In my workplace, I recently witnessed communication between the company CEO and
the human resource manager. The CEO was an American man of Asian descent, while the HR
was an American woman of Arabic origin. During the conversation, I noted different
communication patterns. For instance, the CEO was very sensitive of the power dynamics, and
so was the HR. The CEO constantly spoke in ways that positioned him above the HR. These
power play dynamics have been discussed by Tannen (1995) who argued that men tend to be
weary of the power dynamics. She asserts, “Men tend to be sensitive to the power dynamics of
interaction, speaking in ways that position themselves as one up and resisting being put in a one-
down position by others” (p.141).
Throughout the conversation, the CEO spoke with a rather affirmative tone, and looking
directly into the HR’s eyes. He frequently used words that indicated self-praise, referring to
diverse personal accomplishments. In one instance, he was emphatic that he managed to turn the
company from massive losses back to profitability. He mentioned that he had single handedly
changed the company’s brand image, which had given the company market dominance.
According to Tannen (1995), men are more likely to blow their own horn as compared to women
(p.144). Thus I agree with Tannen on this view since throughout the conversation, the HR did
not directly take credit for her job functions but rather seemed to affirm the CEO’s assertions.
The CEO constantly used the pronoun ‘I’ when talking about his contribution to the company.
This linguistic strategy, according to Tannen, is common among men. In fact, she observes that
women commonly use ‘We’ as opposed to ‘I’.
Throughout the conversation, power play was clear, particularly with the CEO constantly
asserting his seniority. I agree with Tannen (1995) since this conversation revealed that women
are less likely to blow their own horn. A review of the conversation suggests that the HR only got to use ‘I’ only once when refereeing to her role in the recruitment exercise that was in
progress, but later switched to ‘We’. Linguistic communication patterns between men and
women are evidently different (Schaefer, 2010). The CEO’s linguistic style varied as compared
to that of the HR manager. For instance while talking about self-accomplishments was natural to
the CEO, it did not appear to be for the HR. Moreover, while the use of the pronoun ‘I’ was
natural for the CEO, for the HR it wasn’t. Indeed, my observation confirms Tannen’s views that
in every community, patterns that comprise linguistic style significantly differ between men and
women (p.143). Tannen further argues that what appears to be natural for men differs with what
is natural to women. She attributes this disparity to the way boys and girls learn to communicate.
Evidently, boys and girls maintain this communication patterns growing up. She argues that
while girls tend to play with a single friend or in small groups, their male counterparts usually
play in significantly larger groups. Moreover, while girls spent a lot of time talking and
negotiating with their peers, boys spent a lot of time negotiating and interacting within their
norms (p.140). At the onset of the conversation, the HR asked the CEO, “Mr. CEO, you look so
tired”. The CEO answered, “Not really!”. From the conversation, it’s clear that these utterances
denote people at two different levels, one at a senior level than the other. This further affirms
Tannen’s argument that, “…every utterance functions at two levels” She explains that the first
level is where the language communicates ideas, and the second one is the invisible, non-verbal
communication that actually displays power differences. I agree with Tannen (1995) that indeed
through our diverse ways of speaking, we display a “…..relative status of speakers and their
level of rapport” (p.140).
This was evidently clear throughout the conversation. The HR often times referred to the
CEO as “Mr. CEO” which could have signaled a higher status or level of seniority. Thus the CEO’s seniority was evidently clear, further given that he referred to the HR as Mrs. Carney.
This signaled subordination, perhaps in an attempt to assert his power status in the conversation.
At one point, the CEO invited the HR for dinner at his residence over the weekend. In return, the
HR answered and said, “Indeed, I will be greatly honored”. This was a form of self-
subordination further signaling that she was junior to the one she was conversing with.
Throughout the conversation, I noted that the CEO was having his way. It’s like the HR always
allowed him to set the agenda for the conversation, and her role was constantly to join and
contribute. This was another way of showing honor and respect to her senior. Thus I agree with
Tannen that men mostly fail to realize the difference in communication style and more
specifically, they fail to realize that the conversational style is getting their way (p.140).
