BOOK REVIEW: Take care: words at work

Talking from 9 to 5 Deborah Tannen Publisher & price
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"Talking from 9 to 5" could be considered a wise book. Not perfect, but wise in the sense of nudging the reader to think about commonplace events from a different perspective. And once exposed to Deborah Tannen's ideas, it will be difficult for anyone in a work setting ever to have quite the same kind of unthinking interchange with a colleague of the opposite sex - well, for a while at least.

An American professor of linguistics, Tannen is also the author of the provocative bestseller "You Just Don't Understand". In that book she focused on the problems of communication between men and women generally. She has now shifted specifically to the workplace.

Here Tannen's emphasis is, inevitably, on women. It goes without saying that in the job sphere, women still experience palpable disadvantages - a great deal of which, she argues, arise from their "conversational rituals', learned from the earliest age by close interaction with other females, which are quite distinct from those engaged in by men.

In the work setting, the male mode of interaction still overwhelmingly prevails. Yet women unconsciously take their own conversational styles, with the attendant values and assumptions, to that environment. The result is often a lack of real understanding between male and female colleagues at a subliminal level.

But do the murky depths of the subterranean mind matter, one might ask, when all that is really of concern is getting the job done?

They do, Tannen believes: the "glass ceiling" - women rising high in organisations, but rarely to the very top - can almost wholly be accounted for by the constant misreading of workplace "metamessages".

Metamessages are the bits of information hidden between the words we speak. Most of us, most of the time, take what others say pretty much at face value. But "face value', says Tannen, frequently means something very different to men and women.

While Tannen makes it clear from the outset that her analysis is based on generalities - not all men are entirely one way and all women another - there seems to be a ring of truth about her claim.

Take, for example, her observation that men tend not to ask directions when they are looking for a location, while women do. Men, she says, are socialised from their school days to think in terms of pecking order, of hierarchy. A man instinctively knows when he is being put, or putting himself, in a subordinate position. To ask directions, or any question that implies lack of knowledge, does just that. He avoids it.

Women on the other hand have been socialised to a greater degree to want to get along with others, to co-operate, to be liked. Hierarchy is not a prominent part of their thinking; women will therefore ask questions, much more so than men. They don't mind saying, 'Forgive my ignorance, but..." They are quicker to praise and tend to level criticism only indirectly to ensure that it gives minimal offence. And this behaviour carries over in only slightly modified form even when women attain loftier career heights. They will still more easily seek others' opinions, help or advice, and tend not to strive for sole credit with the such single-mindedness.

Men certainly like women at work who manifest these characteristic qualities; but, from a gut-level male point of view, they are also seen to be a bit wimpish. Hence their less than slower advancement. Indeed, should a man feel more comfortable adopting this style, he, too, is usually viewed as somehow lacking "leadership" attributes for fast-track success.

What Tannen has to say could have been expressed with greater organisation and succinctness. But she brings to light some valuable nuances on a subject that many of us no doubt thought we were already familiar with.