Hey ladies, you’re doing it wrong!
This is sometimes what I think the slogan of the movement to “help” women speak more authoritatively should be. I believe intentions around this topic have been good and that the topic of gendered speech patterns that are a result of and perpetuate arbitrary stereotypes is enormously important. However, being a society still struggling with sexism, the discourse about gendered speech has ironically itself succumbed to traditional gender roles – in short, women are misusing men’s speech.
Similar to our tendencies to consider “white speech” the norm and the speech of other ethnicities to be speaking some “other” form, we as a society tend to assign males the neutral speech. Somehow, they represent what is the norm, especially in the workplace, as evidenced by their often privileged roles in the work force.
Take for instance the new Chrome app aimed at helping women avoid “self-demeaning phrases” in their emails. Among these so-called “undermining” phrases are “I’m sorry,” and “just.” The app underlines such phrases in red “like they’re spelling errors.” There are several problems with the framing of this app. For one, the assumption that these phrases are injurious to a person’s authority, and two, that these are indicative of a women-specific “problem” (with one woman calling on 10,000 other women to pledge to ban these words from their emails, too). Can you imagine trying to strike dozens of helpful words from your lexicon while trying to succinctly and naturally express yourself in email? I for one do not want an app asking me if I’m sure I want to, for instance, apologize for responding a week late, or if I really mean that I just watched a movie before writing this particular email. Words are capable of carrying a multitude of nuanced meanings, so that assigning “just” an overall self-sabotaging idea is a rather ridiculous notion.
There has not been near enough research on these phrases to even substantiate the claim that they correlate with less authority or a specific gender much less cause others to deem related discourse less authoritative. Books like Lean In and Playing Big, the latter on which I worked as a research consultant, have been important steps in causing us to think critically as a society and as career-oriented women about discourse in the workplace. However, these books, while they include solid research and incredibly powerful anecdotal evidence, are not enough to speak scientifically on the matter. We are at a critical stage of such research where we should be carefully framing the questions we ask and the sociolinguistic elements we are considering in our investigations. For instance, what is generation- versus gender-related, sexual orientation-related versus sex-related and what does this mean? If certain patterns and correlations are gender-based, does it really mean that women are doing it wrong? Sociolinguistic phenomena are often much more complicated than we care to admit and the “solutions” to problems much more complex than banishing a few words from our emails.