Author: Pauline Müller

Pauline Müller

About Pauline Müller

Pauline Müller is a qualified SEO and B2B writer with extensive experience in feature writing and a great love of producing coffee table books. She combines an upbringing in the automotive and real estate industries with a diverse skill set in sales, small business management, international teaching, and linguistics studies to assist her clients in turning their audiences into business partners.

Navigate Team Communication Like a Genderlect Pro

In my previous post, we looked at Deborah Tannen’s work on genderlect and why women and men often misunderstand each other. Here, I share more of her research and a few ideas on how we can become more aware of these differences—not only to improve teamwork but also to help women take charge of their rise to the top. As this is a vast, complex topic, the points below offer a basic starting point.

How Everyone Can Win the Communication Game

In the study of linguistics, all communication styles are considered equal. However, culturally, the situation is often different. Apart from cultivating empathy for one another, the most important thing team members can do to improve communication—and women’s chances of shattering the proverbial glass ceiling—is to become aware of each other’s communication differences. Through understanding the differences in each other’s conversation cultures, women and men can support each other in this struggle to understand and to be understood. In linguistics, the term convergence refers, amongst other things, to adapting one’s speaking style to mirror certain features of your conversational partner’s. This is a way of showing camaraderie.

How to Tell When ‘Yes’ Is the Preferred Response

I mentioned previously how Dr. Tannen suggests men are more direct in their requests to establish themselves as the leader. Conversely, women tend to be less direct in their requests so they don’t seem domineering; however, they still want their requests to be completed.

Here are three of women’s most commonly misunderstood requests and what they really mean.

Would you mind…?

Instead of giving direct orders, women tend to ask people whether they mind doing something. Their tone indicates whether it is a question or a polite request. When she says, “John, would you mind dropping off these documents with Mandy?” she most likely means, “John, please drop these documents with Mandy.”

Would you like…?

This is usually an indication that a woman wants to do or have whatever follows the phrase. A yes/no response can lead to misunderstandings, so take note, she expects to negotiate the best outcome for all concerned. When she says, “Would you like to have a meeting about the New York situation?” she most likely means, “We should have a meeting about the New York situation.”

What do you think…?

Often also presented as “How do you feel…?” Remember, this is not a weakness. She is perfectly capable of making a decision by herself. Considering those affected is simply her way of creating an inclusive work environment. When she says something like, “What do you think about relocating the Boston office?” she probably means, “Before I make a decision on this, I want everyone concerned to have an equal stake in the outcome.”

How Not to Get Lost in Translation

When we choose to respond rather than react, we force ourselves to become disciplined in considering our words before we share them. This gives us the opportunity to deepen our own inner worlds as well as our relationships.


Respect is key to developing awareness of and empathy for others. Despite their own gender preferences and identities, women and men are all human. From here, our cultures and backgrounds add multiple layers of complexity to who we are and how we relate to situations and others. This is also why there is such strength in diversity. Female and male colleagues should guard against becoming adversaries.


Once we are aware of and respect our differences, we can set out to create a better understanding between the sexes. As with all communication, a calm, thoughtful response is always more constructive than an emotional reaction based on assumptions. This is where teaching and couples therapy meet at the office. When you feel confused or offended by a colleague’s message, firstly, assume nothing. Chances are that you could have misinterpreted and that the problem might be based on genderlect differences. Be willing to give your colleague the benefit of the doubt until you find out what they really meant.


Tell the person that you need to double-check your understanding of what they had said. Preferably speak in person. FaceTime or call if you really have no other option. Commit to listening in order to understand rather than to formulate an immediate comeback. In other words, listen to solve the problem rather than to “win this round.” This, of course, goes for both participants.


Find their perspective. To establish whether you misunderstood, repeat your interpretation of the original message to them and then see how that matches their intended meaning. Remember that nothing is ever personal. Women appear to be more driven by being accepted, and men appear to be more driven by conquering. When you really look at this, neither of the two needs exist exclusively. Instead, one drives the other, but in different ratios. Therefore, it is again more productive to focus on similarities rather than differences by attempting to understand the other person’s perspective.

How to Become a Ping-Pong Champ

Conversation implies exchange. Like with a ping-pong game, exchange can’t happen if one person hogs the ball, so aim for equal turns.

