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People Who Talk Less May Have More Power

Silence isn't the same as dominance, but they mix well together.

Quiet people wield far more power than you may think. Strong silent types can hold sway over a conversation, by forcing others to hang on to each of their carefully chosen words. In many ways, silence is the original BDE. “The power comes from fact that somebody wants something from you that they’re not getting,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, told Fatherly.

“That’s the power of taciturnity.”

Men’s speaking styles tend to be more sensitive to power dynamics, whereas women’s speaking styles are more relational, Tannen says. While women frequently walk away from conversations wondering whether they brought them closer to the other person, men wonder if that same conversation put them in a “one-up or one-down position.” In romantic relationships, this can result in men withholding apologies. While their partners might feel like they don’t care, Tannen says, it’s more that they don’t want to lose ground.

Because of this, men are more willing and able to wield silence as a conversational weapon in the workplace. Although women surely use this tactic as well (Margaret Mead says in her autobiography that she was always very careful about what topics she chose to speak up on) the understated confidence of silence tends to be status dependent. And, even now, men tend to have greater status in the workplace

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“Who has the power by using silence is a reflection of who already has the power,” Tannen says.

Ultimately, one linguistic strategy will never work in the same way for everyone and can mean many different things depending on region, culture, and overall context. Likewise, women’s instincts to prioritize relationships over dominance can be useful for gaining power, because such closeness comes with information about others. Men may generally focus on the power and women on the closeness, but both parties usually end up meeting in the middle and are best off when they share notes.

“Women may sometimes benefit from seeing that men are talking less and focusing more on activity,” Tannen says. “Men might benefit from seeing that sometimes it’s better to talk about some things rather than let it stew. Everyone can benefit from observing people with different styles and possibly borrowing what they observe.”