Last week I finished a novel that had me on the edge of my seat. Vox, by Christina Dalcher, takes place in the not too distant future, in a society where every woman’s speech is monitored by the government. Not only does the government listen to what women are saying (and reading) but in the book women are forced to wear wrist bands that send volts of electricity throughout their bodies when they speak more than 100 words in any given day. As you might guess, with a premise like this, the female protagonist proceeds to push back against these constraints throughout the book. I highly recommend it!
The book got me thinking a bit more about the power of language and speech. What would I do if I could only say 100 words every day? What words would I cut from my vocabulary entirely? What words would I be comfortable using my daily allotment on?
In work situations it can often feel like women’s speech is unofficially monitored. Think about your last office meeting. Who was doing the talking for the majority of the meeting? Who got interrupted or silenced? Which participants were on the edge of their seat anxious to speak? Which participants sat back, listening or taking notes?
Talking is a regular part of everyday human life but, unless you study linguistics, you likely aren’t taking the time to dissect the back and forth of your conversations. What if you did? Here are some data points you could study at your next meeting:
- How many words people use (or how much time they spend talking vs. listening)
- How many times someone interrupts (or is interrupted)
- The demographics of the people speaking most and least
- The subject matters of a given person’s speech
- The number of questions asked (and who is asking them)
You don’t have to put in a lot of extra work to collect this data. Ask an intern or someone with less managerial experience to sit in and keep track of some of these points at your next meeting – a person just starting at the company would most likely welcome an opportunity to see how a meeting of some inner circle happens. Also, by using an outsider, you get results that are less biased.
The folks at Harvard Business School tried a version of this to very favorable results. As Ellen Pao recounts in her book Reset, “To their credit some of my HBS professors worked to eliminate their own bias from the classroom. A big part of our grades came from participation, but women, people of color and international students often weren’t called on or the professors would forget they’d spoken, so some professors would bring in an outsider to keep track of who spoke. They could use that record rather than their own – perhaps faulty – memory.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how to best utilize speech at the office, I’m leading a workshop at General Assembly on November 6th called “How to Speak Up in a Room Full of Powerful People.” We’ll put some of what the data reveals to the test in real life situations. I’d love to see you there!