Nancy Clark: Martha, I love the way you describe the differences between how men and women communicate. Please explain some of those differences.
Martha Barletta: Men start with the headlines and then they elaborate on them and provide specifics. Men are better at, and are more inclined to be, single-minded and focused. Women are better at, and are more inclined to be, multi-minded and integrated, and this is an expression of that.
Men believe the best way to absorb information and make decisions is to strip away all the muddying details (as they see them) and focus only on the bare bones elements. And that’s their idea of the big picture. Whereas, women’s idea is almost the opposite of that. Women wonder how you can understand the big picture without all the complexity. Most things are not simple. Most things are complex. You have to understand it comprehensively in order to correctly grasp the information and in order to make a good decision with respect to the information. And they feel context is essential for understanding. Most women, before telling you the headlines, will want to set up the situation and say what the context is. And this typically drives men crazy.
Nancy Clark: That’s when you get the eye-rolling from the men.
Martha Barletta: Exactly. It drives them absolutely crazy. Women don’t usually adjust their presentation style in a business situation, because we consider the context and nuances important, but when we’re operating in an environment where people speak a different language, we need to adjust our communication so the communication gets through. I personally believe the way to change communication in the workplace is to admit that men got there first, so men got to say what language is used. Women’s job is to educate men so they understand women’s different ways of doing things are complementary strengths as opposed to how they’re usually viewed—which is the “wrong way.” But meanwhile if we want to be effective, we have to communicate in their language. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can go into a Japanese workplace and keep stubbornly speaking English and think we’re going to get anywhere.
Nancy Clark: You're telling women to give men the headline first and then the details. Or give the headline and ask men if they’d like the details.
Martha Barletta: That’s very important, but it’s very counter-comfort to women.
Nancy Clark: I think this is important and it’s something we don’t pick up by being in the workplace a number of years—or in a marriage a number of years. This is something we need to learn and then practice over and over, until it’s almost comfortable.
Martha Barletta: Yes.
Nancy Clark: Tell us about Report Talk versus Rapport Talk.
Martha Barletta: These are Deborah Tannen’s terms (Dr. Tannen is a sociolinguist and the author of You Just Don’t Understand!). When men communicate they’re concerned with conveying information and establishing status. When women communicate they’re concerned with conveying information and building connections. There’s a study that shows that when men have a success, they attribute it to their own abilities. When they’re not successful, they tend to attribute it to external factors. The opposite is true for women. When women have a failure, they tend to attribute it to their own shortcomings. And when they succeed, they tend to link it to external factors, such as teamwork and luck. As we all know, success is teamwork, luck and our own contributions, but what we communicate dramatically effects how people perceive our success! Since men’s gender culture is hierarchical, their main concern is ensuring that they get up the corporate ladder. So they express, and are expected to express, their accomplishments and their strengths. Women are in an egalitarian gender culture so they tend to downplay their own role in the success. Women see any attempt to put oneself up as disruptive to building connections. So if I’m better than you, that’s not going to make you like me more. It’s important that we have an affinity because through affinity we can get win/win situations and consensus. And those things are the most effective way to move forward efficiently on a project.
Nancy Clark: As you were talking about men externalizing a failure, it made me think about a game I call “Placing the Blame” when something suddenly goes wrong. It seems men find the need to place the blame almost as important as solving the problem. You might hear, “It wasn’t me. They put the sign in the wrong place.”
Martha Barletta: Yes, exactly.
Nancy Clark: I love the names you’ve given to the games men play: One-Up, One-Down, and Put-Down.
Martha Barletta: There’s never been an audience that didn’t immediately know what I was referring to. We’ve all seen it in action. And the thing about the One-Up and the establishing status is women actively reject that game. And men, I guess, think we don’t know how to play the game. But most women feel, “There’s no way I’m playing that game! That’s a stupid game.”
Nancy Clark: And men don’t understand we’re not impressed with that game.
Martha Barletta: Right. Exactly. And they don’t understand it usually backfires with women. When I do sales training I explain that when a salesman is working with a new client, he will usually mention his accomplishments up front, sort of the peacock spreading his feathers. You’re expected to do a certain amount of bragging. This establishes your credentials. If you don’t do this, another man will assume you don’t have any credentials and he won’t want to work with you. When a salesman does this to a female client, he doesn’t realize this will backfire. Women think, “With all your boasting and bragging you think you’re going to get one-up on me, well I’m not impressed.”
Nancy Clark: So men play One-Up, One-Down, and Put-Down in order to establish status. In your book, you describe that One-Up is for men who don’t know each other well. The goal is to establish who’s “higher” —and any category will do. When men know each other better, they play One-Down which is more overt and is like an ongoing game show of trivia questions. If a man is stumped, he starts thinking of a way to get back with a new question. And Put-Down is the endgame in male bonding—saved for longtime friends: “Looks like you’ve put on a few pounds there. I bet you haven’t seen your feet in years!”
Martha Barletta: These are just the conversational structures men use to communicate about themselves and test the waters with each other.
Nancy Clark: Women, on the other hand, play a different set of games which you name: Same-Same, Scoop, and Gift Exchange. Same-Same is the verbal scanning we do to find similarities with another person. Scoop is the opposite of men’s Put-Down, where we try our hardest to support another person when we sense they might feel badly about something.
Martha Barletta: Yes, and Gift Exchange is the perfect example of how women communicate in full context in order to build connections. In the middle of a business conversation one woman may say to another, “I love your purse.” The other woman might respond with, “Oh, my sister bought this for me in East Hampton for my birthday in August.” The second woman has just given a gift of information which the first woman can use to establish connections, such as, “Isn’t East Hampton beautiful?” or “My sister always gives me nice gifts too.” Now to men, this is more personal information than they’re comfortable with. They prefer to stick to the facts and features, and avoid the stories and personal details.
Nancy Clark: That’s another of those situations that causes eye-rolling in men. I think both men and women can benefit by learning how the other gender communicates. I can explain to a woman that a man will perceive her negatively if she begins her question with, “Can I just ask one question?” or “This may not be important, but why …?” I tell her this reduces her power—this discounts her question. I tell her to start her question with who, what, where, when, or why. After that you’ll hear her correct herself a couple times as the new “script” is adopted.
Martha Barletta: I like the idea of giving women scripts to practice—almost like French class. Changes can be made. Not everything is so complex that we can’t make changes. If we learn how men and women communicate differently, and if we accept that men got to name the language used in business, we can make some real headway.
About the Authors
Martha Barletta is an internationally recognized expert and consultant on successful marketing to women, selling to women and women in the workplace. Her eye-opening insights, lively presentation style and practical "how to" suggestions make her a popular, highly-rated speaker and seminar leader at conferences and corporate meetings. Martha is the author of Marketing to Women, Dearborn, 2003. For more information, please visit TrendSight.
Nancy Clark is CEO of WomensMedia.