Now, I have to warn you that I don’t know if this is really going to work, because, um, I usually don’t write book reviews. So I’m sorry if this, uh, turns out to be a waste of your time, but I’m wondering if sometime you could just give this a quick skim. Like maybe after you’ve read all the other really important stuff in the magazine. Would that be okay?
Okay? Are you kidding? Anybody who talks or writes like that (and it’s more likely to be a woman than a man) ought to be taken outside and de-wimped immediately, no questions asked. Right? Not necessarily, says linguist Deborah Tannen in her fascinating new book, TALKING FROM 9 TO 5 (Morrow, $23), a dissection of how men and women talk at work and how it affects their status. What may be perceived as insecure, apologetic, or even manipulative to some can just be an indirect way of getting what you want. For instance, looking at the way I began this review, Tannen would call my apparent dithering a self- protective opener or, more simply, a ”butterfinger but,” an analogy to the way girls use the word butterfingers in hopscotch games. (If you drop your token by accident, you won’t get penalized if you shout ”butterfingers” in time.)
Lowering expectations is just part of a pattern that Tannen says many women engage in at work. Cultural conditioning from childhood means they rarely boast, they don’t try to cover their mistakes, and they’re too quick to pleasantly take the blame, even when they’re not at fault. And, she says, that kind of self-effacement (or disingenuity, depending on your point of view) can be effective — up to a point. Women, in particular, may accomplish their immediate goal but be less respected because of the way they attain it. It’s not always the wrong way to behave — who wouldn’t want a boss like the one Tannen describes who gently ”suggests” that her male subordinate make changes in a report rather than demand it. But indirectness can be misinterpreted as weakness — especially by men, who hold the most power in the workplace. So women shouldn’t be surprised, Tannen says, when they suddenly find themselves bumping up against a glass ceiling.
Fresh from the success of her best-selling You Just Don’t Understand, in which she explained things like why men refuse to ask for directions and why that drives women crazy, Tannen has clearly positioned herself as the Cool Hand Luke of the Information Age, telling us not so much that one gender is right and the other is wrong but that what we have here is a failure to communicate. In Talking From 9 to 5, Tannen takes on male-female differences in the tricky arena of work, and it’s a tough assignment. While she is scrupulous about not telling women to talk more like men or vice versa, she has trouble coming up with concrete solutions for how both sexes can learn to share power at work. As a result, the book resorts to fuzzy homilies at the end of each chapter: ”Understanding what goes on when people talk to each other is the best way to improve communication”; ”Comprehensive training and awareness are needed.”
Tannen goes to great pains to avoid oversimplification and points out that plenty of women are aggressive and direct at work, while lots of men can be maddeningly obtuse. She’s best when analyzing what kinds of language get people ahead and the kinds that keep them back. But the book is heavy on explanation and lacks what some readers might want most: a linguistic battering ram to crack that glass ceiling. Every now and then a jarring, Helen Gurley Brown-like sentiment creeps in. At one point Tannen suggests that a ”woman who works with men might find it useful to learn something about sports to take part in those conversations.” Presumably, she isn’t talking about hopscotch. B+