Why we talk the way we do: Women in the Workplace


I never used the smiley face in middle school, when all the other kids were doing it. Nor did I try it much in high school and college. No—I became addicted to the smiley face during my professional career.

I used to work in a department with five other Gen Y women. Four of us had gone to the same college and graduated within a year of one another. And we all found ourselves in project management positions for the first time.

Despite the closeness of our cubicles (we shared walls no higher than our noses) we preferred to communicate via email and chat.

Hi, Jessica! I just wanted to see if you had finished that article yet :)
If you don’t have time just let me know and I can find someone else or do it myself!! :) 
Acree :) 

By the time I realized I was abusing the smiley face, I couldn’t stop. I worried if I did, my coworkers would assume I was bossing them around, or that I thought I was better than they were.

I tried reading through my emails and deleting the smiley faces along with their cousin, the exclamation mark:

Hi, Jessica. I just wanted to see if you had finished that article yet.
If you don’t have time just let me know and I can find someone else or do it myself.

Without the smileys, my demands seemed too direct. I worried I would hear Jessica scoff over our cubicle wall following the pleasant ding! of my email arriving. After the scoff might come the sound of her fingers clacking angrily against her keyboard, penning a nasty IM to Liz:

Jessy428: OMG Liz. I just got the bitchiest email >:|

Then I might hear a pause. Then the sound of Liz typing back. Clackety clack! Clack!

In Girl World, confrontations are handled in silence. Each word, ellipsis and period must be examined for hidden meaning.

Does this sound like high school? I thought so too.


Not only did I have trouble asking my coworkers to perform tasks, I also struggled with how to state my opinions in meetings and brainstorms. I found myself trailing off or criticizing my own idea before I had finished presenting it. Unless someone smiled and nodded at every word out of my mouth, I became overwhelmed by self-doubt.

When talking to other Gen Y females, I realize this kind of communication anxiety isn’t isolated to my previous place of work.

A TNGG colleague, Andreana Drencheva, confesses that her office communications look a lot like mine. “Almost all my e-mails include a :) . Some even start and finish with it.” In work meetings, especially when older men are present, she finds herself saying, “I have a question,” instead of disagreeing outright.

A friend of mine from college took a business class consisting largely of group projects. It always seemed like a guy took the leadership positions in those groups, she recalls. “The women would put forward ideas and then say, ‘I mean, that’s just what I was thinking… I’m open to other ideas, though.’”

As Gen Y women, we are supposed to be the most educated, liberated and technically savvy females in all of history. So why do we communicate like we’re still wearing hoop skirts?

If women had been socialized differently and learned to deal with rejection at a young age—as, perhaps, our male counterparts did—would we be more courageous in the workplace today? Are Gen Y men more comfortable speaking their minds because they were socialized in overtly competitive activities like football and fighting?

Or is it simply that Gen Y men grew up seeing other men in positions of power—President, CEO, novelist—and Gen Y women didn’t? And no matter how often our parents told us we could do anything we set our minds to, a part of us didn’t believe them?

While there has been little research regarding Gen Y women specifically, the Myers-Brigg Personality Test tells us that 70% of female test-takers of any age rank as “feelers” rather than “thinkers.” What does that mean? A feeler:

  • makes decisions less objectively;
  • is thin-skinned;
  • is usually warm, gentle and diplomatic;
  • calls people by their names;
  • avoids arguments and conflict;
  • and is sensitive and easily insulted.

No other area of the test is so polarized between genders.


Of course, all this is to say nothing about the forms in which we grew up communicating. Email, instant messages, private cell phone calls and texts are the hallmark of the Millennial generation. Most of us would rather spend twenty minutes trying to track down some information on the web than suffer a two-minute phone call to customer service.

So is it possible that our fluency with electronic communication has caused us a delayed development in face-to-face interactions?

The average Gen Y-er sends and receives over 740 text messages a month. Instant messaging, which we’ve used since we were preteens, is now celebrated in the workplace. We are known as the generation most in touch with online social networks and mobile platforms.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation and my college English professor, wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal:

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction.

