Between 1997 and 2001, users of Microsoft Office were provided with an ‘assistant’ in the form of an animated paperclip. ‘Clippy’, as this character was affectionately known, popped up whenever you typed ‘Dear…’ into Word, to make the helpful observation: ‘hey! It looks as if you’re writing a letter!’ To which most people in the world had the same response: ‘of course I’m writing a letter you annoying piece of shit, now sod off and let me get on with it’. Eventually Microsoft got the message, and Clippy got the sack.
I was reminded of Clippy this week when I read about a new Chrome extension called ‘Just Not Sorry’. If this product came with a pop-up assistant, it would say: ‘hey! It looks as if you’re writing a female email!’
I’m not kidding: Just Not Sorry is designed to help women avoid weak and powerless language in emails. It’s like a spelling or grammar checker, except its targets are the same bunch of female linguistic sins we’ve been hearing about continuously all year. ‘Just’. ‘Sorry’. ‘Actually’. Er, what? I hadn’t heard complaints about ‘actually’ before, but according to the language police (women’s section) you should steer clear of it because it ‘communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say’.
If you download Just Not Sorry (and the developers are hoping to persuade 10,000 women to download it before New Year), it will underline these items (and other ‘self-demeaning phrases’ like ‘I’m no expert’) whenever they appear in your Gmail messages, thus allowing you to delete or rephrase before you demean yourself in public. If you’re not sure what the problem is, you can hover your mouse over the underlined words and see what Slate describes as
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 not sure these quotes really merit the label ‘explanatory’. To me they look more like dogmatic assertions, unsupported by either argument or evidence. ‘“Just” demeans what you have to say’. ‘Using sorry frequently…makes you appear unfit for leadership’. What are these sweeping claims based on, and why should we pay any attention to them?
Maybe we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that they’re taken from the work of ‘women like Tara Mohr and Sylvia Ann Hewlett’. Who? I’d never heard of Tara Mohr, but her website informs me she has an MBA and a coaching business. Sylvia Ann Hewlett (who I have heard of, because she’s got form in this area) is a trained economist who runs a non-profit organization called the Center for Talent Innovation. Unsurprisingly, neither has any particular linguistic expertise. What they say about language mines the same rich seam of bullshit I spent a fair bit of the summer criticising.
The claim that ‘just’ ‘shrinks your power’ was popularized earlier this year by former Google executive Ellen Petry Leanse. As I pointed out then, what it overlooks is the fact that words like ‘just’ have a range of functions: you can’t just [sic] assert that they are ‘demeaning’ in every context. (As I also pointed out, Nike didn’t choose ‘Just Do It’ as a slogan because they thought it sounded pleasingly weak and powerless.) Even when ‘just’ is being used as a hedge (i.e., to make a point less forceful or more tentative), the commonest reason for that is simply to be polite; and politeness is more strategic than demeaning.
Only the other day, I got an email that read:
Sorry to disturb you over the holiday period, but I’m just trying to firm up the schedule, and I wondered if you’d had time to check your diary yet. Have a great new year and get back to me when you have a chance.
I didn’t think, ‘oh, this guy is really shrinking his power’ (yes, I did say ‘guy’: writing ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ in emails is not an exclusively female habit). I thought, ‘well, that’s considerate, making clear he knows it’s Christmas and I might have better things to do than help him with his schedule’. And since he had been considerate, I figured I’d return the favour: I replied the same day.
If he’d left out all the ‘self-undermining’ politeness features, the email would have looked more like this:
I’m trying to firm up the schedule, so please check your diary and get back to me as soon as possible.
The style may be more businesslike, but I’d have read this version as accusatory and borderline hostile (‘hey, I’ve got a schedule to make, why haven’t you given me the information I need?’). And I’d have registered my displeasure by putting it in the pending file until we were both officially back at work. So, politeness can pay dividends: ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ FTW.
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’.
The reason for this is simple. If your business is peddling advice to women, you have to begin by persuading women they’ve got a problem, and that the cause of the problem is their own behaviour. If that’s not the case—if, for instance, the problem has more to do with other people’s attitudes or with structural inequality—then telling women to behave differently is not going to fix very much.
But old hands like Sylvia Ann Hewlett have a remarkable ability to plough on regardless. Hewlett is the author of a book about something she calls ‘Executive Presence’ (EP), which women apparently have less of than men. Why? Because, as she puts it, the ‘window of acceptability’ is smaller for women. For instance,
According to 42 percent of our survey respondents, unkempt nails detract from a female’s EP. At the same time, 37 percent say “overly done” nails are un-leaderlike.
The same problem affects the perception of women’s communication styles, which may be criticized for being either too passive or too pushy.
But where others might conclude that what really ‘detracts from a female’s EP’ is the basic fact that she’s not a man, and the judgments made on her nails or her language are just post-hoc rationalisations, Hewlett insists that women can shift the odds in their favour by changing their self-presentation. And of course, she’s the woman to advise them. Here’s how you hit that sweet spot where your nails are neither ‘unkempt’ nor ‘overly done’. And here’s how you avoid language that ‘undermines your gravitas’ and ‘demeans what you have to say’.
The fact that women are still buying into this is an example of the proverbial triumph of hope over experience. Though the same top tips have been repeated ad nauseam since the 1970s, the pay gap and the glass ceiling are still with us, as indeed is the ‘problem’ of women using powerless language. The only people who’ve ever benefited from this advice are the ones who make a living dishing it out.
When I’ve written about this subject before, my message has been addressed to the producers of bullshit: stop policing women’s language. But this time I’m going to focus on the consumers. Women, please understand: it’s not you that’s undermining yourself by using powerless language; it’s the bullshitters who are undermining you with their constant incitement to anxiety, insecurity and self-censorship. And you don’t have to let them get away with that; all you have to do is ignore them. Don’t buy their books. Don’t sign up for a training course. Don’t laugh at jokes about women saying sorry all the time. And don’t download the Just Not Sorry app. Because the suggestion that removing ‘just’ from your emails will significantly advance your career is an insult to your intelligence. And that really does demean you.