Let’s Stop Telling Women How to Speak

Apparently there’s a new Chrome extension that will cut out words and phrases like “just” and “sorry” from e-mails. The app is aimed at women and is being marketed as a New Year’s resolution to help them stop using gendered words that temper their assertiveness. It’s the textual version of leaning in, I guess. From the article linked above:

The Just Not Sorry extension, which is downloadable at the Chrome app store, underlines self-demeaning phrases like “I’m no expert” and qualifying words like “actually” in red in Gmail like they’re spelling errors. Hover your mouse over the red words, and you’ll see explanatory quotes from women like Tara Mohr (“‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power.”) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett(“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”).

I’m all for an extension that links us to some cool quotes or whatever, but an app that tut-tuts people for using language that is labeled as “female” and therefore demeaning is, uh, problematic. I don’t think we need someone to tell us that using “sorry” makes someone unfit for leadership – maybe I want to sound empathetic. (Also, side-note that I’m totally aware that I’m a guy and this is totally different from my point of view, I promise).

Telling women to stop using qualifying words like “just” or “actually” is a coded way to telling women to talk more like men. Hidden under all that less-assertive-language policing is the misogynistic structure of, you know, everything.

This app is just another one of the ways in which women’s behaviors are deemed problematic. The impulse to tell women to stop using uptalk, for example, “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.

Uptalk and vocal fry, along with other speech patterns, get associated with women (and are subsequently denigrated). When it comes to whether or not we encourage women to change their speech, we become complicit in supporting a system that says to be successful is to behave according to a specific set of gendered ideals. This is just the sexism of our society manifested in a feminism self-help book whose goal is to act more like men. What we should be doing is carving out spaces where different language and speech patterns are all accepted in a more inclusive society that doesn’t try to mold people’s speech to a norm.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Debbie Cameron (who has also previously written about qualifying language and gender) on the new app:

Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works, the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use. If women use the word ‘sorry’ more than men (and by the way, that’s a genuine ‘if’: I’m not aware of any compelling evidence they do), that can only mean that women are over-using ‘sorry’, apologizing when it isn’t necessary or appropriate. The alternative interpretation—that men are under-using ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it —is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up. As I said back in the summer, the assumption is always that ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

And if we expand our scope a little bit, her point on arguing the alternative is really important. The extension is based on the huge assumption that qualifying or deferential language is somehow a bad thing, even though it has many uses. As mentioned above, I use this qualifying language a lot, and I know it might “seem less assertive” or whatever, but I am aiming to be more inclusive, more empathetic, less of a douchebag.

This is why I really liked this article by Adam Gopnik on “The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak,” in which researchers found that teens’ use of “like” or “you know” or “um” is actually a sign that the speaker is more thoughtful and considerate of the listener and is trying to convey additional meaning beyond the words in between. Instead of telling young girls to cut out these markers, we should try listening to them. The assumption is that teens and the internet are ruining the language when maybe they’re making it better.

The point is, we shouldn’t be telling women to speak more like men – that won’t lead to any change. But if we can create spaces where women can talk like women and not be chastised for it, we can hope for an entire society that is more equal and in which women can just be accepted regardless of how they act. Why say “sorry” less when we could just empathize with people more? Why lean in at the boardroom when we could ask everyone else at the table to lean back a little and include those who don’t have a seat? Why tell women to change the way they speak when we could just actually listen?


One thought on “Let’s Stop Telling Women How to Speak

  1. My ex husband used to turn the volume higher in the car when I started to speak, he said he meant to lower it not increase it. It’s the small gestures like these that hurt more than an app to cut out my words. Women are never taken seriously yet our ideas and thoughts are robbed in the boardroom and turned into some man’s vision of the future. If we all spoke the same lingo what a boring world it would be. I am a woman, I am different than a man and I would not want it any other way. I wonder if the creator of that app was male or female for it could be the act of a woman to integrate herself into a world that’s shutting her out and she needs an app to check her weaknesses. SORRY for the rambling!

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