Expressing Yourself

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to express yourself in a way that helps you get what you want.
  • Learn to avoid common problems with verbal communication in professional settings.
  • Learn to use non-verbal communication to help convey your message.
  • Learn to avoid common problems with non-verbal communication.
  • Learn to bring attention to your needs.
  • Learn to manage your professional image.


In communication, the words that you choose to convey your message are important, and equally important is the accompanying body language, tone of voice, rate of speech, etc. There is no perfect way to express yourself and often it comes down to choosing which option will best help you meet your goals.

The key to achieving your communication goals is recognizing how to use verbal and non-verbal messages to best bring attention to your needs. What you choose to say, how you choose to say it, and the way you carry yourself in a conversation can strongly influence the outcome of your interaction. However, saying nothing, walking away, or avoiding a direct conversation can also influence the outcome of your interactions because avoidance, inaction, and failing to communicate a message are still forms of expression. This module will help you to bring attention to your needs and manage the nonverbal issues that may influence how your communication is received.

The Purpose of Self-expression

By this time in your life, you have likely fallen into a pattern of expressing yourself that seems natural and doesn’t require a great deal of planning or forethought. Often you may express yourself to share your views with others, ask for something, tell someone what to do or what you expect from them, or to clarify something.

As you can see, the decision to express yourself can be a challenging one, especially when you’re faced with the possibility of getting an unwanted reaction. However, oftentimes the response we most dread is not as bad as we think it might be. We may not want to be turned down, judged, or rejected, but the long-term costs of not asking for what we want may be greater such as not finishing a graduate program, earning a lower salary, being given fewer opportunities and resources, or in some cases, even inviting the very response we attempted to avoid in the first place.

One key way that women lose out by not expressing themselves is in salary negotiation. Women often avoid asking for a raise or negotiating a higher starting salary, which results in women making only 75.5 cents for every dollar that a man earns in the U.S.1 This gender salary disparity holds true for higher levels of education as well. On average, female college professors earn 15% less than their male counterparts and women with doctoral degrees earn 22% less than similarly qualified males2. One hypothesis used to explain this phenomenon is that women are socialized to be humble, gentle, considerate, sensitive, and accommodating and, in turn, these qualities may interfere with the decisions required to make demands and express needs or concerns directly3.

10 Common Fears about Expressing Yourself

If I share, others will…

  1. Stop liking me.
  2. Judge me.
  3. Criticize me.
  4. Disagree with me.
  5. Discredit my ideas or me.
  6. Insult me.
  7. Get hurt.
  8. Argue with me.
  9. Won’t trust me.
  10. Think I’m incompetent.

While each one of these outcomes has the potential to occur if you do express yourself, they can also occur if you do not express yourself. In fact, we may be more likely to invite the types of situations mentioned above by not acting because others are left to their own assumptions about us, rather than hearing than the facts of how we really think or feel. Being explicit about your thoughts, reactions, feelings, opinions, and ideas can give you credibility, respect, and clearer boundaries. At a minimum, it will leave less room for others to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions.


In order to complete a group research project by the deadline, your team divided the work equally according to team members’ strengths. You are the first to finish your task so your teammates ask you to gather everyone’s information and create a PowerPoint file for the presentation. They claim to be really busy and say that they don’t have enough time to get it done before it’s due next week. Normally, you would be happy to help the team out with this extra task, but you also have a number of other tasks pending that you worry may not be completed if you create the presentation file. How can you respond in a way that expresses your needs?

Answer: from the options above, the best choice is “d”. While each of these possible choices has strengths and weaknesses, “d” is the most likely to protect your time because it expresses your situation directly while bringing attention to your own needs. Agreeing to take on the extra responsibility in the present with the hope that they will follow-through in the future (answer option “a”) may win you some friends in the moment, there is no guarantee that they will reciprocate in the future—and besides, it could set a bad precedent. Similarly, expecting others to appreciate your extra work (answer option “c”) can be problematic because there is no way to ensure that others will value the extra time you put in. Trying to pass the task to another member of the team is also an ineffective solution (answer option “b”) because it has the same essential problem: the work would be unevenly distributed. Thus, the best solution in this scenario is to suggest a fair and equal sharing of responsibility so no one person is expected to do all of the work.

