Have you ever felt like you couldn’t get a word in when talking to someone else? Or do you find that you are assertive and outgoing in one setting but quiet and reserved in another? 

This might be about how you and others have learned to communicate. This is known as your linguistic style. In her article “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why” in Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen discusses communication styles, linguistics, and conversational rituals. The article has some useful lessons about communication style and making yourself heard in a busy world. 

How we communicate depends on learned social norms—but we have not all learned the same norms 

From a very young age, we learn from our peers, our teachers, and our parents about how to communicate and what is socially acceptable. However, these patterns are very personal. When you relocate or meet someone from beyond your normal social circle, they may be using different rules. For example, they might speak faster than you, or leave shorter pauses between sentences. This can make it challenging to know when you can contribute or engage without interrupting. 

Men and women’s communication norms are different in most cultures

We may like to think that we have achieved gender equality. However, there are some genuine differences in communication styles between men and women in most cultures. These are not genetic or absolute. Instead, they are mostly learned—but they are very deeply ingrained, and it is hard to overcome them. They may affect how we are perceived. For example, in many cultures, women are culturally conditioned to speak quietly, and to seek consensus, as well as not to emphasise their achievements. This can make them seem less confident or capable—even though that may not be true.

Communication is not as simple as saying what you mean

How you say something matters as much as what you say. One aspect of linguistic style—and, indeed, culture—is the level of directness. Some of us are more comfortable with directness than others, or in some situations. For example, it is often hard to be direct with someone if you are giving bad news, or if you feel uncomfortable about what you need to say. However, in a work setting, we expect direct communications—and we need to get comfortable with meeting those expectations. 

Linguistic style is particularly important when giving or receiving negative feedback

As a manager or team leader, you must give feedback to your team, and sometimes this will be negative. While people generally expect directness at work, that should not mean rudeness or unpleasantness. Finding the appropriate style for feedback depends on the situation, the office culture, the relationship between you and the person receiving feedback, and your different linguistic styles. You must be able to read the situation and adjust your communication style to match it. 

Being heard in meetings can be a matter of linguistic style 

One of the most interesting videos circulating on social media this year was of a woman taking part in a large video conference with her mostly male colleagues. Time and again, she started to speak, but someone talked over her, even though she was among the most experienced and knowledgeable people on the video call. It can be challenging for people to get their ideas across and feel heard in a large group meeting. Managers and leaders have a crucial role in setting the tone, both in person and remotely. However, we can all contribute by taking turns to speak, to make sure that everyone is heard. 

‘Normal’ can vary considerably across cultures

Cultural and linguistic norms vary considerably. In the US, for example, it is normal to chat to people. If you go into a grocery store, the checkout person is likely to greet you with “How are you today?”, and you are expected to reply: to make small talk. In the UK, the usual reply is “Fine, thank you, and you?”. However, if you asked a stranger “How are you?” in Denmark, they would be caught off guard and not sure how to answer. This question would seem very personal there. It is important to be aware that these differences exist. You can then avoid taking things personally when someone gets it wrong—and also recognise what has happened when you have made a cultural faux pas. 

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