what to do in relatively direct ways, while women use indirect strategies so as not to appear too bossy, prefacing requests with “Could we?” or “So you think it’s possible?” The danger in this, McNeil said, is that “it makes it easier to say no.”

The rituals aren’t wrong, but can affect advancement, evaluations or job assignments in the workplace if they’re an unconscious part of a woman’s communication style, she said.

McNeil said she’s observed differences in the way men and women respond to her requests. Part of her job is to staff an urgent care clinic. When she sends an email seeking volunteers to cover gaps in the staffing schedule, men and women have different ways of saying they are unavailable. “The men in my practice either ignore the message or write back a simple ‘No.’”

The women, however, go into detail about their other responsibilities as reasons why they’re not available, but may finish with “but if you really need me…” — essentially unable to give a simple “no,” McNeil said. “Being a good soldier is not bad,” she told the women. “But many of my faculty do more than their fair share.”

McNeil said she got a different response when she took time to tally who’d volunteered and who hadn’t and forwarded that information with her request, playing both on men’s tendency to be data-driven and to not want to be put in a one-down position because they weren’t carrying their share of the load. “I got some (male) volunteers,” she said.

In response to an audience question asking how she’d be perceived if she just gave a blunt “No,” Mc Neil said meeting in the middle of the two styles might be required. A softer response might be “‘Thank you for the opportunity, but I’m not available at this time’ — a ‘girl’ way of saying no,” McNeil said.

One audience member who said she’d grown up with a brother and male cousins acknowledged she’d learned a communication style others perceived as too bossy or too direct. “I had to learn to say ‘I’m sorry…’ and ‘Would you…?’” she said.

Another woman noted how narrow the window of permissible behavior is when women work together. Speaking too much like a man runs the risk of offending, but catering too much to more typical female patterns carries the risk of putting one’s self down.

McNeil agreed, adding that a compromise approach can be valuable. She noted that she tries always to say “please” and “thank you” but doesn’t water down her request when it’s urgent. For example, “‘I really need this by the end of the day. Thanks so much,’” she said.

In addition to weighing words, women need to be aware of non-verbal communication in the image they project in dress, hairstyles and even the amount of make-up they wear.

“We have to make decisions all the time what image to project,” she said, noting that stereotypical images can affect others’ perceptions on who a woman is, what she’s capable of and what jobs she might be asked to do. Finding a way to look attractive without sending unintended signals can be like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, she said. Finding “just right” can take some trial and error.

“Think about how you are perceived,” she said.

Taking time to understand gender-based differences in communication enables women to better recognize how what they say and how they say it can affect their interactions. Knowing the differences also enables a woman to understand not to take offense from male colleagues when none is intended, she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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