Talk Like Me

By Rachel Garretson

You know all those self-help books proclaiming revolutionary, catch-all formulas for success in this male dominated business world? Right after that chapter that tells you how you should stand and sit, they always tell you to learn their language.

Well…. Not to give those self-help books too much credit, but there is some scientific evidence supporting this although it’s not so straightforward. It turns out that there are different styles of language but while it’s true that many women grow up learning a more tentative style of speech, not all women do!

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Powerless speech (typically thought of as female) is characterized by things like hesitations (“well,” “like” or “um”), tag questions (“right?” or “don’t you think?”), and disclaimers (I’m not sure, but…”). Powerful speech does not include these characteristics.

Of course, rules are made to be broken! Many men use powerless language, just as many women use powerful speech. I mean come on; do you think Daenerys’s language could ever be considered tentative?

Even so, many studies like this one by Rob Thomson, Tamar Murachver, and James Green demonstrate that in addition to gender, things like situation influence the speech pattern you take. They learned this by having participants talk online with a “friend” (experimenters) who used either powerful or powerless speech styles. They found that participants often adapted their speech styles to mimic the one being used by their friend. The speech styles of those around you, power dynamics within a group, and even the topic of your conversation can influence the speech styles you adopt!

Unfortunately, in our individualistic society, which values standing out, powerful language is touted as the best and those self-help books we mentioned are constantly telling women they need to use powerful language or they won’t get ahead. This is not the always the case!

Each style has benefits. Alison Fragale had participants complete tasks online with a “partner” (really a scripted computer program) then they were asked to make judgments and confer status to their partner. In groups that didn’t need to cooperate as much, individuals with powerful speech were indeed considered more competent and intelligent. In groups where cooperation was key, however, this pattern reverses! Powerless speech, which emphasizes relationship building and consensus, was considered the better speech pattern!

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Thus neither style is more appropriate for a certain gender or even better over all, merely better in certain situations. We don’t need to avoid powerless speech, we need to become more aware of which style we’re using and which would be best in this situation.

Guess your mom was right after all when she always told you to think about what you say before you say it!

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