It seems that the CEO was oblivious of the fact that he had dominated the conversation
from the beginning. The communication pattern between the two also revealed certain
peculiarities. Whenever the CEO spoke, He spoke in a particular way, putting emphasis on
certain words. Moreover, he spoke in a certain tone of voice and speed. Whereas the HR spoke
softly and with a low tone of voice, the CEO spoke with a louder, sought of commanding tone.
Besides, the CEO was more affirmative and aggressive. Another linguistic disparity was that
while the CEO spoke at a faster rate, the HR spoke a little slower with constant pauses. This was
a reflection of power-play depicting the HR’s subordinate status. This observation reinforces
Tannen’s assertions that “Everything that is said must be said in a certain way – in a certain tone
of voice, at a certain rate of speed, and with a certain degree of loudness” (p.139).
Throughout the conversation, the power play was also evident from the way they
exchanged conversational turns. While this process requires subtle negotiation between the two
parties, it can also depict power differences. For instance, I noted that in the conversation, the HR was always careful to not interrupt when it was the CEO’s turn. However, the CEO would
frequently interrupt her conversation. When he did interrupt, she would pause and give him
leeway, perhaps signifying her subordinate status. Apparently, people in higher status of
authority tend to dominate conversations with their subordinates, sometimes ignoring the
conversational rules. This was evidently clear throughout this conversation.
Given the dynamics of workplace communication, I actually concur with Crossman and
Bordia (2011) that graduates should be culturally prepared to deal with related challenges
considering that the workplace has become not only culturally diverse, but highly
internationalized. The communication tween the CEO and HR also exposed certain cultural
disparities. The conversation further suggested that there was an tempt by each party to utilize
their individual cultural perceptions of identity. Gender inequality was evidently in play
throughout the conversation. This perhaps indicative of the fact that cultural perceptions of
gender roles are also manifest in workplace communication. The conversation clearly reflected
the largely patriarchal American society as the CEO unconsciously dominated the conversation
while the HR took a submissive position.
I noticed that while talking about their contribution to the company, the HR often did not
take credit. She mostly used the pronoun, “we” while referring to her role. For instance, in one
stance she said, “We have recruited a perfect balance of talent”. However, when referring to his
role, the CEO continuously used the pronoun, “I” perhaps indicative of men’s unconscious habit
of taking credit. This observation agrees with Tannen’s assertions that men are more likely to
take credit as opposed to women. While women make contribution at the workplace, I concur
that indeed they often resist the temptation to take credit. The conversation further revealed that
people communicate based on their pre-existing cultural perceptions. Cultural disparities play a significant role in the way we communicate. For instance, The CEO was an Asian American,
while the HR was an American of Arabic decent. The Asian culture is predominantly patriarchal,
and so is the Arabic culture. In fact, I think that culture played a significant role in determining
the style of conversation. Asian men are known to be very assertive and authoritative as this was
evident in the conversation (Keyton, 2013). On the contrary, Arabic culture has greatly
subordinated women. Thus power, cultural and gender factors significantly influenced the
conversation. Thus I concur with Crossman and Bordia (2011) that internationalization of
education has necessitated the need for a discourse on “..subjective, psychological and socio-
cultural issues..” (p.331). This discussion is quintessential considering that the workplace has
become more culturally diverse. Perhaps, this could be the reason as to why research into the
implications of workplace communication has attracted significant attention in the recent past
(Crossman & Bordia, p.330).
During the conversation, the HR reminded the CEO of a previous management meeting
where he kept the board members waiting for almost 2 hours. The CEO did not apologize as I
might have anticipated, but he instead downplays the whole issue. In my view, the HR probably
expected an apology. However, the CEO ignored the issue perhaps thinking that apologizing
would have put him in a one-down position. This further affirms Tannen’s assertions that men
are less likely to apologize as compared to women.
Workplace communication has become more complex and culturally diverse.
Communication patterns are now determined by power, gender and more importantly cultural
perceptions. Therefore it’s more important that institutions of higher learning incorporate cultural discourse in the study of workplace communication. Doing so will better equip future managers
and employees to deal with the modern dynamics of workplace communication.
Crossman, J. & Bordia, S. (2011). Friendship and relationships in virtual and
intercultural learning: Internationalising the business curriculum. Australian Journal of
Adult Learning. Volume 51, Number 2, July 2011