Was that too direct?

Or not direct enough?  Or too strong? Too soft? Too abrupt? Too nice? Too meek? Or too bossy?

The reflections of the participants of the Dynamics of Different project are full of questions such as these. As they reflect on their power and influence at work they ask themselves if they are speaking with enough authority, if their their conversational behaviour is getting them the results they seek. Here are just a few of their reflections:

Maria has been told that she is too forceful…

Spanish speakers are very direct and I use the expressions and words I know. Sometimes I am perceived as “too direct” or “too strong”. One can feel so stupid – and then this gets reinforced in the conversation because others treat you differently.

… and Rebecca thinks she isn’t forceful enough….

You don’t want to use words that may sound impolite or too strong but you don’t want to be too soft either. Between one and the other, I would choose being soft, and that’s what makes me fail.

…and Ana wonders which is the right way to go.

It’s hard for me to speak with diplomacy, without sounding too abrupt. I found out recently that I was being paid less than U.K. colleagues. But how do you bring that up? You don’t want to be too aggressive, or too meek!

All three women are senior executives in their respective companies. On the outside they are calm, collected and very much in charge. On the inside though, they are thinking through how they sound; paying attention to each sentence. And if senior women are deep in thought about how to “sound senior”, what is happening at the start of some women’s careers?

Alexandra gives us a glimpse:

Five years ago when I started work I was generally more confident and aggressive. I was better than my peers. But I got negative feedback from my bosses that my peers didn’t like me; that they felt threatened. I was the “bad” character. I’ve gone the other way though now. I am too cautious.

And yet at the other extreme, learning the language of the “top 200” suggests that aggression is precisely what is needed as Susana points out:

The corporate executive level is extremely political (which you would expect) but also aggressive. Everybody challenges everything. You need to be convincing but in a very fast way, to the point – people lose their patience very quickly.

What is happening here? Why so much focus on being direct? Are we simply not assertive enough?

As a working woman of a certain vintage I entered management at the same time as assertiveness training. For those of you who don’t remember this, assertiveness training comprises a number of scripts that people (usually women) can follow to help them communicate in a direct, honest way which is neither aggressive nor passive. Over the years many of these techniques have been seamlessly integrated into the general management communication toolkit. And they can be very useful indeed –  “broken record” to stick to your point; or “fogging” as a technique for handling critical aggressive attacks. The foundation stone of assertive communication is directness. Say it – say clearly and directly – no hedges, ifs, buts, justs or sorries. Work out your position, how you feel, what you want, and say it.

So far so good.

It is also true to say that there are many different ways of expressing the same basic idea, and some are linguistically speaking, weaker than others. Let’s say for argument’s sake that you have been asked your opinion about a proposal. You can choose how strong a position to take and reflect this in different ways.

You might think it’s a ridiculous proposal and you are not afraid to say so directly, “That’s a a ridiculous proposal!” or indirectly, “I have seen better proposals”.

Maybe you love it and will put all your weight behind it. You could say, “Great. I’m with you all the way on that!” Or if your personal style is not in keeping with over enthusiastic displays of agreement, you might choose a more indirect route and say, “You can count on me.

Or perhaps you are not sure what you think yet – you need more information and you need to know where the support lies in your peer group. You might be tempted to hedge your bets and introduce an element of uncertainty into your answer, “It depends. We may need more information.

The point is that you have options and depending on the people, the task and the context – you might choose to be more or less direct, more or less certain. And it is good to get some practice in going up and down the scales of directness and modality so when you need linguistic precision it is at your fingertips.

But before I generate a twitter storm of English language specialists pointing out, and quite rightly, that there’s more to modality and indirectness that this, let me take this in a different direction and explore why being direct doesn’t solve everything. If the research participants want to “sound more senior” it is because exercising power is complicated if you are a) not a native speaker of English and b) you are a woman. And their concerns – that they sound either too weak, or too bossy – come in from both directions.

Yet my early assertiveness training manuals offered the same advice to both. How can this be? If a particular style of conversational behaviour worked normatively as a sort of “one-size-fits-all” management speak, then the concerns of my research participants would be easy to fix. And indeed, the scripts of assertiveness are often helpful. They give people a way of doing things differently, trying out a new discursive strategy and learning from how well it worked by reflecting on what happened.

And that’s great – but there are many more layers to this.

Let’s peel a few back and see if we can catch sight of some of the more subtle aspects of communicating with (or without) authority and power. I will return to these in more detail in the future so for now, these are just glimpses…

First national cultures. People do things differently in different parts of the world, and even different parts of the same country. That seems pretty obvious, but it is surprising how many otherwise seasoned professionals act as if they think their way is the best. Being “direct” may be a source of pride in some cultures, and shame in others.

Different positions have linguistic consequences. Whether one chooses to say, “I want that done by the end of the day” or, “It would help me to have those figures in tomorrow’s meeting” is influenced by how much power your interlocutor has, how much power you think you have, how much power you think your interlocutor thinks you have, how speaking with respect manifests itself in your “home” culture, how you have learned you need to speak in order for things to get done in your company…and whether or not you are a woman or a man.

So gender. It isn’t that women speak a different language then men do [and I promise to unpack that little bundle of fun in a future post], it is about our expectations of how men and women speak, and in some cases our expectations of how men and women should speak. Women face an extra burden of linguistic work that men don’t get to appreciate. They are faced with a no-win double bind where if they speak too assertively they are negatively judged as women “trying to act like a man”, and if they speak too indirectly, or “softly”, they are negatively judged as leaders and managers for being weak and ineffective.

And then there’s linguistic disadvantage. There is no doubt that being a native English speaker is a huge advantage in the corporate world. The clipped, direct and to the point corporate (let’s face it, North American) style of doing business and conducting meetings is the norm. And this norm, just like the norms of culture and gender, is kept in place by a complex web of ideas and ways of viewing the world, which help keep such things hidden. Like Alexandra, and Ana, Rebecca, Maria and Susana, we only realise that we have broken an unspoken rule or crossed an invisible line when we sense we are being sanctioned.

And let’s not kid ourselves – women hold each other to these expectations too.

Food for thought for the summer break.


Image: www.freeimages.co.uk


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