Someone shared an infographic with me recently called ‘Email Like A Boss’ copyright Donovan 2019. It reminded me of some points raised in a book called Playing Big by Tara Mohr which I have extracted below.
Listen to your female friends and you’ll notice several turns of phrases regularly used in both verbal and written form. If you listen and read emails carefully, you’ll notice that there is an almost apologetic tone to what they are saying. It’s as though they are trying to say what they think but within a framework of being ‘nice’, flexible, conciliatory and in control.
“JUST” We are very fond of inserting ‘just’ into our sentences. I’m just emailing……I’m just concerned that…. I just want to check and see….. Just minimises whatever follows. We use this when we feel a bit awkward about something or are worried about coming on too strong. As Josephine Fairley says, “Women need to man up and stop using the word just”. Notice how the power in the phrase increases without the word just in it. I am emailing…….I am concerned that….. I want to check and see.
“ACTUALLY” We sometimes insert the word actually incorrectly. Such as “I actually have a question…” “I actually disagree”. It’s as though we are surprised we do have a question or that we agree. The correct way to use the word actually is if you say something you don’t mean and want to take back or if you say something incorrectly and want to correct yourself. It’s much better to use actually at the beginning of your sentence to signify you have changed your mind.
“KIND OF/ALMOST” Can you picture a leader you admire saying to her team “I kind of think we should…..”? We do this, often unconsciously, when we are uncomfortable asserting our ideas with certainty or afraid of coming on too strong for others. Linguists call words like “just” “actually” “kind of” and “almost” hedges. Research shows that low-power and low-status people in any group use more hedges than higher-statues or high-power individuals and that women use hedges more than men.
“SORRY” Many women have the habit of over-apologising. Saying sorry when it’s unnecessary. Phrases such as “Sorry to keep you, but….” “Sorry if this is a silly question, but….” “Sorry could you explain that?” Over apologising can negatively affect how others perceive us. A study by Deborah Tannen on linguistic styles in the work place showed that women tended to say “I’m sorry” more than men, often in an effort to show concern. However the use of these frequent ritual apologies in the workplace may make women appear “weaker, less confident, and literally more blameworthy” than men who did not use the same apologies. Of course there are times when you have a sincere apology to make and that’s healthy. So in future, instead of blurting out “Sorry!” take a moment to pause and consider what emotion you are actually trying to express. Is it gratitude and appreciation? Is it embarrassment for not understanding something or for needing clarification?
Looking at the earlier examples:
Apologetic: “Sorry to keep you, but…”
Straightforward: “Thank you for staying late to help me, lets….”
Apologetic: “Sorry if this is a silly question, but…”
Straightforward: “I’d like to get clarification on that point”
“A LITTLE BIT” I’ve noticed how women tend to say “I’d like to take a few minutes of your time…” “I’d like to tell you a little bit about our product” as if to say it isn’t worth much time or too many words. It’s much more powerful, succinct and confident to say, “I’d like to tell you about our product”.
“QUALIFYING PHRASES” You’ll recognise these. “I’m just thinking off the top of my head, but…” “I am no expert here, but…” “This is just an idea, but…” We do this due to our conditioning to be ever humble or because we recognise our thinking is in progress and we want others to know that too. Yet we can speak about that in ways that don’t diminish ourselves. For example “Let’s do some brainstorming about this. Here are my thoughts.” That’s much more assertive and confident rather than intimating that what you’re staying might be wrong.
“DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?” Many women have a well-worn habit of ending statements with “Does that make sense?” and I know I am guilty of this. This is an attempt to reach out to the audience, check in, and find out if we were understood. That intention is good, but research shows that women who use this kind of question at the end of their statements are seen as less influential and less knowledgeable about their topic. Using this question suggests we may have been incoherent or unclear. It suggests the audience might be confused because you didn’t make sense. If you want to make sure you have been understood and they’re following you, you can ask “How did that land with you?” “What are your thoughts?” “Do you have any questions?”
This provokes me to ask the question “Why do we talk this way? What are the roots behind these speech patterns?” Partly it’s contagious. We hear how other girls and women talk and mimic what we think ‘feminine’ behaviour is supposed to sound and look like. In other cases, self-doubt expresses itself through these patterns in our speech. A well-documented phenomenon is that women are perceived as competent or likeable but not both. Women use these speech habits in an attempt to lessen their perceived competence so that they come across as more likeable.
CHANGING HOW YOU COMMUNICATE
One at a time. Pick one habit that you’d really like to change and focus there first.
Get a buddy. Team up with a friend or colleague. Talk about your undermining habits and laugh about them together and share your commitments around which ones you are going to work on first.
Keep being yourself. Letting go of your unhelpful speech habits is not about adopting an authoritative communication style that doesn’t sit right with you in your heart. Don’t be afraid of power or taking up space. You can do this.