Obviously, this topic requires more probing. Do our linguistic expressions—“like,” “um,” “you know”—trample our confidence? And do women use these verbal crutches more than men? If we had grown up writing letters instead of instant messages, would we be more comfortable communicating orally? Are we unsure of how to act because we lack women role models in our offices?

What do the men have to say about this?

Until Psychology Today publishes a study on the matter, I’ve vowed to end my statements boldly, with a period instead of a question mark. I will hack the emoticons and exclamation marks from my emails. And if I have the chance to approach a coworker personally, rather than digitally, I will.

In brainstorms, I will tell myself, there is a reason I’m here; it’s because I am smart and I have good ideas.

Then, I will start acting like it.

Photo by anniebee

Acree Graham Since graduating from Emory in 2008, I’ve paid the bills with everything from lattes and babysitting to marketing and social media. I now work in Atlanta as a freelance copywriter. I like cities, literature, radio and design. I still make a damn fine cup of coffee and I’m a pretty good dancer. Twitter: @acreegraham

View all posts by Acree Graham

15 Responses to “Why we talk the way we do: Women in the Workplace”

  1. Jessica

    Great article. I think you hit the nail right on the head with some of the issues that women deal with int he workplace.

    In regards to the smiley faces and exclamation points, I try to tell myself that my writing should be good enough that I don’t need to use a smiley face or exclamation point to water down what I’m trying to say. I really try to think about the language and tone I’m using – even in something as simple as an email. It’s hard though.

    And I totally do the “I have a question” thing in meetings, and am constantly doubting myself. I think that growing up, we were constantly surrounded by a debilitating amount of positive reinforcement to the point where we doubt ourselves if we don’t receive an immediately reassuring reaction to what we say.

    I wish I had the solution to these issues. But honestly I’m just glad that there are other women my age who are aware of them.

  2. Meghan Flynn

    Its weird, because I was im-ing coworkers this morning and getting frustrated with how much I was using a happy little smiley face. And the funny thing is that I NEVER use emoticons when I’m texting with friends – anyone else weird like that?

    And I agree with both of you: its down to Gen Y getting constant positive reinforcement plus the expected norm where woman avoid direct confrontation where men are encouraged to seek it out. Like how so many women end statements, even when telling someone their own name!, with an inflection.

    I don’t necessarily think, however, that Gen Y, the 20-somethings, have to worry too much about losing skill in the face-to-face arena. I think that’ll be a bigger challenge for the kids coming up below us, who are communicating electronically much younger than we did, simply because the technology is established now.

  3. melysa martinez

    Haha. This was an awesome article. I nodded and laughed throughout. I am definitely guilty of overusing the the :) and also worry about coming off as too direct without it. But then the more I use it, I feel like an airhead Valley girl. Like, why am I always smiling so GD much? I don’t really have a problem with raising a point, I don’t think, but I definitely fell into the “feelers” part, which made me “feel” like punching something after I read it. How can a reading be so paradoxically true and untrue about me? I think my greatest problem with communication in a work or networking environment is not so much as coming off wrong, so much as arrogant. I am a magnet to confident people, but arrogance, why would anyone want to befriend or work with that?

    And this doesn’t really match anything written, but I think part of it too is this: people tend to subdivide into smaller groups. Niches. And often the men in an office/organization/group form their own niche of just men, and they feed off each other and help each other out. With women, the niche, the subgroup, is so much smaller sometimes. We’re so catty and distrustful. Some men are more than happy to bring the woman into their group and she may benefit from that, but without or them or their own niche, its higher to climb, be heard and be boosted by the invisible. Women need to help each other out so they too feel confident and benefit.

    Not ALL women, the deserving ones. The best. As the way life should be. No hand outs. Not the lazy chick who always gets in late, or the one who does nothing but whine and wants everything given to her. Let’s not confuse sisterhood with welfare. But if a woman is confident and strong and smart and insightful and dedicated and funny or whatever the positives may be, we should help each other out. Then we wouldn’t mind to be 100 percent surrounded by “feelers” in our subgroup. We wouldn’t have to mumble “like” “um” “you know” “I have a question” because there would be some common ground beneath all of us.

