Are women undermining themselves by using words like SORRY in their communications?

You’ve probably seen the headlines. In recent weeks, there’s been a burst of media attention – from The View to Elle to the BBC (and the list goes on) about women’s words, in particular the “sorrys,” “justs” and other undermining phrases that often show up in what women write and say.

In the coverage, journalists, TV hosts, and others have raised some important questions:

Are women truly undermining themselves with these kinds of communication habits, or are they being strategic – softening what they have to say because that’s the only way they’ll be heard?

If women take out all those hedges and tentative words, won’t they be perceived as arrogant, aggressive or rude?

Is this advice just more criticism and blaming of women?

Men say these things too - why aren’t we asking men to stop using these words and phrases?

Is this really what we should be talking about, when it comes to women’s empowerment or gender equity?

I’d like to explore these questions, and share some of what I’ve learned working with hundreds of women around communication over the past several years. After all the recent media sound bites, I want to give special attention to what’s complex and multi-layered about this topic, and add some context that’s been missing from the coverage.

Question #1: Are women truly undermining themselves with these kinds of communication habits, or are they being strategic – softening what they have to say because that’s the only way they’ll be heard? 

In my first couple of years of writing and teaching about this topic, I focused on what women should take out of their speech and writing – the dozen or so common undermining words and phrases – from “I’m no expert in this, but…” to “Does that make sense?” to “I kind of think…” and so on. In the women’s leadership and public speaking trainings that I’d been a part of, I’d been taught how this kind of speech hurt the speaker’s credibility and impact, and I’d witnessed how transformative it was for me and my peers to eliminate them.

Yet the women in my courses had two distinct responses to this material. Many loved it. They were happy to discover undermining speech patterns they were unknowingly using. They reported back on the positive impacts of letting go of those habits – from being taken more seriously by colleagues, to hearing back on written communications more promptly, to feeling more confident when they spoke.

A smaller but significant cohort of women had very different feedback. They talked about having once been more direct communicators earlier in their careers, and being told at some point they were too aggressive, or that people didn’t like working with or for them, and that they needed to soften what they had to say. Interestingly, these women were far more likely than the other group to be working in large companies and often in male-dominated industries, rather than the arts, social sector, or in small business entrepreneurship.

Different women were using these speech patterns for different reasons:

Habit. Sometimes, a woman simply heard women and girls around her using these speech patterns, starting in childhood, and learned to speak this way. That tentative, self-deprecating language may have been a much-needed strategy for her mother or grandmother to be approved of or heard, but for her, it was simply a cultural norm learned, and then a habit, used now when it wasn’t necessary.

Self-doubt and fear. Other times, a woman would qualify and soften her speech because she was feeling insecure or afraid. She’d be thinking, “I’m not an expert in this so I really have no idea if this is a good point…” and then would say, “I’m not an expert in this, but…” She’d feel like there was something intrusive about her speaking up in a meeting and start her point with “Sorry but I’m just wondering….” In this case, again, again, her language wasn’t strategic or consciously crafted – it was simply a transparent reflection of her self-doubt.

Strategic softening. Other times, a woman used this language because she was concerned that if she did not, she wouldn’t be heard, liked, or effective in getting her goals met in the situation.

When women were primarily using the speech patterns out of habit or self-doubt, they benefited from letting go of them. But if they felt they were using the speech patterns for strategic softening, they had to do a little more work to think about where to go with their communications from there. This brings us to the next question. 

Question #2: If women take out all those hedges and tentative words, won’t they be perceived as arrogant, aggressive or rude? 

On ABC’s The View, host Joy Behar relayed to the audience that women have been instructed to never say “sorry” again. Instead of writing, “Sorry I missed our lunch” from now on, women should just write, “I missed our lunch,” she ridiculed.

Joking aside, this notion comes up for women in a more serious sense: “If I take all this nice-nice stuff out from what I say or write, won’t I sound mean or offensive? Won’t my emails sound as odd as “I missed our lunch”?

As I heard from more women saying that they felt they needed to use these speech habits in order to not been seen as arrogant or abrasive, I shifted my approach. In my courses, we continued to work on removing our undermining speech patterns. But we combined this with a conversation about the double-bind – the reality that women are often seen as unlikable if they are seen as highly competent. We also talked about the broader context for the double-bind, the well-documented phenomenon that individuals from any low-status or minority group within a culture tend to be seen as likable or competent, but not both, while individuals from the highest–status group within a culture are easily seen as both likable and competent. We looked at how these speech habits were sometimes used as a strategy (and were likely almost always used as a strategy, long ago) for women and other low status groups to come across as more likable, both by expressing humility/concern for others, and also by dumbing down one’s competence, tipping that competence-likability seesaw towards likability, in effect.