When speaking to men, women can gain a lot by answering their questions pertinently rather than offering drawn out descriptions. In a diverse office setting, men can become aware of how, when, and why they interrupt women. For instance, men from certain regions sometimes interject when women are speaking because they want to show camaraderie and support. However, in other instances, men interject to put themselves in a higher position and their female counterpart in a lower position. In females’ noted quest for group harmony and equality, this is one of the most uncool things anyone can do to a woman—especially in a work environment.

How do we solve this? Apart from following Tannen’s work on the subject, teams could start by speaking openly and by sharing their communication challenges pertinently. Perhaps by learning to distinguish team spirit from disrespect and by making an effort to support rather than confuse each other in conversation, American men and women could remedy the country’s female leadership deficit.

Did You Just Say That? Understanding Gender-Specific Communication Styles

Not sure why members of your multigender team appear to misunderstand each other despite speaking the same language? Here is the single most important point to remember about genderlect. It’s real.

The era of gender equality has long since dawned, and while everyone should be working towards a happier, more inclusive society, a quick Google search shows that American women are still very poorly represented in top leadership positions. While many factors are no doubt at play here, different communication styles between men and women can play a significant role in who gets promoted and who doesn’t. In addition, misinterpretation of messages can cause much tension between the genders. To make the situation even more frustrating, what can appear to be gender discrimination is often nothing of the sort.

As a linguistics student, I was fascinated to discover the work of Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and a top-selling author. As a sociolinguist, Dr. Tannen has spent years studying the differences between male and female language rituals, or the way in which each communicates. She also coined the term genderlect. While her work clearly states that there are never any hard and fast rules due to a host of cultural and personality differences, the two groups have universal differences that, if navigated with awareness, can help us to understand each other better and could go a long way towards correcting inequality.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

While male and female communication styles are equal in status, their effects often are not. That’s because most communication has two messages: the actual message, which carries the significance of the words, and the meta-message, which is the intended meaning.

We all do it, and we have all experienced it.

Imagine, for instance, that a group has to decide on a new color for their office. Everyone says green, except the one person who says, “Green?” That statement can easily be taken as criticism, but the speaker could simply have meant: “I have no problem with green, but I thought we agreed on yellow last week.” This is just one simple example of how messages can be misinterpreted.

What’s the Difference?

According to Dr. Tannen and many other scholars, our gender cultures develop differently as children.

Young girls generally play in smaller, more exclusive groups where talking—and especially sharing secrets—is the main currency. Their friendships revolve more around forming exclusive groups and inclusion. Domineering girls tend to be less desirable as friends and are more likely to be avoided by other girls. In contrast, young boys play in larger groups where the focus is more on hierarchy and the most domineering boy becomes the leader. For them, the focus is on the activity and their spot in the food chain.

Dr. Tannen’s research also suggests that women tend to be less direct, making suggestions and negotiating outcomes so as not to seem domineering. Men tend to prefer very direct responses because uncertainty—or not knowing—is generally considered to be a weakness. In contrast, women tend to check in with everyone affected by their decisions before they take action. This promotes inclusivity and a woman avoids coming across as domineering. In male pecking orders, this can again count as a weakness as men are used to physically challenging each other on the playground. According to Dr. Tannen, men usually make decisions with the understanding that if anyone disagrees, they’ll say so or challenge the decision afterward.

While I’m sure that the majority of people want equality in the workplace, and females did make up nearly 50 percent of the American labor force in 2010, the lion’s share of top leadership positions is still dominated by men. In fact, only 4.8 percent of the world’s Fortune 5000 companies’ CEOs were women in 2018, a total of 24 to be precise. By becoming aware of the differences between our genderlects and by growing an understanding of and empathy for each other’s meta-messages, this landscape can potentially be changed quite drastically.

Imagine sitting in a meeting and instead of feeling hurt because she was interrupted by a male colleague, a woman can gather herself and challenge him on the point openly instead of fearing conflict. Even better, imagine the shift in office dynamics when an apparently distant CEO starts negotiating decisions with female counterparts and checking that he understands what they are saying instead of dismissing them as being too weak to flourish in top positions.

While it may be tough establishing an idea that at first appears to take power from one to give to another, great communication is nothing of the sort. Instead, it empowers people, strengthens teams, and holds phenomenal growth potential.