The Secret Science of Linguistic Style: How Your Verbal Persona Is Shaping Your Success

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We all know the basics of communication finesse: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. That’s something that people often miss when communicating normally. They just say what comes naturally, and think everyone else can understand what they mean because what they mean is obvious. Right?

Well, no, not quite. Not only do we communicate a lot with our tone, body language, over all presentation, there is also another layer to communication called Linguistic Style. I was floored by this article on Linguistic Style by Harvard Business Review and how accurately it represented communication differences often found in the workspace and how that can affect who gets recognition, promoted and even lead to misunderstandings.

What Is Linguistic Style?

Someone’s Linguistic Style means their characteristic speaking pattern. This includes word choice, intonation, level of directness, how fast or slow they speak, comfort with pauses, use of jokes, apologies, assertiveness, and so on. There are often differences depending on gender, culture, region, etc. Individually, we have our own linguistic styles that are largely influenced by our gender, where we are from, and our personality.

We all can imagine that someone from the U.S may have different communication styles than someone from another country. Even if two people are speaking the same language, different expectations, and comfort levels with things like volume, indirectness, eye contact. For example, in the U.S, more direct forms of communication are the norm whereas in many Asian countries indirectness is the norm and being too blunt is considered rude.

Differences between two different countries can be easier to spot. With gender differences in linguistic styles, we have grown accustomed to and may be so used to being there that we aren’t able to recognize them. And these differences go back to the playground. The research found that little girls tended to de-emphasize status with other girls, whereas boys would often create hierarchy within groups and assert status in their speech. I’m sure you can imagine – and know firsthand – how the rules of the playground can carry over into the unspoken norms in the office.

And here’s the catch: bosses will favor those who share the same linguistic styles as them. Why? Because they will naturally be on the same page with those who communicate in the same way they do, whether male or female. They hear things the way they are programmed to hear, and tend towards what is familiar and comfortable. That means that women can be overlooked due to subtle differences in linguistic patterns. Thus, adding to the barrier in male-dominated fields.

Here are some ways that women’s linguistic patterns, in general, can hold them back when they’re in a male-dominated workplace:

  • Not Getting Enough Recognition: Studies found that women often use more inclusive language (e.g., "we" instead of "I") to describe their individual achievements. Out of habit, women may tend to present a project that they did 80% of the work on as something, “we’d like to present” to the boss. Whereas, men will usually be more comfortable with taking credit directly.

  • Reluctance to Self-Promote: The above leads into the overall reluctance many woman may feel to promote themselves. It can feel icky to highlight accomplishments and draw attention to themselves as study after study showed that women tend to shy away from doing anything to seem arrogant or “better than” others – at least publicly. This reluctance can make it harder for them to compete effectively in environments where self-promotion is rewarded, such as during job interviews, performance evaluations or even with their direct manager day to day. This is why I work with all of my clients to improve their ability to communicate successes in a way that they are heard and also that feel comfortable to do. (probably need another blog to explain)

  • Less Assertive Communication Style:  Women tend to avoid conflict. Not saying all women are wimps, but in general we tend to prioritize social harmony. This harmony- favoring linguistic style can also lead to women apologizing and complimenting others more than men. To women, this may seem apropos depending on the situation, but in a male-dominated setting this may seem like lack of assertiveness and confidence. Apologizing lowers your stature in any communication if not done correctly.

  • Misinterpretation of Confidence: You may be seeing a theme here. Women downplay themselves, they use “we” instead of “I”, they don’t highlight their wins, they are more willing than men to ask questions (big surprise!) and are not actively thinking of how they can elevate themselves from others. This, especially if you have all male bosses, can be perceived as lacking in self-assuredness. The research found that women who were more competent and productive than their male peers would be perceived as being less competent and receive lower scores on feedback.

  • Underestimation of Leadership Potential: This perceived lack of confidence and self assuredness, as well as the reluctance to initiate conflict are among the reasons why women’s linguistic style can lead to them being grossly underestimated by higher-ups. Men, who have less qualms with stepping forward and taking credit – which will be favored in an atmosphere where men are the majority decision-makers, will display the traditional, assertive communication styles that are favored for traditional, masculine leadership. This can leave capable women unrecognized for leadership positions, as well as favor a leadership style that is highly skewed by gender-biases. 

One client of mine was being passed over for the next level leadership role. After assessing her communication to her direct manager and the higher level manager we recognized that she was not communicating her success and asking clarifying questions. We created some scripting for her to do this regularly with both. Although it took a little practice to feel “natural” for her, she advanced her skills at telling stories to show her abilities. They heard her and she is slated for promotion.

So what does this mean for you?

So what can you do about it? If you’re a woman in a male-dominated field and feel like for some reason your potential is being overlooked – ask yourself if your way of speaking (or not speaking) may be getting in the way. It’s something to be aware of as a factor, not to judge. I don’t support the idea that women need to change the way they do things to fit a male standard. That’s old-school stuff that ends up getting women burnt out and unhappy in roles that feel inauthentic to themselves. I work with my clients to help them create and learn ways of doing these things in a way that feels natural to them and gets the results they are looking for. Women can lead in ways that feel natural to them. However, being aware of differences and making adjustments when necessary does not mean abandoning their native feminine linguistic style; it simply allows them to use their style in more powerful ways with awareness of who they are, who they are communicating with and how to get the desired results.


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