From there, we talked about two important steps women can take if they feel they need to dumb down their ideas or make their assertions more tentative in order to be heard:

A. Rigorously question our assumptions about when we need to “soften” what we have to say. We’re likely to vastly overestimate how often this is needed. Every woman can think back to experiences when she spoke boldly and paid a price for it. Maybe the price was a parent saying she was being arrogant or “bad,” or a boss saying she was “abrasive” and needed to “tone it down.”

The problem is that human beings have a “negativity bias.” We remember negative experiences more vividly than positive ones, and shape our behavior more in reaction to negative experiences than we do to positive ones. We do this even if the positive experiences far outsize the negative ones in number and import.

This means we’re more likely to remember the times we were criticized or shamed for speaking up, and not remember all the times doing so has worked in our favor. We’re more likely to change our behavior because of one or two or three very (emotionally or professionally) costly moments of being called out for being aggressive or abrasive, rather than to maintain a behavior of speaking forthrightly because so often, it helps us get what we want.

We have to ask ourselves: Am I getting consistent feedback softening my speech is necessary for my professional survival here, or am I relying on old or outlier experiences that stung and stayed with me? If am I getting those messages, do I want/need to stay here, and might I get a different response elsewhere, or even within a different part of this organization? Do I have evidence that softening is professional necessary, or am I confusing my personal discomfort with not being liked by everyone (a reality for most professional women – especially highly competent or senior ones) with a professional concern about likability?

B. Use alternative ways to convey warmth and likability. If we’re using self-deprecating speech to come across as more likable, as we often are, we instead try an alternative approach: conveying likability in positive, not self-undermining ways – such as humor, making personal connections, expressing appreciation for others – and showing a strong interest in their points of view.

In this model, instead of saying “sorry” when you’re merely following up with a colleague about something they owe you, for example, you ask for it in a way that expresses real empathy for the demands on their schedule and why it might be late. I can’t think of a scenario when a woman would want to soften her communication by undermining herself, rather than by using one of these more positive ways of conveying warmth. 

Question #3: Is telling women to change these speech habits just one more form of criticizing women?

If women end up feeling personally criticized, or like they’ve done something stupid or wrong by using these habits, that’s a problem.

In my view, calling out these speech habits is very different from calling out women. The criticism is not of the women using this speech but of culture that has rewarded this kind of speech in women and punished its opposite.

Contemporary women are alive at a transitional historical moment. We can become aware of the many influences of a patriarchal history and culture, and make choices about how we want to respond to and challenge those influences. This, in my view, is what the work around speech is about. It’s about seeing how we may have been socialized to be tentative, apologetic, less visible, and deciding if we’d like to choose differently.

Question #4: Why aren’t we telling men to make the same changes?

This question has come up in many of the media pieces on the topic. Some people have said that these speech changes aren’t being suggested to men simply because men would never care to worry about such things. Others have argued that the advice is directed at women because this is just one more way we are telling women that they are doing something wrong.

Yet there’s solid research showing that these speech habits aren’t interpreted the same way when they are used by men as they are when they are used by women. One study found that the use of qualifying phases only had an adverse effect on the speakers perceived level of authority when the speaker was a woman.

Think about the meetings or conversations you’re part of. If a very senior man uses tentative language around his point, the people in the room might hear it as him thinking aloud. If he apologizes a lot or expresses doubts about his points, he might be seen as collaborative or humble. Yet if that very same language came from a woman in the company, in many instances it would be read differently. The stereotypes we hold – gender, racial and others – impact how we interpret the language that others use.

Question #5: Is this really what we should be talking about when it comes to women issues?

No. In my view, women’s speech habits are not the most important issue for us to be talking about. Frankly, it wouldn’t even be among my top five women’s leadership or women’s career topics for us to put at the center of our conversation. My own top five list includes redefining our notions of leadership, socializing girls and boys differently from infancy on, looking more at the intersection of economic and gender issues, altering our ideas about caregiving, and supporting women to become change agents – rather than aiming primarily to help them be successful within existing, dysfunctional systems.

Communication is one of about ten components of the training work I do. I include it because it can be a helpful addition to more foundational topics. It’s a simple, skill-based lesson that can help prior work go further.

And yet on the other hand, I’ve seen how this topic is one of the few ways that a conversation about women’s sense of permission and agency makes it into the mainstream media again and again. That’s because of the very tangible, accessible and frankly, light, nature of the topic, as it’s commonly addressed in those media stories.

I have also seen, many times now, how this topic grabs a woman’s attention and starts her on a larger journey of noticing, “Am I apologizing for simply having an opinion in meetings at work? Am I apologizing for asking my husband to hold the baby? Am I always reassuring everyone they probably know more than me? And if so, why?” It also prompts women to ask, “What’s really the difference between being kind and people-pleasing, being considerate and self-sacrificing?” Reflecting on our speech and writing habits doesn’t just make us think about the habits, but about the feelings that underlie them. That’s the most important result of our talking about how we talk. 

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Tara Mohr is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, named a Best Book of the Year by Apple’s iBooks.