Expressing Yourself Nonverbally

The first things that people often notice during communication interactions are non-verbal messages, however, we are often unaware of the nonverbal messages we send to others. Research suggests that people make judgments of others within one-tenth of a second4. Facial expressions, touch, movement, as well as voice tone, rate, and pitch, or even the physical distance between you and another person are each important parts of non-verbal communication. Most of us may be unaware initially of why we view conversation partners a certain way because our brains are programmed to automatically calculate and decipher non-verbal cues without thought. Becoming aware of your own non-verbal tendencies and how they may come across is therefore an important part of communicating with others—your non-verbal messages may be saying something you didn’t intend to convey. Table 2 depicts various aspects of non-verbal communication that may create confusion or become problematic along with suggestions for alternative behaviors.

Cultural implications in nonverbal communication

The meaning of various nonverbal cues can become complicated when other cultures have different norms and/or interpretations from yours about expressions and behaviors. Direct eye contact, for example, is highly valued and emphasized in Western culture; it is viewed as portraying confidence, honesty, genuineness, and respect. However, in some Eastern cultures direct eye contact may be viewed as portraying arrogance, flirtatiousness, disrespect and/or inviting confrontation. This is not to suggest that one should automatically avoid eye contact with people from Eastern cultures, but rather it speaks to the nuances and variations of nonverbal communication across cultures.

Given the multitude of nuanced differences in nonverbal communication across cultures, the best way to learn about these meanings may be to observe objectively the person with whom you are communicating and consider matching his or her style of nonverbal behavior. For example, you may try speaking in a softer tone of voice with someone who is soft-spoken or attempt to mirror similar, although not exact, eye contact patterns used by the other person in the conversation. If it’s appropriate and if you feel you know them well enough, it also makes sense to simply ask what they prefer. Being aware that different cultures view the same nonverbal expression differently can help you express yourself in ways that are culturally appropriate and valued by the other person.

Expressing Yourself Verbally

Most people think of verbal communication as the main channel communication. However, words can be laden with unintended connotations, implications, innuendo, or double meanings. Your choice of words can convey data about the content of your message as well as information about you as a person. The impression you make is tied very strongly to the ways in which you employ verbal communication. For example, using overly technical and formal language in more casual settings may give others the impression that you are arrogant, cold, pedantic, or unapproachable. At the same time, using overly informal language in professional settings may make you appear unprofessional, incompetent, inappropriate or even crude. Table 3 illustrates common problems with verbal communication and suggestions for alternative approaches.

Gender implications in verbal communication

Research shows that women second-guess themselves more than men and doubt whether what they have to say is of value. This same research also shows that society perpetuates this problem by holding women to higher standards than men and giving them less reward for their work2. Additionally, women tend to externalize success by attributing an external cause and internalize failure by attributing an internal cause. Portraying a lack of confidence can weaken your credibility in many situations. However, showing too much confidence in certain situations may be perceived as arrogant and can jeopardize your relationships. Some women tend to err on the side of expressing less confidence to avoid being labeled as bossy, domineering, or aggressive [see Gender].

Observing yourself and trying out new styles of expression can help you find balance. Without exploring what fits for you, how can you find the appropriate line between arrogance and confidence, or when it’s right to discuss your accomplishments versus remaining silent? One way is to ask for feedback from others about how you come across, then use this information to help guide future behavior. Another option may be to try something different from what you usually do. For example, if you avoid verbalizing what you have accomplished, practice mentioning it a bit more often around others gradually and pay attention to how you feel when you do and what affect it has on others’ impression of you.

