Want to be heard? Speak with confidence, WSU study says

Scott Jackson, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho
·2 min read

Feb. 25—People are more likely to listen to advice couched in confident language, no matter if the speaker is a man or a woman, according to a recent study out of Washington State University.

While they also found women were less likely to use more assertive language in the first place, researchers said they found a lack of gender discrimination in how people respond to direction from male and female advisors that surprised even the study's participants.

WSU economist Shanthi Manian, who helped lead the study, said about 1,000 participants were guided through a virtual game by a randomly assigned male or female advisor. While all participants received the same substantive advice, Manian said some were directed by people using more assertive or confident language and others were given advice couched in more passive or self-deprecating verbiage.

For example, in one instance, Shanthi said a confident adviser might say, "I have extremely strong problem-solving skills and that's why you should listen to me," while their more passive counterparts would say something like, "You probably have better problem-solving skills than I do but here is what I'm thinking." She said researchers zeroed in on three key findings.

"One is that if a woman and a man are making the exact same statement, people respond to it similarly in our environment," Manian said. "Then, if an advisor is more assertive when giving advice, people are more likely to follow that advice and third, women are less likely to choose more assertive forms of providing advice."

Manian said this final finding came out of questions asked of participants after the game was over. When asked what kind of language they themselves would use, women were less likely to answer that they preferred the more confident tone.

So even though assertive language was found to be more effective in provoking a response from the person they were directing, Manian said women appeared less likely to use that language. She said finding out exactly why this is could provide fertile ground for future study.

She said other followup questions produced an additional caveat worth exploring further.

When they were asked whether other participants would respond better to a male or female leader, answers overwhelmingly indicated an expectation that people in general were more likely to follow the advice of a male leader.

"One thing that's interesting about (that finding) is that it suggests that it's hard for people to predict when discrimination will happen," Manian said. "That I think is another area that could be interesting for future research."

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.