Just don’t do it

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article—mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence. This post was inspired by a case in point: a piece published last month in Business Insider, in which a former Google executive named Ellen Petry Leanse claimed that women overuse the word ‘just’.

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?”

Leanse went on to describe an experiment she conducted at an event where two entrepreneurs, one male and one female, had been asked to give short presentations. While they were out of the room preparing, she instructed the audience to count how many ‘justs’ each presenter produced.

Sarah went first. Pens moved pretty briskly in the audience’s hands. Some tallied five, some six. When Paul spoke, the pen moved … once. Even the speakers were blown away when we revealed that count.

Personally I’m not blown away by sweeping generalizations based on counting frequencies in a tiny, unrepresentative data sample. But I’m just a nitpicking linguist: for Leanse this was all the evidence she needed to conclude that women should stop saying ‘just’ and ‘find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known’.

Commenting on this for Jezebel, Tracy Moore opined that as well as getting their just-count down, women also needed to stop apologizing all the time. ‘The “sorry” epidemic is well-documented’, she asserted, citing a report whose opening sentence turned out to be this:

Although women are often stereotyped as the more apologetic sex, there is little empirical evidence to back this assumption.

That doesn’t sound to me like an announcement of an epidemic. But why bother with evidence when you can put your faith in stereotypes?

On Friday, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour did exactly that. During an item in which the comedian Viv Groskop discussed her new show about women’s habit of constantly saying sorry, another guest, the linguist Louise Mullany, pointed out that the stereotype of women constantly saying sorry has not been borne out by research. But the presenter and Groskop just brushed this aside. Everyone knows that women ‘over-apologize’. The question is—to quote the trailer on the programme’s website—‘why do women do it, and how can they stop?’

This isn’t a new question. Back in the 1990s I surveyed advice literature aimed at ‘career women’ and found it full of finger-wagging injunctions like these:

Speak directly to men and stand firm when you are interrupted. Statistics show that women allow themselves to be interrupted up to 50% more often than men. Don’t contribute to those statistics!

Men typically use less body language than women. Watch their body language to see how they do it.

What this advice boils down to is ‘talk like a man’. The writer doesn’t even try to argue that there’s some inherent reason to prefer ‘less body language’ (whatever that means) to more. It’s preferable simply because it’s what men are said to do. Men are more successful in the workplace, so if women want to emulate their success, the trick is to mimic their behaviour.

Even in the 1990s the flaw in this reasoning was obvious. Men’s greater success in the workplace is largely a product of their privileged status as men: just imitating their behaviour won’t give women their status. Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, recycling the same old advice.

Last year National Public Radio in the US aired a story entitled ‘Can changing the way you speak help you find your voice?’,  in which ‘Hanna’, a lawyer worried about her high-pitched voice, went to a speech and language therapist to be made over as a more ‘authoritative’ speaker.

Hanna learned to open her throat, creating more oral resonance, to adopt what she now calls her “big voice.” [The therapist] also taught her to use fewer words and be more direct. Instead of asking, “Got a minute?” when she wants to talk to a colleague, she now declares, “One minute.” She carefully enunciates, “Hello,” instead of chirping, “Hi!” like she used to.

Another thing Hanna worked on was her tendency to use ‘uptalk’, a popular term for an intonation pattern where declarative sentences are produced with rising rather than falling pitch (linguists call it the ‘high rising terminal’). It is now commonly used by both sexes, but (like many linguistic innovations that go on to become mainstream) it originated among young women, and because of that it continues to be criticized for making you sound like a clueless airhead. In the late 1990s it was so stigmatized, a number of elite women’s colleges in the US actually instituted classes to stamp it out.

Today the title of ‘most stigmatized female vocal trait’ has passed from uptalk to the newer phenomenon of ‘vocal fry’ (in linguists’ terms, creaky voice).  Similarly, ‘just’ has inherited the mantle of the tag question (as in, ‘it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?’), a popular target for advice-writers when I surveyed their products in the 1990s. The critics’ pet peeves may change over time, but the criticism itself is a constant.

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’

For some women, like Hanna, this low-level dissatisfaction may escalate to the point where more drastic measures seem called for: they seek expert help to transform their speech in the way they might seek surgery to do the same for their breasts or their stomachs. I’m not criticizing Hanna, whose voice had attracted negative judgments in her workplace evaluations. She did what she felt she had to do. What I’m criticizing is the attitudes that made her feel she had to do it–just as I criticize the attitudes that make women feel they need to look twenty years younger or wear jeans three sizes smaller.

It bothers me that even feminists don’t seem to see the force of this analogy. When feminists encounter articles with headlines like ‘Are you eating too much fruit?’ or ‘Why implants are the new Botox’, they know they are in the presence of Beauty Myth bullshit, whose purpose is to make women feel bad about themselves. Feminists do not share those articles approvingly on Facebook. Yet a high proportion of my feminist acquaintance did share Leanse’s ‘just’ piece, and some of them shared the Jezebel commentary which appeared under the headline ‘Women, stop saying “just” so much, it makes you sound like children’. An article headed ‘Women, stop eating so much fruit, it makes you put on weight’ would immediately have raised their hackles. So why was the Jezebel piece acceptable?

