How linguistic style can undermine perceptions of confidence

One of the qualities job interviewers often look for in applicants is confidence: confidence in communicating, in one’s skills, in one’s ability to effectively perform in a new job. But how do interviewers judge confidence?

Socio-linguist Deborah Tannen asked in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Who gets heard and why? She points out that communication is more than just saying what you mean. How you say what you mean differs from one person to the next, depending on their learned cultural experience. Tannen points out that ‘Although we might think that our ways of saying what we mean are natural, we can run into trouble if we interpret and evaluate others as if they necessarily felt the same way we’d feel if we spoke the way they did.’

Tannen has observed how ways of speaking learned in childhood affect judgments of competence and confidence, as well as who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done. She found that even senior women can be judged to lack confidence because of their linguistic style.

What is linguistic style?

Tannen explains that linguistic style ‘refers to a person’s characteristic speaking pattern. It includes such features as directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, and the use of such elements as jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions, and apologies. In other words, linguistic style is a set of culturally learned signals by which we not only communicate what we mean but also interpret others’ meaning and evaluate one another as people.’

Workplace problems can surface due to people having different speaking patterns that are judged negatively by those who do not operate by these same patters. Examples are:

  • Pausing different lengths of time before turn-taking, such that some people never get a word in because they wait too long, thereby creating the impression they have nothing to say and possibly lack confidence.
  • Speaking at a slower rate thereby being perceived by fast talkers as slow thinkers and lacking enthusiasm.
  • Speaking directly, thereby creating the impression of bluntness, rudeness, and possibly not a team-player.
  • Using words and phrases to quality comments, such as like, think, tend to, quite, just, only, thereby creating the impression of doubt, and therefore lacking confidence.

In a more recent HBR article, Heath, Flynn and Holt analysed what was happening to successful, ambitious senior women who are passed over for promotions and seats at the table. A common experience amongst such women is that they feel less effective in meetings. Their voices are ignored or drowned out. They can’t find a way into the conversation.

Interviews with senior male managers revealed that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologise repeatedly, fail to back up opinions with evidence, are defensive when challenged and apt to panic or freeze if they lose the attention of the room.

The authors write that most of the women they spoke to say that ‘the trouble they have articulating their views has more to do with timing than with their ability to marshal facts, stick to a point, or control their feelings.’

Heath, Flynn and Holt suggest four ways to be more effective in meetings:

  • Master the ‘pre-meeting’: arrive early and stay late in order to connect, test ideas, garner support, get a good seat, chat with colleagues, close off discussions, talk about other issues, and build allies.
  • Prepare to speak spontaneously: rehearse casual, off-the-cuff comments, do your homework, come to a meeting with an accurate sense of what it’s really about and how it will probably unfold, be armed with cogent comments or questions that move the conversation forward.
  • Hold the floor with ‘muscular words’: use active, authoritative, precise language that shows you’re taking ownership of your opinions. Avoid hedging, build on others’ ideas rather than just agreeing. Examples given in the article are to use ‘That is absolutely right, and here’s why’ rather than ‘I tend to agree’; ‘My strong advice is …’ rather than ‘I think maybe …’; and ‘Here is my plan …’`Rather than ‘Maybe we can ,…’
  • Keep an even keel: When women feel passionate about an idea or opinion male colleagues perceived this as too much emotion. Until the masculine culture changes women need to be seen as composed and in command of their emotions. Keep an even tone, avoid higher pitches when under duress, speak deliberately, avoid signalling frustration through sarcasm or curtness. Move past confrontation without taking it personally.

This research has relevance for job applicants, particularly women, preparing for an interview as well as common workplace situations like meetings.

  • Understand your linguistic style. This is an element of self-understanding that can impact your ability to present well at meetings, including interviews, and work well with others.
  • Consider any aspects of your style that might contribute to a perception of ‘lacking confidence’.
  • Notice others’ linguistic style and your response. Part of the art of managing meaning is to observe the style of others, withhold judgement and respond appropriately.
  • Build flexibility in matching others’ linguistic style. At interview you may have to change the pace at which you speak, your volume, your directness.
  • Practice using muscular words and phrases. At an interview you must put your case strongly. The language you use, combined with linguistic style, make a difference as to whether you sound confident, convincing, coherent.
  • Do your homework and rehearse what you will say, so you sound spontaneous rather than scripted.
  • Show enthusiasm for a job rather than passion. Speak deliberately and avoid rising inflections and higher pitches.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.