Study finds women’s speech more concrete, detailed than men’s
Research by a Lam Family College of Business assistant professor suggests that men rely more on abstract speech
Listen to male and female managers talk to their subordinates, and you’ll likely hear some differences in their delivery, says San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Management Priyanka Joshi. Research by Joshi, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that communication differences between men and women all come down to the details.
Female managers tend to give specific, concrete direction and may provide employees with an action plan, Joshi says. Male managers may skip the details entirely and talk about the big picture or the larger purpose — a linguistic pattern that Joshi and her collaborators found replicated in a variety of communication contexts.
Joshi and her coauthors conducted six separate studies, which included a review of previous studies, controlled experiments, an analysis of more than 600,000 blog posts from Blogger.com and transcripts of speeches by U.S. legislators. These diverse communication scenarios allowed Joshi to test whether audience size and proximity, the speaker’s relationship to the audience and the level of power the speaker wielded contributed to the speaker’s communication style. In nearly every setting, men spoke more abstractly than women, the study revealed.
Joshi then used a computer program that analyzed the text and scored speakers on how abstract their language was. The program searched for hallmarks of abstract speech such as adjectives and certain nouns, like “justice” or “morality,” she says.
Even in settings where a similar delivery might be expected from presenters, differences between genders emerged. According to the study, an examination of speeches from 2001–2017 congressional sessions showed that even “in these high stakes contexts where speech style may involve much deliberation and practice” women still used more concrete speech than men.
Joshi landed on this topic while studying something broader — the leadership styles of men and women. Previous research showed that concrete communication was part of being an effective leader, she says. “Workers tend to prefer specific feedback to more abstract feedback,” she said. “People are more likely to take action when someone shares concrete information. Tasks are also clearer when they are explained in detail.”
Despite evidence that this communication style, commonly used by women, is effective, they are less likely to emerge as leaders, she says. Joshi wondered why.
“Our implicit theories of leadership are more masculine than feminine,” she concluded. “Men speak more abstractly, and they are more likely to be leaders, so we inherently form links between speech abstraction and leadership.”
But both abstract and concrete speech are essential for effective leadership, she says. “People have been making leadership judgements based on characteristics that aren’t clearly linked to leadership effectiveness,” she said. A person’s tendency to use one form of speech over the other has no bearing on their effectiveness as a leader. What’s key is flexibility — knowing when to use concrete or abstract speech, she adds.
“We shouldn’t rely on communicative abstraction as a way to select leaders because women do score lower and we don’t know if it is truly predictive of communication and leadership effectiveness,” she said. “In certain situations, you want your leader to speak abstractly, such as when addressing a large crowd of people or rallying your employees around a vision.”
Joshi was quick to point out that women can adapt their speech style when the situation calls for it. When women are primed to think about a distant and large audience they are just as likely as men to use abstract speech. “Research shows that women are as effective as men (if not more) when it comes to leadership, so it might be worth it to train both men and women to adapt their speech to the context,” she added.
In certain situations, a women’s communication motives or goals may be different from men. “Women may be seeking to connect with their audience and feel psychologically closer to them,” she said. “And these differences in how men and women see their communication context, as well as what their goals, influence how they’re communicating.”
Harvard Business School Associate Professor of Business Administration Laura Huang, University of Southern California (USC) Associate Professor of Management and Organization Cheryl J. Wakslak and USC Assistant Professor of Marketing Gil Appel coauthored this study.