  4. Christine Peterson

    I try to only use smiley faces and exclamation points in communication with my peers, whether they are friends or co-workers. I feel like smileys and exclamation points make myself seem more friendly, but I don’t use them for older people because I don’t think they’ll take me seriously if I pepper my emails with childish emoticons.

    As far as face-to-face communication goes, it frustrates me when people think Gen Y somehow suffers because we have digital modes of communication. It’s not like we live in a box and never actually talk to anyone. The “I can figure it out myself” mentality of never calling customer service is in the same vein as the age-old stereotype that men never stop to ask for directions. And I still talk to people constantly, even though I do text and use the Internet a lot. Especially as a Communications student, public speaking was a required part of my college education.

    Gen Y women may have new challenges to deal with in the work place, but it’s a total cop-out to blame our failures on technology. Let’s conquer whatever fears and insecurities we may have – that’s the challenge that every young adult needs to get over, whatever generation they belong to.

  5. Kathryn Howell

    Great ponderings, Acree. Working with college women this past year, I have noticed how obviously shy our gender is with any type of confrontation. Alas, until Physchology Today answers our questions, I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to add to the discussion:

    With the “I have a question” remark in a brainstorm session, I wonder how much of our gender’s subtlety is truly a direct reaction to the lack of positive crowd response. Perhaps we’re playing a game with a system larger than ourselves? For example, in the Myers-Brigg test, I’m a T thru and thru. But I act like an F in a brainstorm around men. Why? Perhaps I have sensed that the typical business-man responds “better” to a woman who is not completely forthright (afterall, a male ego is a terrible thing to break). Perhaps I’m simply choosing the lesser of two evils: I would rather be liked, enjoyed, and thought demurely than feared, disliked and promoted. Ergh. So…does our gender need the constant positive reinforcement? OR perhaps we caught playing into female stereotypes? Chicken or the egg, right?

    I also believe that the smiley-face has both genders in a world of trouble. I work in Corporate America, where so much of our communication is electronic. You can’t hear tones of voices, and we value efficiency so much that we choose to say “no” instead of “no, thank you”. Therefore, I hurt with you Acree: I, too, have become a smiley-face addict. But in this world of smiley-face addict women, there are just as many smiley-face allergic men. You see the train-wreck, right? Professional man writes professional woman a curt response…it sends the high F (Myers-Brigg) woman into a tailspin of what to make of the remark. Thus, I have seen more professional men adopting the smiley-faces. True statement.

    Thanks, Acree, for beginning the discussion…

  6. Andreana Drencheva


    Great post, as always.

    My $0.02 on the topic:

    On smiley faces: I think women our age use them predominantly in communication with peers, especially when we need something from them, or we manage them. As you pointed out, the smiley faces make us seem friendlier, or should I say less bitchy. It is just hard for us to think about managing our peers when we grew up learning how to collaborate and work in teams. With the smiley faces we strive to maintain the relationship while getting work done. We are just too afraid to use plain language with our peers so that we don’t seem arrogant.

    On “I have a question” and other phrases that make our communication style less confrontational, especially among older generations: Many of us are aware of the negative stereotypes Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers have about us: being arrogant, entitled, overly confident; and we try to prove them wrong with our communication style. I also feel that sometimes many of us don’t feel confident enough in our ideas, that is why we use leading phrases such as “This might be a lame idea, but” or “I don’t know if this will work, but”so that we don’t seem stupid or not worthy of the job we have.

    Thank you for a great post!

  7. Angela Stefano

    I LOL’d (seriously — at work!) at the emoticon thing. Truth is, I do it ALL THE TIME, no matter who I’m talking to. I think (and I have NO IDEA when this started, because I never used to…) because I’m perpetually sarcastic and snarky, and I sometimes forget that people I don’t know super-well don’t always get that I’m kidding, I use emoticons to make sure. I also do it because I tend to over-analyze even the shortest text message (maybe it’s the journalist/always-needed-to-use-the-right-word person in me) and sometimes misinterpret things.

