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Women are usually in public for a reason: to commute to school or work, to run errands, or to get exercise, not to meet men. There are times when a woman may be open to meeting someone in public, but they are rare, so keep in mind that chances are great that if you approach a woman, she will not want to meet you to form a relationship. If you do approach a woman, try not to do so if it is dark out, if it is a deserted area, if there are no other people around, or if you are with your friends while she is alone.

All of these factors can make women feel threatened by any man approaching them. Never follow a woman without a good reason, like she dropped her wallet and you are trying to return it. Aside from assault, men following women is the behavior women feel the most threatened by when they are alone in public. Only approach a woman when she does not appear to be in a hurry or preoccupied.

She may not have the time or desire to talk, so be respectful of her schedule and feelings. She may have had a bad harassment or assault experience and now is wary of all men who approach her.


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You may be the third or fourth person to approach her that day and even if done politely, it can become wearisome and annoying. If a woman initiates a conversation with you, be respectful in your responses.

Speaking on behalf of …

Everything that is said must be said in a certain way—in a certain tone of voice, at a certain rate of speed, and with a certain degree of loudness. Whereas often we consciously consider what to say before speaking, we rarely think about how to say it, unless the situation is obviously loaded—for example, a job interview or a tricky performance review. It includes such features as directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, and the use of such elements as jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions, and apologies. Consider turn taking, one element of linguistic style. Conversation is an enterprise in which people take turns: One person speaks, then the other responds.

Cultural factors such as country or region of origin and ethnic background influence how long a pause seems natural. A pause of that length never comes because, before it has a chance to, Joe senses an uncomfortable silence, which he fills with more talk of his own. Both men fail to realize that differences in conversational style are getting in their way. Similarly, when Sally relocated from Texas to Washington, D. Although in Texas she was considered outgoing and confident, in Washington she was perceived as shy and retiring.


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Her boss even suggested she take an assertiveness training course. Thus slight differences in conversational style—in these cases, a few seconds of pause—can have a surprising impact on who gets heard and on the judgments, including psychological ones, that are made about people and their abilities. Every utterance functions on two levels.

The second level is mostly invisible to us, but it plays a powerful role in communication. As a form of social behavior, language also negotiates relationships. Through ways of speaking, we signal—and create—the relative status of speakers and their level of rapport. In every community known to linguists, the patterns that constitute linguistic style are relatively different for men and women. That is because we learn ways of speaking as children growing up, especially from peers, and children tend to play with other children of the same sex.

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The research of sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists observing American children at play has shown that, although both girls and boys find ways of creating rapport and negotiating status, girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships whereas boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension. Girls tend to play with a single best friend or in small groups, and they spend a lot of time talking.

They use language to negotiate how close they are; for example, the girl you tell your secrets to becomes your best friend.

1. Always Learn Something New

Girls learn to downplay ways in which one is better than the others and to emphasize ways in which they are all the same. From childhood, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers—although nobody really takes such modesty literally. Boys tend to play very differently. They usually play in larger groups in which more boys can be included, but not everyone is treated as an equal.

Boys with high status in their group are expected to emphasize rather than downplay their status, and usually one or several boys will be seen as the leader or leaders. Boys learn to use language to negotiate their status in the group by displaying their abilities and knowledge, and by challenging others and resisting challenges. Giving orders is one way of getting and keeping the high-status role. Another is taking center stage by telling stories or jokes. This is not to say that all boys and girls grow up this way or feel comfortable in these groups or are equally successful at negotiating within these norms.

But, for the most part, these childhood play groups are where boys and girls learn their conversational styles. In this sense, they grow up in different worlds. My research in companies across the United States shows that the lessons learned in childhood carry over into the workplace. Consider the following example: A focus group was organized at a major multinational company to evaluate a recently implemented flextime policy. The participants sat in a circle and discussed the new system.

The group concluded that it was excellent, but they also agreed on ways to improve it. But the next day, I was in for a surprise. I had left the meeting with the impression that Phil had been responsible for most of the suggestions adopted by the group. But as I typed up my notes, I noticed that Cheryl had made almost all those suggestions.

But that would be inaccurate. So what was the problem? I went back and asked all the participants they thought had been the most influential group member, the one most responsible for the ideas that had been adopted. The pattern of answers was revealing. The two other women in the group named Cheryl. Two of the three men named Phil.

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The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why

Of the men, only Phil named Cheryl. In other words, in this instance, the women evaluated the contribution of another woman more accurately than the men did. Meetings like this take place daily in companies around the country. Unless managers are unusually good at listening closely to how people say what they mean, the talents of someone like Cheryl may well be undervalued and underutilized.

Individual speakers vary in how sensitive they are to the social dynamics of language—in other words, to the subtle nuances of what others say to them. Men tend to be sensitive to the power dynamics of interaction, speaking in ways that position themselves as one up and resisting being put in a one-down position by others.

Women Don’t Speak a Different Language

Women tend to react more strongly to the rapport dynamic, speaking in ways that save face for others and buffering statements that could be seen as putting others in a one-down position. These linguistic patterns are pervasive; you can hear them in hundreds of exchanges in the workplace every day. And, as in the case of Cheryl and Phil, they affect who gets heard and who gets credit.

Even so small a linguistic strategy as the choice of pronoun can affect who gets credit. But that solution is problematic because we associate ways of speaking with moral qualities: The way we speak is who we are and who we want to be. Veronica, a senior researcher in a high-tech company, had an observant boss.

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He noticed that many of the ideas coming out of the group were hers but that often someone else trumpeted them around the office and got credit for them. Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. Many have argued that the growing trend of assigning work to teams may be especially congenial to women, but it may also create complications for performance evaluation. There are many women and men—but probably relatively more women—who are reluctant to put themselves forward in this way and who consequently risk not getting credit for their contributions.

The CEO who based his decisions on the confidence level of speakers was articulating a value that is widely shared in U.

WIKITONGUES: Caroline speaking Gullah and English

Here again, many women are at a disadvantage. Studies show that women are more likely to downplay their certainty and men are more likely to minimize their doubts. Psychologist Laurie Heatherington and her colleagues devised an ingenious experiment, which they reported in the journal Sex Roles Volume 29, They asked hundreds of incoming college students to predict what grades they would get in their first year. Some subjects were asked to make their predictions privately by writing them down and placing them in an envelope; others were asked to make their predictions publicly, in the presence of a researcher.

The results showed that more women than men predicted lower grades for themselves if they made their predictions publicly. If they made their predictions privately, the predictions were the same as those of the men—and the same as their actual grades. These habits with regard to appearing humble or confident result from the socialization of boys and girls by their peers in childhood play. As adults, both women and men find these behaviors reinforced by the positive responses they get from friends and relatives who share the same norms.

But the norms of behavior in the U. Although asking the right questions is one of the hallmarks of a good manager, how and when questions are asked can send unintended signals about competence and power. In a group, if only one person asks questions, he or she risks being seen as the only ignorant one. Furthermore, we judge others not only by how they speak but also by how they are spoken to. The way boys are socialized makes them more likely to be aware of the underlying power dynamic by which a question asker can be seen in a one-down position.

One practicing physician learned the hard way that any exchange of information can become the basis for judgments—or misjudgments—about competence. During her training, she received a negative evaluation that she thought was unfair, so she asked her supervising physician for an explanation.