Well, it’s 2020 and workplaces are still struggling to give women enough of a voice. There are a lot of reasons why and a lot of things we should do about it – and one simple step is to make sure your team’s conversations include space for women to tell their stories.
You know from my last blog post that we all agree on an unspoken set of rules when it comes to conversation, including a special set of rules for storytelling.
(tl;dr — we have a turn-taking system that typically allows everyone to have one turn in conversation, but when telling a story, you implicitly ask for more time and then you are granted the right to take it.)
You can bend or break those rules, but know that there are consequences for doing so. Sometimes, the result is greater affiliation, as with co-telling a story. Other times, it can really damage the trust between two people — and nowhere is that more present than in mansplaining.
Do your team’s conversations include space for women to tell their stories?
We all know what mansplaining is, but in linguistic terms, it can be defined as a man’s flagrant disregard for the conversational rules that we’ve all agreed on.
Grice’s Maxims are a list of pragmatic rules that organize how we speak to each other. The first maxim is called the “maxim of quantity,” meaning “one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.”
You defy this rule every time you start explaining something your conversation partner already knows – like the man who tried to tell author Rebecca Solnit about a “very important” new book on a subject she’d written about (it was her own book). Breaking this rule once or twice is easy to forgive; but when you’ve chosen not to honor this maxim in your conversations regularly, you’ve entered into mansplaining territory.
Don’t women do this too? Sorry, ladies, we do — but because of the messages we receive growing up, we learn not to take up too much space — both physical and conversational — so generally speaking, it just doesn’t happen as often.
Conventional knowledge would have you think that women talk more than men. According to Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen, that’s true, but only in social situations. When it comes to the workplace, men speak more often and they speak for longer — face-to-face and online. Women are also given the floor less often and are interrupted more.
This is always good knowledge to take into the workplace, but how does it affect storytelling?
Well, it comes down to this: If you’re a male colleague or male boss, it’s up to you to be acutely aware of how you’re creating space for your female colleagues to share their story.
Are you burying her lede or stealing her thunder when it’s not yours to steal? Are you making sure she has ample conversational space to tell a full story? Are you interrupting or allowing her to be interrupted? Are you taking more time than necessary in your conversational turns? Are you respecting your shared knowledge or the knowledge gap between you and your female colleague?
My challenge to you today is to invite a female colleague who tends to be quiet to tell a story — and clear the way for her. Take the conversational space on her behalf so that she clearly has the floor, and if she is interrupted, step in and give it back to her.
These behaviors are the antidote to mansplaining; incorporating these tendencies in your daily work interactions establishes you as an ally in the workplace to your female colleagues. And when people feel safe to tell their story, you might be surprised by what you discover.
—Liz Marasco, Avanoo Marketing Manager
Liz Marasco has a Master’s in Linguistics from the University of Colorado Boulder and works in the marketing department at Avanoo. Her work has been featured on the TEDx stage and Mental Floss. When not thinking about words, she can be found ogling birds on the Front Range or hiking up a local trail.
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