What Men Say, What Women Hear

Special 12th Anniversary Guest Column

By Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster

We recently appeared on a late-night television show to promote our new book, Mean Girls at Work.  Our hosts, two male comedians, were very surprised to learn that women react to teasing, sparring and criticism very differently from men.  “When you insult or yell at one of your female employees,” Kathi explained, “She takes it very personally; she goes home and thinks about it.”  “Really?” one of the hosts responded, “I find that hard to believe.” He then turned to his female assistant and asked, “Is this true?” “Absolutely,” she said, “It really affects me. I go home and cry.”

Taking things to heart may be a phrase that encapsulates a primary difference between men and women at work.  Relational by nature, women take their work relationships personally, and invest in work emotionally. The female brain is programmed to retain and remember the details of conversations.  Language is the vehicle through which women connect and befriend.

Men, on the other hand, seem wired to accept that the workplace is a competitive environment, and that competition sometimes includes delivering and receiving verbal jabs. A recent study form the University of Chicago discovered that men are 94 percent more likely than women to apply for a job where earning potential is dependent on outperforming their colleagues. This would support the general view that men experience work as a forum for delivering results and beating their competitors.

Given this fundamental difference between the sexes, what guidelines might help men and women interact with fewer hurt feelings?


One tip for men:

Understand that most women are likely to hear and respond to your words differently than a man would. It’s really true that words you speak to a woman will leave a stronger imprint and have a longer-term effect. Even if you’re only joking, words that a male coworker might shrug off like “slow,” “stupid,” “lazy,” “difficult,” “weak” or “loser,” leave a lasting, negative imprint with many women. To get the best performance and the greatest loyalty from female employees and coworkers, you’d do well to choose your words carefully.


One tip for women:

Accept that you probably are more sensitive to critical or sarcastic remarks than your male colleagues. If negative words do leave a stronger impression on you, then your self-management plan should include finding ways to release the impact of any remarks that hurt.  We recommend exercise as an excellent remedy for releasing toxins – including statements that don’t feel good.  You may also want to run situations where a man says something cutting to you by a trusted male friend. Let him put the comment in its proper perspective.

Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster are the co-authors of Mean Girls at WorkWorking for You Isn’t Working for Me, and Working with You Is Killing Me.  Executive coaches located in New York City, they can be reached via their website: www.ksquaredenterprises.com.

  • I don’t doubt that women and men pay attention in different ways including the patterns described in today’s column. As an HR professional and a coach, I’ll add that we all can benefit from reading the advice to the other gender. Plenty of women are unaware of the effect of their words and plenty of men are hurt by the words of others.

  • Wow, who woulda’ thunk it? My mother taught me in the 1950s that women and men had differing “sensitivity” levels. And sharp as I am I noticed as a child that girls were easier to upset and “make cry.” It seems like we had to spend 50 years in a feminist wilderness to come back to what we’ve always known. We spent 50 years “training” men to treat women the “same” just in time to start training them back. So sad.

  • Gender essentialism?

    Meh – this is junk science.

    Adult human beings of either sex don’t limit themselves in this way – or narcissistically reinforce their stereotyped thinking by reading only what confirms the stereotype.

    Lots of great research out there that debunks this.

    I know it’s scary to grow up and become real people but the US really needs to do this.

  • CR –
    Kathi and Katherine are hardly biased and stereotyping thinkers. They DO generalize, but I think you’ll find their work is heavily research-based. What is the “this” that you feel has debunked scientifically. I have my own skepticism about some of what K-squared argue, but I’d like to know just what you find objectionable.

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