Mint

Probably the only thing Jony Ive and I have in common

Is the cadences of speech.  Wish I had read this profile in the New Yorker before submitting mine– I would have led off by saying that I speak like Jony Ive.  I think the profile is right in that it is a desire to be “liked” that makes us speak this way.  But the benefit of middle age is that you can attempt to overcome this.  Shorter Ive profile takeaway here at The Awl.

Clunky headline notwithstanding, my piece for Mint Lounge below.

Which Verbal Personality type are you? 

What is your verbal tic? Do you say “like” or “means” more than two times in a sentence? Big data has discovered that men say “uh,” and women say “um,” according to The Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps yours is not so much a verbal tic as a tone that conveys the wrong impression. You are not a complainer but you have a whiny voice. You think you are flexible but your tone is clipped, giving the impression of rigidity.

I have a verbal tone that drives my husband nuts. It is needlessly tentative. “Why do your sentences trail off towards the end?” he will ask. “Why do you ask questions instead of just stating facts, especially since these are subjects that you know?”

I think I speak this way because…wait, scratch that. Let me be declarative and you will see why. I adopt this tone out of childhood habit. I was taught to speak a certain way so as to not appear arrogant.

Our speech patterns are deeply ingrained and most of us don’t know how or why we speak the way we do. Some of it is because we mimic the speech of those we admire. Some of it is because of our inner biases playing out in the cadence of our speech; and some of it has to do with assertiveness.

Do you declare (“This research paper is hogwash”) or do you hedge (“Seems to me and I could be wrong but this research paper doesn’t read quite right”)?

Do you speak forcefully (“India wants an answer”) or do you speak softly (Don’t mean to push but would you like to answer that?”)

Assertive people speak to claim attention. Reticent types speak to connect with each other. Speech patterns also have to do with whether you are comfortable with disagreement. Some of us hate confrontation. We don’t interrupt others and fall silent when we are interrupted. Arnab Goswami would render such people practically mute. Both men and women interrupt a woman four times more than they would interrupt a man.

The problem is when your speech doesn’t reflect who you are. You may be confident but you speech is tentative. You may second-guess yourself to be polite, but you appear unsure of your opinion (“I may be wrong but I think Rahul Gandhi has some issues”). Do you have speech patterns that you have fallen into; that it is time to outgrow? Do you qualify your statements and if so, why? To appear nice? (“You probably know this already, but everything is relative, isn’t it?”)

Assertive folks speak 2.5 times longer than shy retiring types: in classrooms, meetings and boardrooms. When someone interrupts them, they shut up; and take a while to speak up again. They are vulnerable to interruption, as the jargon goes.

This applies in social settings as well. During a debate or a discussion at a party or salon, a few people jump in assertively. They interrupt each other constantly. When things get heated, they have no problem out-shouting each other. They think fast on their feet and state opinions authoritatively, even if they end up being wrong.

The other group waits to be heard. They engage in “turn-taking” behavior. They don’t interrupt, and if they do, they aren’t loud enough. They wait to formulate perfect opinions before they open their mouths. They worry about being seen (and judged) as stupid or ill informed. Predictably, women speak far less in public than men. One-on-one, it is the opposite.

The next time you are in a lecture and the speaker invites people to ask questions, notice the ratio of men to women. Which gender asks more questions?

The question is what to do with this information. If you are running a meeting; or convening a business conclave where men outnumber women 3:1, as they usually do, what is your approach? If you want to make sure that the shy brainy folks contribute to the meeting, what is a good strategy?

One approach would be to simply pause. Take a moment before responding to what someone has said. Be aware of how you are responding to women versus men. Satya Nadella discovered that too late. Notice your biases and your body language. Are you choosing men to answer ‘impactful’ questions and tossing the women the lighter questions? The idea is to cultivate a memory for your behavior and biases so that your responses can be equitable.

Society lays the onus on women. Lean In, says Sheryl Sandberg. Break the glass ceiling. Speak up. Dance like a man. That is one way. If you are the boss, sure, you can tell your quiet colleagues to speak up. Or you can simply hire more women. As has been reported in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Inc. and The Atlantic, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men on a consistent basis. “The secret to smart groups: it’s women,” as a headline in The Atlantic said.

Shoba Narayan has never had assertiveness training. She could be wrong but she doesn’t think she needs it.

2 comments

  1. Shoba I am curious about this. You have described at length that you received a modern US education, studied journalism (where the whole point is to ask questions) etc. and now you are a well known columnist. So much growth and development and do you still feel that you’re regressing to your child behavior/s and are not able to be as assertive as you like etc? You have also written that you thought yourself to be a firebrand equal to anyone etc., so this admission (esp after that “spouse whisperer” bit which I deliberately avoided!) is quite stunning.

    Satya Nadella made a big error: his error (about which you can probably write a full post) was to not understand the “context” of the question. His answer – that employees (not women or men specifically) should have faith in the system – was technically correct. But Maria Klawe had clearly framed that question in the context of gender pay. Heck it was a women’s conference so at least Satya’s handlers should have prepped him about the whole context: he should have expected questions on gender issues on pay or family leave or flexibility or whatever else. He and his team blew it out there.

    Like

    1. Kaushik. Asking questions is different from assertiveness. I thought it was a woman thing, but a lot of English people seem to talk like this– a way of disarming your listener, I guess. A desire to be liked as that Ive profile says. I agree entirely about “context”. What Nadella said would have been good advice one-on-one but in a women’s conference? Whew!!

      Like

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