Four Tips for Expressing Yourself Verbally

  1. Use “I” statements to explain your experience subjectively and to keep the focus on your own thoughts and feelings. “I feel uncomfortable agreeing to extra hours when my other obligations might suffer” is very different from “You are being unfair by asking me to work longer hours without any regard for my other obligations.”
  2. Discuss your needs: others will appreciate knowing what you need from them rather than having to guess.
  3. Focus on what can be done to improve a situation rather than just focusing on problems.
  4. Be confident and believe in the importance of what you have to say, even when others don’t.
  5. Cultural implications in verbal communication

    Different cultures may have varied expectations for women’s communication styles. Choosing to fulfill these expectations comes with both potential costs and benefits. For example, women (particularly female minorities) may be expected to be more submissive or agreeable and may even be hired for a position based on these stereotypes. Aligning your behavior with the expectations others place on you may help to keep the peace but could interfere with your long-term life and job satisfaction and self-respect. It could also further limit upward mobility since women have the predicament of balancing being womanly enough with not being too feminine to get ahead2. Ultimately, these choices lead to the development of our professional image, but remember that regardless of what you have decided in the past, at any point you can choose to make new choices for your future.

Addressing Verbal/Nonverbal Mismatch

Have you ever seen someone who is so mad that they started laughing or so happy that they started crying? In those instances you may have felt confused and unsure about how to respond. This is because our brains are trained to automatically interpret both verbal and nonverbal cues simultaneously. Conflicting information can oftentimes interfere with a clear interpretation.

When there are inconsistencies between verbal and nonverbal messages, nonverbal cues carry more weight than verbal cues and become the primary basis for what others in making meaning of the interaction6. Table 4 depicts example verbal statements paired with both confusing and expected nonverbal responses and how they may be perceived.

While it may seem that there are instances when verbal and nonverbal mismatch can be functional and adaptive, in general, it may be more useful to find a way to synchronize your thoughts, feelings, words, and nonverbal messages. For example, it’s very common to smile when you are telling someone something that is extremely honest or confrontational. This has a protective effect, in that it softens the message by conveying the following nonverbally: “I’m saying these things to you but I’m not angry or vindictive.” However, it may weaken the message or confuse the other person because the affect associated with smiling does not match an extremely honest or confrontational verbal message. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re saying one thing but nonverbally indicating something different, consider how you might align the two in order to eliminate undue confusion.

Bringing Attention to Your Needs

Perhaps the biggest mistake that women make in expressing themselves is never asking for what they want in the first place. Society holds strong expectations for women to be pleasant, friendly, non-confrontational, accommodating, and nurturing; these expectations operate as early as childhood and women internalize these expectations as a natural part of their identity7. As a result, women may feel uncertain about their worth and reluctant to ask for more than what they currently have8. Fear of rejection can deter women from making their needs clear in relationships. But remember, the worst that could happen is that they say no.

Five statements to return the attention to your needs

  1. This is really important to me.
  2. I need this in order to…
  3. Before I can get to_____ , I need ______.
  4. I would really appreciate it if…
  5. I really would like to discuss this, so perhaps we can find a better time…

Ten tips on asking for what you want (For Planning the Message for more)

  1. Empathize with the other person, but don’t assume you know what they think in advance.
  2. State your need directly, succinctly, and without apology or explanation instead of implying, suggesting, or being vague about what you want.
  3. Consider offering a compromise that is well thought-out and takes the other person’s needs into account.
  4. Plan for external factors like time and context. For example, hold off on making requests during crises or crunch times unless necessary.
  5. Be prepared for potential barriers and how you plan to address them without becoming discouraged.
  6. Provide specific and concrete examples of what you want when possible.
  7. Avoid backing out of your requests. If you retreat, you jeopardize your credibility.
  8. State your needs prior to making any commitments. This increases your power to negotiate.
  9. Prepare a back-up plan(s) in case your request cannot be met so you have alternative solutions ready.
  10. Be reasonable and consider the limitations of the other person.

Managing Impressions

When you’re a woman in a field where you’re the minority it can be difficult to figure out how to portray yourself. Impression management is always important for professional success but takes on a different quality in academia, where we are often more beholden to others in order to achieve our goal (e.g., you can’t graduate without the support of your advisor).

You can’t control what others think of you. Some will view you a certain way regardless of what you do. As a woman, others’ impressions of you are often colored by gender stereotypes and expectations. Taking such gender factors into account poses an additional burden for women in managing impressions.

