Learning to talk

As a general rule, it’s a terrible mistake to take your lead on communication from actresses:

“Woman in a Meeting” is a language of its own.

It should not be, but it is. You will think that you have stated the case simply and effectively, and everyone else will wonder why you were so Terrifyingly Angry. Instead, you have to translate. You start with your thought, then you figure out how to say it as though you were offering a groveling apology for an unspecified error. (In fact, as Sloane Crosley pointed out in an essay earlier this year, the time you are most likely to say “I’m sorry” is the time when you feel that you, personally, have just been grievously wronged. Not vice versa.)

To illustrate this difficulty, I have taken the liberty of translating some famous sentences into the phrases a woman would have to use to say them during a meeting not to be perceived as angry, threatening or (gasp!) bitchy.

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

“I have a dream today!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?”

As with most erroneous conclusions, the fault is in the assumptions. “You will think that you have stated the case simply and effectively” is where the problem is. Where the writer, and the actress before her, are wrong is in believing that their feelings about how they have stated the case are conclusive.

In all communication, the primary responsibility lies with the person talking, not the person being addressed. If people regularly misinterpret you, the fault is almost always your fault, not theirs. If women “speaking their opinion” are often perceived as angry, then, assuming they are not angry, it is obvious they are inadvertently or unconsciously sending out signals that are easily misinterpreted as anger.

The problem, I suspect, is that many women have zero self-confidence. That’s why about 50 percent of all individual female products are sold on the basis of claims that they will improve the buyer’s confidence. (The other half concern divulging the secret of an envied woman’s success in looking prettier than the buyer.) And what most people lacking in self-confidence do when they are trying to state their opinion or speak up for themselves is either a) apologize in advance in the manner demonstrated above or b) overcompensate and come off as angry.

It’s absurd to say that women are speaking in this way out of fear of being perceived as Terrifyingly Angry, they are doing so because they are Ridiculously Insecure.

The fact is that if you have to steel yourself and work yourself up to simply stating your opinion, or worse, do so just to cite a straightforward fact, you are almost always going to come off badly. Your behavior and expression will not be consistent with your message. Most of these women who think they are just stating the case simply and effectively would be shocked if they saw a video of themselves doing it and saw their furrowed brows, angry facial expressions, and heard how their voices were raised as if in anger.

Compounding the problem is that the natural solipsism of women combines with that lack of self-confidence so they make it all about themselves. Note how many “I” references there are in the three examples above: nearly four per example. Just to be clear, the normal male response to this rambling “I just feel that I think I should be able to express what I feel is the right thing to do” is “who the fuck cares?”

Women are also more inclined than men to see criticism of an idea they have expressed as personal criticism and react angrily to it. Does someone telling you “that’s a stupid idea” make you angry and feel personally attacked? Well, then you probably ARE angry and your speech and facial expressions accurately reflect that.

Now, I’ve been in more than a few business meetings with women, and certainly some have spoken in a way that I would describe as “Oh Sweet Darwin, get to the fucking point before we evolve into a new species and all of this becomes irrelevant”. But plenty of them speak normally, without either anger or apology, and I’ve noticed that those tend to be the more competent women. No drama, no theatrics, no uptalk, just normal, straightforward communication.

Just talk. It’s not that hard. Stop couching and overcompensating and trying to frame, and foreshadow, and pre-convince, and talk. If you think X, say “I think X.” That’s it. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to apologize for it or get upset if someone comes back with “I think X is stupid, I think Y.” You think what you think. They think what they think. It’s not a sin or a crime to disagree.