There are many things I feel strongly about as a woman in the workplace. I should never have to wear a skirt. I should be able to wear jeans through the week if I want to. My tattoos shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to whether I am respected or taken seriously. I should be able to speak directly without worrying that someone will consider me too blunt or hard to work with.
It’s that last one that probably chafes me the most. It has only been in the last few years that I’ve given myself permission to communicate in the way I’m most comfortable. Yes, I am aware of the communication preferences of others, and I can respect that. However, I will no longer spend much of my time trying to be less direct. One major reason why? I sound like an idiot.
It has only been in the last few years that I’ve given myself permission to communicate in the way I’m most comfortable. Yes, I am aware of the communication preferences of others, and I can respect that. However, I will no longer spend much of my time trying to be less direct.Tweet
I spent so much time trying to reword things in my head before speaking that I’d pause for long periods, stare off into space, or just look completely flummoxed. I knew what I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t get it out in a way that I assumed it might be socially accepted. I believed that if I made this extra effort, I’d be taken more seriously. What happened is that I looked uncertain and as though I couldn’t coherently put together a strong (or any) idea. Worst of all, when my patience ended, which is dramatically short as it is, I finally would say what was on my mind, but I would preface it with an apology. “I’m sorry, this is going to be a bit direct,” or “I’ve been told that I’m too direct, so excuse me when I say.”
In the workplace, people are continuously — and often unconsciously — assessing your communication style for two sets of qualities: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status).Is Your Communication Style Dictated By Your Gender?
Carol Kinsey Goman
It was when I had a disagreement with a colleague that I’d had enough. The conflict was frustrating on its own. The other party had not communicated what he was doing with the team, making decisions for the group, and then reporting back as though we were all on board. I disagreed with the outcome and said so in a calm, but direct (and somewhat shocked) manner. My push-back was met with outright anger. There was no cool down period. He marched into my office, sat down and told me how, as a person, I had failed. His biggest point was in my communication and he used my own words against me. “You have said you’re too direct, maybe you should consider that before you speak to me.”
I was blown away. I had no words, no rebuttal, and I was pissed as hell. Knowing myself and everything I wanted to say, I thanked him for coming and speaking with me, and ended the meeting. Then I seethed for nearly two weeks—venting quietly to a close friend, to my boss, and not so quietly to my partner. Otherwise, I stayed professional, held my tongue, and never disparaged this individual. He on the other hand, made remarks on social media, complained to anyone who would listen, and made passive aggressive comments in meetings.
The interactions lessened, and he left the department a short time later. But, I’ll never forget the way that my directness was used as a weapon to shame me. At that moment, I vowed that I will never change who I am for the sake of what I interpret to be the social expectations. Funny thing, those perceptions were also my own. As the workplace has changed over the years with younger generations, expectations have begun to shift. The ways I had been coached to communicate by my mother and colleagues were changing as I got older. There’s also the fact that I AM older, and I’ve demonstrated that I’m good at my job. There’s a certain amount of privilege I carry as a white woman that I will also acknowledge.
The lesson I took from this is that it is OK to reevaluate my beliefs of office conduct and some of the norms I’ve been holding on to that may have shifted.
The reality is that we’re not at a place where every person can communicate in the way in which they are comfortable. The reality is that the majority will always create the rules, and hide things in the guise of professionalism, customer service, business needs, and good organizational citizenship. The old saying still applies, “If you want to get along…”
This is especially true if you’re just starting out in the workforce. You may not have a space to assert your communication style or set boundaries. That’s a reality as well. You may have to wait to be heard or take the chance that you’re perceived as being too direct or *gasp* hard to work with. As leadership begins to shift, those chances are lessening as well, but are still very much a reality.
If you’re established, give back to the newbies who are helping you shape the new world in which we work. Invite them into conversation, sponsor them into the meeting, pull them aside and tell them not to apologize. Pull them up with the lessons you’ve learned and help shape the reality for the next generation of workers.
Weinberg, Frankie & Treviño, Len & Cleveland, A.. (2015). Gendered Communication and Career Outcomes: A Construct Validation and Prediction of Hierarchical Advancement and Non-Hierarchical Rewards. Communication Research. 10.1177/0093650215590605.