You Have to Talk like “the White Man” to Get Ahead in Corporate America

Learning English is not enough when trying to get ahead in Corporate America. You could be a second-generation American but still be ostracized from the upper echelons of white-collar jobs because you are failing to do one thing: Talking like a white man.
It’s the unfortunate truth that we have to emulate a society built on prejudice to gain an extra edge in our careers. But this is a hard truth. Despite our fellow brothers and sisters fighting for civil justice on the streets, a quieter prejudice festers unchallenged within cubicle walls, open-office spaces, and Zoom meetings.
Racial and gender divides still exist within the workplace.
According to Fortune, 72% of corporate leadership at 16 Fortune 500 companies are white men.
To add, Quartz points out that the average age of a C-Suite employee is getting older, indicating that the natural generational turnover at the top is slow-moving.
But what if you work in a pretty diverse workplace?
You might be sitting on the opposite side of quiet segregation. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “racial segregation in U.S. workplaces is greater today than it was in the ‘70s.
Diversity stops at the lower rungs of companies if they exist at all. The lack of ethnic and gender diversity in management shows that merit alone will not take you to a higher stratum. Invisible lines may even prevent you from getting past the initial job interview. The main component of being considered for a job or promotion appears to be “likeability.”
A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that “likeability” in an applicant has a stronger influence than merit during the interview process.
However, in the modern world, you can’t say you are hiring or promoting someone because they are “likable.” Corporate America has evolved to mask this term with something called “cultural fit,” looking beyond merits by searching for people who fit their company ethos.
But what exactly does that mean?
It’s hard not to wonder if “cultural fit” is just a veil for cultural exclusion.
Technology companies who tout “cultural fit” as part of their criteria in the interview process have received a lot of flak for being predominantly white-male in recent years.
So how does a professional of an ethnic or gender minority improve their “likeability”?
The answer may be mimicry.
In The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers explored the “chameleon effect,” the act of unconsciously copying a person’s speech and behavior. The study showed a correlation between empathy and mimicry in social groups.
Ideally, we should celebrate our individuality in the workplace where we wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics. Yet, even with diversity inclusion programs, promotions are still widely subjective. Improving “likability” could make a more significant difference than collecting accolades.
Here are some behavioral insights I’ve personally gathered that white-male superiors respond positively to that could improve your professional trajectory:

Speak with confidence in meetings.

Don’t shy away from your words when you’re in a meeting. Silence is the ultimate career-killer. Speak confidently.
I’ve found that sound executives respond well to challenge, as long as you show data or a well-founded strategy.
The key is to always speak with respect, toeing the line between firmness and kindness.
Even if you get shut down, it’s vital to let senior members know that you’re thinking strategically. “Strategic thinking” is the most common character trait senior leadership looks for when promoting members to a manager level.
Meetings are also usually the only time you get to converse with upper management, so come prepared. Bring data points. You want to make an impression every time. I’ve found that the more I speak up in meetings, armed with data and hours of notes on strategy, the more I’m invited to these meetings.

Learn and use American idioms.

This tip is mainly for people who are self-conscious about their speech. Maybe you have an accent, or English is not your first language. One of the most significant barriers in professional conversation is the frequent use of idioms in an American office (or Zoom).
I didn’t realize this was something to be conscientious of until some of my foreign national coworkers pointed it out to me. They all speak excellent English, but they have a hard time with idioms, making it difficult to connect with their American counterparts. I’ve found that white males, especially, use them a lot.
Here are some examples of commonly used idioms that Americans use in a professional setting:
  • We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it
  • Let’s get down to brass tacks
  • I have to wrap my head around it
  • A dime a dozen
  • Don’t beat around the bush
  • Bite the bullet
  • Let me give you my two cents
  • He has bigger fish to fry
  • Hit the nail on the head
  • Kill two birds with one stone
  • The elephant in the room
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  • Between a rock and a hard place
You get the idea. If you’re caught with one and don’t quite understand it, it could put you in an awkward situation.
As an Asian-American who grew up in a white neighborhood, I took this part of my daily speech for granted and found that it set me apart from other Asian-Americans who aren’t as familiar.

Don’t use slang.

Unless you’re a social media manager, avoid using slang. It can make you sound inexperienced, especially as a younger professional. Don’t make the generational divide any more obvious.

Speak plainly to executives.

Ever notice how CEOs and C-levels talk in a room filled with their employees?
They don’t use industry jargon. They keep things simple.
One of my biggest mistakes in my early career was using marketing jargon in executive meetings. Remember that not everyone knows your job or even knows what you do.
Save the jargon for team meetings. When you’re with executives, explain it in simple terms. It will make you more approachable. There is more than one way to show that you have a big brain.

Every time you talk to an executive, make it short.

Treat every interaction like a 30-second sales pitch. Executives have a short attention span. They are probably on their email while you’re talking. When you get their attention, make it count. It could even happen in the break room while you’re getting coffee. Practice how to make your points clear and concise.

Learn your sports terms.

I’ve heard this complaint a lot, especially with female professionals but also from foreign national professionals. One of the most marginalizing uses of business language is using sports terms in daily conversation.
Here are some examples:
  • Let’s take a rain check
  • That’s very inside baseball
  • Full-court press
  • Hail Mary pass
  • Par for the course
  • You have someone in your corner
  • Bush-league
If you’re not into sports, these expressions can seem foreign and exclusive.

Be the change you want to see.

“Talking like the white man” is just indulging in the problem. But until we see more diversity in our business executives, this is our reality.
But I hope that as minorities learn these intricacies of the white-male dominant systems of business, they can rise and enact real change in their roles. And for corporate leaders to be more conscientious of these cultural barriers that might be hindering their minority workforce.
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