For the most part, however, your behaviors and how you present yourself play a major role in determining how others perceive you. The way you dress, the people you associate with, the places you go, and aspects of your personal or academic life that you reveal all contribute to the impression you make. Some people tend to be extremely guarded and maintain only casual and collegial relationships with those in their professional life. This helps avoid gossip as well as the potential sharing of personal content that could be used against you. The downside is that such caution often means limiting meaningful relationships to those outside of the work setting. Colleagues may judge this type of behavior as a kind of slight and may believe the person is cold, snobbish, or unfriendly. Table 5 addresses some of these domains and ways to protect your professional image.

Five ways to deflect questions you don’t want to answer

  1. I’m not comfortable talking about that.
  2. I’d rather not get into it.
  3. I’m sorry, that’s too personal.
  4. It’s in the past.
  5. I don’t think that’s appropriate to discuss here.

Sharing aspects of yourself may help you build relationships or connect with others, but it can also be a source of conflict and negative impressions. The key is to make planned and intentional disclosures so that you are aware of what and with whom you are sharing, and what they plan to do with the information.

Social media and your professional image

Maintaining boundaries about what to reveal and being deliberate about what aspects of yourself you want your colleagues or supervisors to know is a fundamental component of being a professional. Be cautious about your public image since many employers now check social media like Twitter and Facebook when hiring new employees. A good ground rule for practice is to treat these social media environments like an extension of your work persona. When in doubt, ask yourself “How do I want to be seen?” and “How might this come across?” This can help increase your awareness and project the persona that will be most respected by others.

CareerWISE Point

How you express yourself is a function of both your verbal and nonverbal messages. When verbal and nonverbal messages in a communication interaction conflict with one another, it introduces confusion that may undermine the message you are trying to convey. Expressing yourself to bring attention to your needs may be one of the more difficult forms of expression, so be mindful of the messages you send.

CareerWISE Tips

  • Pay attention to the words you are using when expressing yourself and be mindful of the alternative meanings they may contain.
  • Take note of your nonverbal behaviors. Do they conflict with your verbal message? Could they be perceived as communicating something unintended? Practice aligning them with your verbal message(s) and take measures to eliminate behaviors that create confusion or portray the wrong impression.
  • Remember to consider the impression you’ll be projecting as you decide how to express yourself.


  1. Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2007). Women don’t ask: The high cost of avoiding negotiation and positive strategies for change. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
  2. Catalyst (2007). The double bind dilemma for women in leadership: Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t.
  3. Eagly, A. H. (1995). The science and politics of comparing women and men. American Psychologist, 50(3), 145-158. doi: 10.1037/003-066X.50.3.145
  4. Association for Psychological Science (2006). How Many Seconds to a First Impression. APS Observer.
  5. Lakin, J.L., & Chartrand, T.L. (2003). Using nonconscious behavioral mimicry to create affiliation and rapport. Psychological Science, 14, 334-339. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.14481
  6. Giles, H., & Le Poire, B.A. (2006). The ubiquity and social meaningfulness of communication. In V. Manusov & M.L. Patterson (Eds.) The sage handbook of nonverbal communication. London, England: Sage Publications, xv-xxvii.
  7. Jost, J. T. (1997). An experimental replication of the depressed entitlement effect among women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(3), 387-394. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00120.x
  8. Small, D., Gelfand, M., Babcock, L., & Gettman, H. (2007). Who goes to the bargaining table? The influence of gender and framing on the initiation of negotiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 600-613. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.93.4.600

The Importance of Having Positive Working Relationships: A Case Study
The importance of good working relationships and when it's worth putting forth effort.

It's All About You
Emphasizes the joy of being a faculty member.

Promoting Yourself to Your Family
Advises how to keep family informed about research goals and progression from student to faculty member.

Becoming an Independent Voice as a Young Faculty Member
The process of establishing yourself in the same department as your spouse.

Persuading an Advisor
Suggestions for defining research.

On Speaking Up: A Conference Experience
Confronting a male colleague with contradictory findings at a conference.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Key Elements in Good Advising
The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.


We want to hear from you. Did this page remind you of any experiences you’ve had? Did you realize something new? Please take a moment to tell us about it—and we'll keep it confidential.

Your comments have been recorded.