You may be thinking: but surely there’s a difference. Telling women to be thin is holding them to an oppressive patriarchal standard of physical attractiveness, whereas telling them to stop apologizing, or saying ‘just’, is actually liberating them from an oppressive patriarchal standard. Apologizing and saying ‘just’ are forms of deferential, accommodating behaviour which women are socialized to engage in as a mark of their subordinate status. Then, when they enter the world of work, the fact that they talk this way is used to justify treating them as lightweights.

That was more or less what the pioneering feminist linguist Robin Lakoff argued in her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place.  Girls, she said, are taught to ‘talk like ladies’, which means in a way that makes them sound unconfident and powerless. Lakoff dubbed this way of speaking ‘Women’s Language’, and one of the features she included in her description of it was hedging–using linguistic devices that reduce the force of an utterance. For instance, saying ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache’ rather than simply ‘I’ve got a headache’. Or ‘I don’t really like it’ rather than ‘I don’t like it’. Or ‘I’m just going out’ rather than ‘I’m going out’.

Leanse’s criticism of ‘just’ picks up on this much older feminist argument. But it’s an argument that most linguists now regard as problematic. Part of the problem with it is the idea that excessive hedging is characteristic of women as a group. Today linguists are wary of generalizing about women as a group. Forty years after Lakoff’s groundbreaking work, we’ve learned that all such generalizations are over-generalizations: none of them are true for every woman in every context (or even most women in most contexts). We’ve also learned that some of the most enduring beliefs about the way women talk are not just over-generalizations, they are–to put it bluntly–lies. An example is the pervasive belief that women talk more than men, when research shows consistently that it’s the other way round. (If you want to know why people are so wedded to false stereotypes about gender and language, I discuss this in my book The Myth of Mars and Venus, and you can read the relevant part here.)

The other part of the problem has to do with the function Lakoff attributed to hedging: making utterances less forceful, and thus reducing the speaker’s authority. When later researchers looked in detail at the way words like ‘just’ were actually used, it became apparent that they don’t only have one function. In some contexts ‘just’ does do the job of a hedge, but in others it acts as a booster, the opposite of a hedge. Think of Nike’s slogan, ‘Just do it’. It’s hard to imagine they chose those words because their brand values included weakness and lack of confidence. Or look at these examples from a conversation recorded by the linguist Janet Holmes, where a woman talking to her husband uses ‘just’ three times in as many turns.

That meeting I had to go to today was just awful
People were just so aggressive
I felt really put down at one point, you know, just humiliated

These ‘justs’ aren’t uncertain or apologetic. Rather they’re emphatic, a way of underlining how strongly the speaker feels about the awfulness of the meeting.

Even when ‘just’ does function as a hedge, the effect isn’t necessarily to make the speaker sound unconfident. Consider these examples (all said to me or overheard by me in real life):

Could you just give me a minute? (Call centre agent putting me on hold)
Is it OK if I just ask you a couple of questions? (Journalist calling me for a comment).
Maybe you could just eat a little bit. (Adult to child at a nearby table in a café)

All of these are requests—speech acts whose force is, essentially, ‘I want you to do something for me’. Leanse evidently realizes that requests are prime ‘just’ territory, but what she doesn’t appear to understand is why. When you ask someone to do something you’re imposing on them: showing you’re aware of that, and trying to minimize the imposition, is a basic form of politeness. How polite you need to be depends on the seriousness of the imposition and the specifics of the context: if you see someone’s about to get hit by a car you yell ‘move!’, not ‘I wonder if you could just move a few feet to the left’. But in most situations, some degree of politeness is normal. Leaving it out doesn’t make you sound ‘clearer and more confident’. It makes you sound like a rude, inconsiderate jerk.

So what women are being criticized for–using ‘just’ when they make requests–is not a form of excessive feminine deference, it’s a way of being polite by displaying your awareness of others’ needs. Where is the logic in telling women not to do that?  I think we all know the answer: it’s the logic of patriarchy, which says ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

Marybeth Seitz-Brown came up against this logic when an interview she gave on US radio prompted a flood of criticism of her speech—specifically, the fact that she used the high rising terminal intonation, aka ‘uptalk’. The listeners who criticized her insisted they were doing it for her own good. They thought that she sounded unsure of herself, and she’d be taken more seriously if she changed the way she spoke. Here’s her response:

I really do appreciate these listeners’ concerns, but the notion that my uptalk means I was unsure of what I said is not only wrong, it’s misogynistic. It 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.

I think Seitz-Brown is right: the problem isn’t women’s speech, it’s the way women’s speech is pathologized and policed. Anyone who does that should be greeted by a chorus of ‘you ignorant sexist, just STFU’.



34 thoughts on “Just don’t do it

  1. Pingback: fberriman

Comments are closed.