Being talked over, ignored or misunderstood is frustrating, isolating and downright infuriating. Especially when you suspect it’s because you’re a woman. Yet there are so many ways in which women subconsciously minimize themselves in conversations.
Eliza VanCort only learned to fully appreciate the techniques that go into strong communication when she had to relearn them after experiencing a traumatic brain injury.
“I lost my ability to communicate, and I had to build it back, brick by brick,” Eliza says. “That was difficult but also incredibly enlightening. When I was done, I thought, Wow, I’ve cracked the code of communication.”
Her book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space, explains how and why so many women resort to communication techniques that minimize their opportunity to speak, and how to reclaim that power.
In this episode of SUCCESS Stories, Eliza tells Chief Storytelling Officer Kindra Hall about the negative messages that affect the ways girls communicate from a young age, how women can reprogram the way they speak to maximize control over their communications, and how men can support them in those efforts.
Girls change the way they talk to meet society’s expectations.
Society’s definition of what makes a girl successful changes when she hits puberty. As young children, girls are judged on what they do, what they say and what they’re good at—the same as children of all genders. But starting at puberty, society dictates that the most important measure of a girl’s success is what she looks like.
Teenage girls are aware of this, even if it’s subconscious. They shift their personalities to match these new expectations. They stop claiming space in conversations, sports teams and academic settings. They stay quiet when they would normally speak up, or pretend to be less funny and less smart so the boys around them can seem more accomplished.
This self-shrinking continues into adulthood, professionally and personally. For example, if someone makes a sexist joke to a woman’s face, she’ll often laugh it off rather than call them out. Or in the boardroom, if a man interrupts a woman or tries to condescendingly explain a familiar concept to her (i.e., mansplaining), she might choose to let it slide rather than challenging him. A message picked up in childhood can have lifelong effects.
Change the way you communicate to command more respect.
Once you understand the ways you’ve been shrinking and molding yourself to fit society’s expectations, you can retrain yourself to reclaim your right to conversational space. For example:
- Question sexism. If a man makes a sexist comment, ask “What do you mean by that?” This puts the onus on him to examine what he said, explain it to you and anyone else there, and hopefully realize that it was sexist and disrespectful—all without escalating to an argument.
- Use silence. Because women are typically interrupted more than men, they feel under pressure to avoid pausing, which might give someone else the opportunity to jump in before they’ve finished.
“Silence is a power move,” Eliza says. Taking a short pause while you’re speaking—while maintaining eye contact—proves that you are in control of the conversation and claiming your space within it.
- Speak quietly. Lowering the volume of your voice sounds like it should make you seem timid: but it shows your audience that you are leading the conversation. Start out at a slightly higher-than-normal volume, and choose moments when you lower your voice. Your listener will have to lean in to hear you, and give you extra attention. Shifting to a quieter volume has the added bonus of adding a level of intimacy, as though you’re sharing a secret.
- Slow down: If a man and a woman are trying to make the same point, their audience will subconsciously require her to bring more evidence than him before they buy into what she’s saying. But women don’t get more time to lay out this extra evidence—and often mens’ interruption habits mean women get less time to talk. That’s why women tend to talk faster, especially when under pressure. Choosing moments in which you deliberately slow down your speech proves you won’t be rushed through making your point.
Unlearning communication techniques you’ve been using your whole life takes practice. Incorporate these new methods into everyday conversations, so when you have a big event like a presentation, public speech or important meeting, they feel more natural. And don’t beat yourself up if you slip up a few times: it’s hard to unlearn, but you can get there.
Men need to use their voices to support women.
Many men want to actively challenge the societal pressures that shut women down in conversations. But when you’ve never been a woman, it’s hard to understand the ways women are told to stop taking up space. Men can help support women’s right to express themselves at work and home by:
- Believing women. If a woman tells you that something you’ve said or done has made her uncomfortable, instead of immediately getting defensive or being dismissive, apologize and seek to learn and grow from the experience.
- Stopping interruptions or mansplaining. Look for incidents when women are being interrupted or mansplained to, and call out the men. Don’t repeat what the woman said, even if you credit her: this looks like you think your voice carries more weight than hers. Instead, say something like “I think Alice made a great point and I agree with everything she said,” or “I think Alice had more to say about this: please finish your thought, Alice.”
- Understanding that your voice holds sway. People from a privileged group—whether that’s regarding gender, race or even attractiveness—are more likely to believe other people from that group. A man is more likely to believe another man over a woman. So if a man calls out another man for saying or doing something sexist, that other man is more likely to believe that his actions really were wrong. It’s frustrating, but it also reiterates why men need to get involved when they see sexist behavior.