Words matter. Even when they shouldn’t.
If we’re to believe the self-help aisle of every ’90s bookstore, men and women talk and act so differently because we’re really from two opposing planets.
While that’s not factually accurate, there’s no denying that men and women have unique communication styles, and that disparity can make things challenging for women looking to get ahead in careers still dominated by male voices. But when the first female presidential nominee for a major political party addresses the nation to describe her vision for America — to be met by pundits dissecting her smile and her “shrill” tone instead of her proposed policies — it’s clear that words really matter. Not simply because we’re women, but especially because we’re women.
So, what makes language explicitly “female”?
Ask a linguist and they’ll tell you that women’s language is generally more expressive and emotional. Women learn to speak earlier and with greater complexity. We’re more likely to use dramatic punctuation or emojis to help us get our point across. We’re also especially likely to use words and phrases that soften an opinion or gently undermine a point in order to make others feel more comfortable.
That is particularly important because these language choices are not accidental. We live in a culture that values female voices more when they reflect traditional “lady” characteristics of humility, likability, and politeness above all. Others who’ve written about this topic have addressed more reasons why women might avoid using stronger language. Jezebel’s Tracy Moore wrote about the reality of a male-dominated society where women live with the “the ever-present background fear of being perceived as a nag.” Author Tara Mohr acknowledged that for centuries, “women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us.”
All of those are true and fair. But at the same time, they’re holding us back.
It is 2016. If women can fight and die for a country, if we can bust ghosts and glass ceilings, if we can raise our voices for intersectional equality and fair, equal wages, then we are more than ready to match the way we communicate with this moment in history.
Here are the three biggest verbal tics women use that can make language lose its power:
Sorry, but we’re just saying “just” and “sorry” too much.
Rosa Parks used powerful action and words to ignite the fire of the U.S. civil rights movement. Sadly, her memorable words lose a little something when they’re coupled with two of the most common words in female language: “just” and “sorry.”
Saying “sorry” when it isn’t necessary is so common that a shampoo company made an ad about it. But researchers say using the word risks taking responsibility for faults and actions that aren’t our own — or aren’t even faults. Being mindful of when we apologize — and where and how — is good advice regardless of gender or workplace.
The use of “just” is a little more complicated. Some women, like former Google executive Ellen Leanse, believe that adding “just” to statements gives other people more authority and control and makes the speaker seem defensive. As she wrote on her blog: “It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a ‘permission’ word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking, ‘Can I get something I need from you?'”
Others argue that “just” can be used effectively as a way to give importance to a certain word, like the famed Nike slogan “Just do it.” Though, to be fair, that famous statement wasn’t written by — or inspired by — a woman.
Self-deprecating phrases can make us seem less smart.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has enough problems with people misattributing her most famous quote to other people; she doesn’t need the power of her words diminished.
Using qualifiers that lessen female authority to make strong statements, like “I’m not an expert” or “You’ve worked on this longer than I have,” are a common way that women couch their statements when they’re afraid of offending others. Unfortunately, this can have the unintended effect of making a female speaker seem less credible and her ideas less worthy.
Being overly cautious can unintentionally undermine us.
It’s very easy to end a statement, presentation, or even an email with a qualifying statement like “Do you know what I mean?” or “Am I making sense?” These phrases are subtle underminers, making it seem that women don’t have faith in their own ideas and are asking for approval for them. Phrases like “What do you think?” or “Looking forward to your comments or questions” are a better way to make the same point.
Let’s be real: If a woman wants to keep these words and phrases in her vocabulary, she is more than welcome to do so.
There are perfectly good reasons why someone would choose to soften language and make it more friendly. Maybe it helps move things forward with someone difficult. Maybe they’ve already been told — as too many working women have — that talking more like a man at work was making them seem “judgmental” or overly negative. Maybe they simply like using them — and, seriously, who are any of us to tell anyone else what they can and cannot say?
But in a world where women have fought so hard for what we have and still have so much further to go, being aware of the unintended implications of our language isn’t a bad idea. Especially if it helps women eventually prove that the way we say things doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we’re saying.