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Understand the Language of Your Audience

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

By Susan Freeman

September 5, 2018

According to Linguist, Deborah Tannen, people have different conversational styles, influenced by the part of the country they grew up in, their ethnic backgrounds and those of their parents, their age, class, and gender. But conversational style is invisible. Unaware that these and other aspects of our backgrounds influence our ways of talking, we think we are simply saying what we mean. Because we don’t realize that others’ styles are different, we are often frustrated in conversations. Rather than seeing the culprit as differing styles, we attribute troubles to others’ intentions (she doesn’t like me), abilities (he’s stupid), or character (she’s rude, he’s inconsiderate), our own failure (what’s wrong with me?), or the failure of a relationship (we just can’t communicate).

Conversational rituals common among men often involve using opposition such as banter, joking, teasing, and playful put-downs, and expending effort to avoid the one-down position in the interaction.

Conversational rituals common among women are often ways of maintaining an appearance of equality, taking into account the effect of the exchange on the other person, and expending effort to downplay the speakers’ authority so they can get the job done without flexing their muscles in an obvious way.

When everyone present is familiar with these conventions, they work well. But when ways of speaking are not recognized as conventions, they are taken literally, with negative results on both sides. Men whose oppositional strategies are interpreted literally may be seen as hostile when they are not, and their efforts to ensure that they avoid appearing one-down may be taken as arrogance. When women use conversational strategies designed to avoid appearing boastful and to take the other person’s feelings into ac-count, they may be seen as less confident and competent than they really are. As a result, both women and men often feel they are not getting sufficient credit for what they have done, are not being listened to, are not getting ahead as fast as they should.

We apply this thinking when training on client service best practices noting client service is the most powerful of all business development strategies. When you understand the language of your audience, you have a better chance of building a meaningful relationship with them. 

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