For my next project I want to write about a new study of men, women and language. It shows that men, while acknowledging that a woman who speaks assertively seems more competent and knowledgeable than a woman who talks tentatively, would rather respond to the advice of the mealy-mouthed one! Men are simply more willing to be influenced by women who speak with lots of tippy-toed self-deprecation: Phrases like "I'm no expert, but ..." or "I may be wrong ..." or "I'm not sure... ." Or qualifiers ("kind of," "sort of," "a little bit"). Or else statements that defer final judgment to the listener, like "It's wrong to murder pets, isn't it?" Or "This is a good idea, don't you think?"

According to Linda L. Carli, an assistant psychology prof at Holy Cross, men more or less divorce the question of whether they're being addressed by someone competent/ confident/knowledgeable/smart/etc. from whether the person seems "likable." I interviewed her this morning and she said, with admirable nonacademic bluntness, "Men are apparently willing to be influenced by an incompetent woman, as long as she's likable and nice."

Women, on the other hand, form their opinions according to the perceived competence of other women. They like women who speak straightforwardly and assertively; they don't like or trust women who mouse around.

This is a great story for Washington, because Washington is such a male culture, and women have been taught for so long that the way to fit in is to assert, compete, talk knowledgeably about the Redskins. Apparently it's never going to work.

The study appeared in the November Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

I say, let's do it.

Let me know ASAP. MEMO TO: Editor FROM: Marjorie Williams

I was disappointed you didn't like the idea right off the bat. I think I can persuade you you're mistaken.

I see why you think it's kind of a dog-bites-man story. It is true that this is what feminists have been saying for a long time -- that men equate deference and weakness with femininity, and assertiveness or confidence with "pushiness." But the news here is that men will go for the less persuasive argument in spite of recognizing that the woman who speaks more assertively obviously knows more of what she's talking about.

You might need to know a little about the academic background. Basically, social scientists and psychologists have known for years that men and women tend to communicate differently, and that around men, women will speak less assertively than the men do (and less assertively than they speak to other women). But most of them have assumed this puts women at a disadvantage in mixed-sex conversations, that they don't get heard over the din.

Carli's leap was to intuit that talking tentatively "may be functional" for women. Meaning they wouldn't be talking this way if it weren't getting them somewhere. "I believe people behave in an expedient manner," Carli says. "They do what works."

Also, I think I should stress how strongly this study states its case: "It may be important for a woman not to behave too competitively or assertively when interacting with men in order for her to wield any influence, even if she may risk appearing incompetent" (my emphasis).

Think about all those women doing duty in the Persian Gulf. Um, I'm no expert, but I think maybe it would be better if we pointed that doohickey at their side, wouldn't it? MEMO TO: Gene FROM: Marjorie

I really appreciate your spending so much time on this. I mean, maybe I'm overselling it, but I still think the subject is fresh.

In answer to your first question, I'd obviously have to put in a certain amount of explanatory apparatus about how she did the study: It's actually two studies, which she performed with students who didn't know what the project was about. And in the second one she controlled for the possibility that the listeners might actually be responding to other qualities -- e.g., looks, charm, clothes etc.

In answer to the more complicated question of why: I guess no one knows. Carli thinks it has to do with what academics calls "status cues": that for men, the simple fact that the speaker is a woman means that a perceived subordinate is talking. Men therefore respond most positively to the behavior they'd most appreciate in subordinates. "If there were more women in positions of power," she says, "I don't think you'd get this effect. Because gender wouldn't convey information about status."

Again, that's a bit of an oversimplification, and I'm not positive I completely understand it, but I think with your help I could get it across. MEMO TO: FROM: Dear Gene,

Thanks for your note. I really appreciate the help, and I'm glad you've decided we should go ahead with the story. I sort of worry, though, about the fairness of couching this, even tongue-in-cheek, as a piece of advice to women. Carli is pretty careful about that, and it would be kind of easy to corrupt what she's saying into a handbook that counsels women to be deferential. "The solution is for women to have more positions of power, not be more indirect," she says.

I kind of think it might be unfair to imply otherwise.

Anyway, I may be wrong, but I think we should try to play it fairly straight.

What do you think?