Authenticity versus social norms: A double bind for women building personal brands?

Should you consider gender norms when building your personal brand? I believe the answer is “yes”.

There is strong evidence to suggest that women and men communicate in different ways. Not only does this impact on how we express ourselves, it also impacts on how others expect us to express ourselves and how they receive our messages when we violate social norms. Today, I’m going to explore three sociolinguistic patterns which have implications for the way that you, as a woman in business, present your professional brand.

Do women and men really communicate differently?

Like it or not, in every culture on Earth, women and men communicate differently. In other words, communication is a gendered process. I am not suggesting that this is a problem, however I am proposing that you need to be aware of the social norms your audience expects you to adhere to when you communicate.

So what’s the evidence that males and females communicate differently? My favourite book on this subject is by sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen. In 1994, she wrote a book called Talking from 9 to 5. Her findings on the impact of gender on communication are still relevant today. Tannen’s core argument is that social norms determine our expectations around how people communicate. These expectations impact on socialisation and the ways we learn to communicate as we grow up. In other words, gender frames the way our communication is received.

What’s the difference between male and female communication styles?

Tannen outlined a broad range of differences between the way men and women communicate in the workplace. She argued that not only do we use different linguistic patterns, we essentially speak totally different dialects. Let’s explore three key linguistic patterns that you need to be aware of when you are writing your blog, or publishing posts on social media. I have chosen these three elements because they directly contradict some of the advice that we are given about how to go about the task of promoting ourselves online. These three patterns are:

  • Our conflict and challenge patterns
  • The tendency of women to downplay authority, while men highlight their authority
  • The level of directness or indirectness that we use in our framing of messages

These three language patterns present a subtle problem for women in our personal branding attempts. They directly contradict the advice that branding experts give us on how to develop authority voice and promote our expertise through online publications.

What’s the problem?

Read any article on how to develop your personal brand and you will come across three key messages. The first is that in developing your personal brand you need to be authentic and express what makes you unique. The second principle branding experts promote is developing your ‘authority voice’. This is a style of writing and expressing yourself which frames you as an expert in your field. The third piece of advice you will find in articles on personal branding is that you should express challenging, innovative or fresh ideas.

I certainly wouldn’t argue with this advice. In fact, if you are a regular reader of my posts, you’ll know that I advocate very similar approaches. I am, however, suggesting that women need to consider the way we go about these processes, so that we do not suffer consequences for violating social norms unconsciously.

So, what are the potential pitfalls? Let’s explore the advice that women should be authentic in their personal branding, through the lens of sociolinguistics. Being authentic requires us to be direct in expressing our own beliefs, values and ideas. It may also involve us expressing strong emotions, such as anger or frustration. Both of these communication patterns bring women directly into conflict with social norms around how direct or indirect our message should be. Tannen’s research clearly demonstrated that social patterns reward men who communicate in a direct way but do not reward women who use the same strategy. Sociolinguists have also shown that women are socially sanctioned when they express strong, negative emotions such as anger. Although these emotions are also not necessarily well tolerated in males, women in particular, are expected not to express them.

How, then, does a women who wants to ‘be authentic’ express herself without clashing with social norms around her communication style? After all, being authentic may involve directly expressing opinions which others may disagree with. It also may require us to express strong, passionate feelings, not because we’re angry, but because we want to have something done about the situation. The conflict between the need to be authentic and social norms around how direct our communication is, poses a problem for those of us wanting to build our personal brands.

The second piece of advice proposed by branding experts is that we should develop an authority voice in order to frame ourselves as experts. This advice brings females into direct conflict with a powerful workplace norm. Tannen’s research clearly indicated that it is socially acceptable for males to play up their authority but that females are expected to downplay their authority in the workplace. Hearing about this social norm often prompts an angry response from women. However, social norms are social norms. We need to moderate our message in order to develop authority voice, without prompting a backlash response.

Finally, let’s explore the suggestion that building your personal brand involves expressing challenging, innovative and fresh ideas. Let’s view this proposal through the lens of sociolinguistics. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem to make much sense for women. One of the key findings of Tannen’s research was that women adopt a far less confrontational approach to conflict and challenges than men do. When women are forthright in tackling conflict, they are often dismissed as being too emotional or too aggressive. This social norm has huge implications for the way that women promote challenging new ideas in their posts. Key questions that women need to consider include:

  • How to frame a challenge statement without evoking dismissive responses
  • How to ensure ideas pass through social and perceptual filters intact
  • Potential audience reactions to our messaging tactics
  • How to manage those reactions and ensure that our messages get through

How do we solve these problems?

Finding solutions to these problems presents us with unique challenges. In my courses on Women in Leadership and Communication Skills for Women, we often debate whether social norms should be accommodated or actively challenged. My response is that we need to take both approaches. In building your brand, my suggestion would be that you accommodate strategically in order to challenge.

So how can you do this? Here are some quick ideas on solutions to each of the three personal branding dilemmas that I have outlined. Let’s start with the problem posed by being authentic, whilst navigating the world of direct and indirect communication norms. As we’ve already discussed, women are expected to be less direct in the ways that we frame our ideas and suggestions. That’s bad news if you’re an assertive, direct, professional woman. Here are some suggestions around how to moderate the way your directness is perceived by other people, rather than ceasing to be direct altogether. There are three key ways to do this:

  • Manage the frame before you suggest a challenging idea. For example, on your blog you can set ground rules for how challenges are to be presented. Or, if you’re doing a verbal presentation, set clear group norms around when you’ll accept challenges and questions and when you need to proceed uninterrupted.
  • Introduce challenging new concepts gradually rather than in brief summary form. This makes them easier for your audience to digest and accommodate.
  • Use repetition to reduce the inflammatory impact of your ideas and help people come to grips with them slowly and successfully.

Similar techniques can be used to develop your authority voice. In particular, setting ground rules and norms around how people respond to your ideas is critical to building an authority voice which is not interrupted or dismissed. Other ways to build your authority voice without evoking the ‘tall poppy’ response include:

  • Actively tagging your ideas as having been created by you. In other words, showing ownership for your ideas.
  • Framing your verbal messages with reference to any published material that you have produced. This establishes you as an expert in your field.
  • Reframing your own reactions to challenges. Like it or not, people will be confronted by you suggesting innovative, new ideas. Some of these people will challenge you. In order to remain assertive and professional, you need to see their behaviour as being more about their own mindset, rather than being about you personally.

Finally, how do you present challenges or new ideas without sparking conflict? The key to success is in linking people back to what they already know or believe. This is a key principle of rapport-building, which women can use to advantage. Some ways to do this include:

  • Always presenting context before delivering a new idea. This helps your audience to link new material to what they already know, understand, or believe.
  • Highlighting the benefits of people taking your ideas on board. In other words, making sure that you speak directly to readers using ‘you’ based benefit statements.
  • Tapping into the power of repetition. The more times someone hears a new idea, the more easily they’re going to absorb it.

These tips provide you with a simple starting point navigating the dilemmas that social norms pose for us in building our personal brands as professional women. I sincerely believe that by being aware of social norms and actively managing the way we communicate within the frame of those norms, we can set ourselves up to be positive, assertive and true authorities in our field.

If you would like help in developing your professional persona and personal brand, you’re an ideal candidate for one-to-one coaching. Download your free starter pack here.

About the author of this article

The author of this article is Sydney based trainer, Eleanor Shakiba. Eleanor is a trusted coach to talented women in high intellect fields. She has taught more than 50,000 women how to excel professionally. Her passion is teaching high potential women to become outstanding professionals. Eleanor is qualified in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.