Say the phrase “with all due respect” to a male colleague, and he may hear a completely different meaning than if you said it to a female one. This perplexing fact is just one finding from a fascinating survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by telecommunications provider TollFreeForwarding.com, which set out to learn how communication differences can cause misunderstandings between co-workers. (It also looked at differences between U.S. and U.K. colleagues.)
Surprisingly, the survey found several phrases that often mean something different to men and women, even though they have nothing to do with sex or gender.
1. “With all due respect.”
Fifty-one percent of women hear this as a negative comment, while 68 percent of men hear it as a positive one. And 26 percent of men think it’s a very positive comment, while only 13 percent of women do. So if one of your employees or colleagues says this to you, you may have no sure way of knowing how they mean it, although if the person who says it is female, there’s a greater chance it’s meant as a criticism.
Perhaps because I’m a woman, that’s certainly how I mean that phrase on the very rare occasions when I use it. In my case, it’s code for: “Your position or experience suggests that you know better than I do about this but I believe you are dead wrong and possibly an idiot.”
2. “A few amends”
What do women mean when they say a document or other work item needs “a few amends”? Almost three quarters of female respondents, or 74 percent, said it means, “there are just a couple of typos.” Meanwhile, 44 percent of men said it means, “this is awful and needs redoing.” Seems like a recipe for misunderstandings.
Whether something and needs a major reworking or just a light fix is often a matter of perspective, at least in my experience. I once wrote a piece for a client and was told it would need a massive rewrite. When they actually gave me the corrections, it turned out they just wanted me to replace one common industry term with a different one that they liked better. I had used the term many times throughout the piece, so yes there were a lot of places where it needed to be changed. But it was such a simple fix I could probably have used search-and-replace to do it. Come to think of it, it was a man who gave me the corrections. So maybe men and women see the whole question of what constitutes a minor or major fix differently.
3. “Bless your heart.”
Sounds like another way of saying “you’re sweet,” doesn’t it? And 77 percent of men said they would understand it that way if someone said it to them. But 44 percent of women said what it really means is, “you’re dumb.”
The phrase can carry some venom, especially in the South. Insider said it was “a passive-aggressive way to call you an idiot.” It added, “depending on your inflection, saying ‘bless your heart’ can sting worse than any insult.” Yikes!
Flirting, sex talk, and yelling.
It’s easy enough–and a very good idea–to avoid using the above phrases at work since people don’t always hear them the same way. But the gender-based disconnect goes beyond phrases and also includes behaviors and conversation topics, the survey showed. For example, when it comes to flirting in the workplace, 27 percent of men said this was just fine, while 93 percent of women found it objectionable. And 20 percent of men thought talking about sex in the workplace was acceptable while only 6 percent of women agreed. Similarly, 19 percent of men said raising your voice in the workplace was OK, while only 5 percent of women thought that was true.
There’s a small audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) They tell me about their work frustrations, and many times, these seem to arise from misunderstandings or hurt feelings within the workplace.
Given these survey results, it’s easy to see how you might offend someone without meaning to. But a smart business leader or executive shouldn’t do any of these things in the workplace anyway. Raising your voice is always a bad idea. If you’re the boss, you may not care how anyone else feels about it. But in today’s labor market, employees know they can quit and go find themselves a boss with manners, so maybe you should care. The same goes for talking about sex unless it’s somehow relevant to your organization, for example if you run a chain of sex shops. Keep in mind that 94 percent of women–but also 80 percent of men–don’t want sex talk in the workplace.
As for flirting, that’s a very risky proposition because what seems like a simple expression of romantic interest to you may seem like sexual harassment to your intended paramour, and it’s his or her perception that matters. Consider, for instance, that Bill Gates had to step down from the Microsoft board because of his relationship with an employee.
There are many, many available partners out there. You don’t have to risk damage to your career or theirs by focusing your romantic attention on someone who works with you–or worse, for you. But if you absolutely, positively need to flirt with a colleague, save it for after work at the bar or an outing to a ball game or something. Whatever you do, don’t do it at the office.