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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Learning a New Language for the Office : TALKING FROM NINE TO FIVE, How Women's and Men's Conversation Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit and What Gets Done At Work by Deborah Tannen . Morrow: $23, 368 pages

October 25, 1994|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Deborah Tannen is a Georgetown University linguistics professor who broke out of academia and into the mainstream a few years ago with "You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation."

The four-year bestseller explained just how women and men talk past each other, but on a more profound level it absolved us all of guilt. Our relationships weren't strained because we lacked the empathy chromosome. Our mates were speaking a different dialect--and unless we learned theirs--and they, ours--we were doomed to a life of miscommunication.

Better still, it offered hope, at one-quarter the price of a single hour of psychotherapy. We didn't have to delve into our murky emotional pasts; all we had to do was learn a new language.

Now Tannen has entered the workplace, to figure out why employees think their bosses don't listen, why deserving workers don't get ahead and, most frighteningly, why some of them won't ask for help even when they need it.

As the wife of a man who once got lost on the way to his daughter's music lesson (OK, he had my car and there was no map in it) and came back home rather than call for directions, I'm quite familiar with the navigational autonomy of men. But Tannen points out that it's much more pervasive and potentially troubling that a male employee will often resist asking for information even though he lacks the knowledge he needs to do his job properly.

I think the two most chilling examples of mis-talk in the book are of the intern (male) who prescribes a medication at a particular dosage even though he's not sure it's right, rather than interrupt his resident and proclaim his ignorance, and, on the flip side, a woman doctor-in-training who gets a negative evaluation purely because she's always asking questions. Who would you rather be treated by: the man who makes an educated guess or the woman who acknowledges that she doesn't know everything?

Tannen talks about how language can put people "one down": that is, in a subordinate position regardless of their professional caste. And she notes--not much of a surprise--that men are more sensitive than women to losing their dominant status. But as in conversation, what is not said can be as significant as what is.

In a section titled "When Is the Wage Gap a Communication Gap?" Tannen tells of a woman who couldn't get a raise because her bosses didn't want to seem to play favorites over a man who'd been with the company as long as she had--even though she now had a more responsible job.

Tannen devotes one paragraph to other possible reasons the woman was denied a raise--the "gut-level, not-logically-thought-out sense that women should get less," or the fact that "the image of a woman does not readily suggest 'breadwinner.' " You can talk all you like: Those kinds of prejudices run much deeper than conversational style.

Still, this is a fascinating compendium of information on how we say what we say--and how others so easily misinterpret it. The transcripts of conversations Tannen uses to illustrate her points are perhaps the most interesting; rarely do we get the chance to consider dialogue at leisure, to look back over what two people have said and see the shifts in control or the miscues.

The remedy is a bit daunting. Learning to talk right in the workplace seems like training for a career in psychology; you have to be adept at multilevel listening. There is what you say, what is said to you, who initiates the exchange, who's in a position of relative power, and even the topic, or a sudden shift in topic, to consider. And even if you do get better at communicating, you may happen to be employed by a conversational Neanderthal--in which case all your knowledge is only going to help you footnote your misery.

But always better to be informed and, in this case, frequently entertained. We may think that the workplace has undergone a revolution since the women's movement began, but Tannen shows how deeply ingrained our sense of place is--particularly, how often women apologize in advance for what they fear will be a foolish question.

"Talking From Nine to Five" shows us how men and women with the same resources express them differently--and so gives men a sense of how to be less combative, and women, less the corporate wallflower.

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