  8. Shoshana

    Great article, and very insightful. I didn’t even realize how much emoticons and exclamation points had crept into my digital vocabulary until I found myself responding to an email from my MA program director with a smiley-face. I snapped out of it, thankfully, and managed to delete it before I sent my response. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that suddenly I’d become too sober and serious – like that emoticon was the only thing personalizing my email. Which is ridiculous – the way we write emails so often mirrors the way that we talk that our emails can’t help but reflect our personalities. Moreover, the very dignified and intimidating director of my graduate program really doesn’t need to know that I’m bubbly, friendly and approachable – he needs to know that I can write a thesis.
    I don’t know, though, that it’s strictly an online thing; I think this sort of behavior plays itself out in person-to-person interactions, and I know that I’ve been doing this in person since before texting was even a possibility (and now I feel like I’ve dated myself at the ripe old age of 24). And it’s possible, even likely, that older women who were raised to have the “silent fluency” that Mark Bauerlain prizes still experienced the same insecurity and self-doubt that seems to plague young women today.

  9. edward boches

    This post is awesome. Insightful re women, GenY, the work environment. You have something bigger than a blog post here. Develop this idea, perhaps a white paper, a panel at SxSW or some other conference, etc. Let me know if I can help.

  10. Beth

    I’m unfamiliar with your other writing and stumbled upon this post through Twitter. But this is great stuff. I’m deeply interested in the way people talk, down to the specific words chosen. Now, I’m not so interested that I am studying it academically, but it is interesting.

    You might check out “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” by Jean Twenge. She addresses some of the issues you and the other responders have discussed.

    All that aside, I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only young woman to have major issues with confidence, especially after growing up a high-achieving Gen X-Yer (I’m between the two). I really think all those childhood gold stars have done a number on me; the unintended consequence of constant validation is the continued need for constant validation.

    Thank you for a great post.

  11. marybeth lawton

    baby boomer here. i think part of the issue is that when speaking face to face with a co-worker or boss, you can impart and they can read the subtle signs of what is really being said. body language, eyes, tone, pitch, words chosen, look on face, all contribute to the message you want received. as a non-im’er, non texter, and looking for a new job, i am totally frustrated by the cold back and forthing of e-mails containing cover letters and resumes with references sent/acknowledgements received from potential employers who have no clue that what they are looking at is only a piece of the whole, no idea who i really am, in the same way that the texts and e-mails sent to friends and co-workers can’t possibly begin to say what you want. i agree with the previous poster who said that she writes as she thinks, but guys, i hate to tell you, you shouldn’t always say what you are thinking. filtering what comes out in lightning speed combined with the perfect body language and words is a lost art for your generation. try practicing it in business meetings, on dates, etc. will teach all you women out there how to speak up for yourselves when the boys try to co-opt your message. i grew up in a family of 9, only 2 girls, so learning to stand up for myself verbally started early, coupled with the fact that i was only 1 of11 female sales reps out of a total of 550 nationally for a fortune 100 company. it did help that i had gloria steinhem for a hero and was the president of our schools chapter of the national organization for women. sigh…..those were the good old days. anyway, put down your phones, stop e-mailing at work, and try walking over to your co-worker in the office when you want to say something important. you just might get the response you want. love and peace, kenzie’s mom

  12. Erica

    I agree with Edward! This is brilliant. I often feel terrible sheepishly hiding behind emoticons just to appear that I’m not “bitchy” or misunderstood when writing emails. I feel so much more powerful when writing books, blogs, or journal entries, speaking into a great void instead of directly to another person (usually another female, and usually another Gen Y’er). I’ve really tried to tone it down, but you’re right – it’s SO generational! The notion of silent fluency is really powerful. I’d love to do a deep dive into Gen Y women – let me know if you need a sounding board for this stuff! Keep writing on this, loved it!

  13. veena

    nice one! I think women are conditioned to be agreeable from a very early age. We go out our way to be likable and focus time and effort doing so. I believe that if we ourselves aren’t comfortable with the positions of authority that we have earned, we can’t expect anyone to take us seriously


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