It’s no secret that women and men communicate differently. On average, women use nearly 3 times as many words as men to verbally communicate. Women use more exclamation marks when writing, are more likely to use emojis when text messaging, and are often more expressive speakers.
As women are breaking glass ceilings left and right in the workplace, conversations have begun about them stepping up, leaning in, and taking their place at the table with the guys. If you’re a female entrepreneur or a woman in leadership, these conversations are particularly important.
But how do we go about taking those places, exactly? We can start by eliminating certain things from our work vocabulary that unknowingly undermine our own authority.
Why Should Women Have to Change?
Some feminists might wonder, “Why do we have to change? Why can’t we be who we are and be respected as such in the workplace?” While this is a good point, it is based on one faulty premise: that we are the way we are innately – that we haven’t been taught to communicate a certain way as a means of being apologetic or submissive. In short, it implies that we were not socialized to act a certain way.
That’s a loaded discussion and one I don’t intend to explore here. Either you believe that we are all born in a vacuum and our personalities, preferences, and even choices are completely unaffected by society; or you realize that we are all socialized in some way, based on the culture we’re in.
Even the words we say, we were taught. Many of the items below are not a result of our personalities as much as they are ways we were taught to communicate. Why were we trained to do these things? So as not to inconvenience anyone around us, especially men.
Below are 6 things that women – especially female entrepreneurs – should consider erasing from their work vocabulary.
1. “I just wanted to let you know…”
Tell me, what’s the difference between this: “I just wanted to let you know that I checked out the report and the findings…” and this: “I checked out the report and the findings…” ? In the first version, the speaker is apologetic. The implications include the following:
- “I know I’m interrupting whatever you’re doing, but I have a good reason so hear me out.”
- “Don’t worry, I only have something very small to say.”
- “So sorry for interrupting or inconveniencing you with my message.”
The second version above is not only more concise, but it’s unapologetic and straightforward. You have no need to apologize: you are doing your job and you have no need to justify your email to the reader.
Next time you find yourself adding this preface to your email, remove it and see how your sentence sounds. Chances are, it will sound more authoritative and confident, demanding respect rather than asking politely for it.
The over-usage of the word “sorry” by women has been the subject of a lot of press recently.
The Atlantic voiced the opinion that women actually aren’t sorry; and that everyone, men and women alike, overuse the word and under-mean it: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/06/the-sociology-of-sorry/373273/
The Atlantic argues that women aren’t actually being submissive: they’re using “sorry” as just a “filler” word, just as men do so it’s ok. No explanation or acknowledgment of the fact that women say it more than men, but never mind that.
While intent does have some importance, it’s more important how you are perceived by others. Maybe you didn’t mean sorry (consciously). But if it was perceived that way, you’re hurting your credibility by being apologetic about what you’re going to say next.
3. “!” and emojis
Without a doubt, women include more exclamation points, emoticons, and emojis in their written communication. If you have a habit of doing this, as I do, now might be the time to consider cutting it out of your professional emails.
This is one of those sticky points in which I can see myself being attacked by feminists saying we “don’t have to conform to the man-centered workplace!” and that we “don’t have to change who we are to be more like men.” I agree that the male disposition is not the “norm” to which all women must conform. But that’s not why we should stop doing it.
The reason comes down to something deeper: why do women use more exclamation points and emoticons than men? Because women typically express their emotions more than men. And when women use happy face emoticons and exclamations, we are not actually expressing happiness. We are expressing the happy mood with which we are doing the task.
Here’s what I mean: When I write an email that says, “Can you get that for me? 🙂 Thanks!” I’m using an emoticon and an exclamation point to soften my direct request. This is more like what a man would write: “Can you get that for me? Thanks.”
I’m not saying one of the above is better than the other. But the writer of the first passage could appear to have reason to “butter up” the person from whom she is making a request. That’s not necessary.
You need something. You are presumably doing your job. You don’t need to make it clear that you asked in a friendly way. You should be polite, but you have no obligation to make a request in the absolute most pleasant way possible.
Therefore it’s not about the emojis, emoticons, and exclamation points themselves. It’s about the sentiment behind them. The next time you use a smiley face in a work email, consider why you wrote it. To soften a critique? To let the person know that you aren’t angry for some reason? Try to figure out what you’re trying to convey, then ask yourself whether you need to convey it.
4. “I was wondering…”
“I was wondering…” falls under the same category as “Just wanted to let you know…” It’s a way of sneaking up to a question and taking the edge off of something direct – it’s a way of being indirect.
Consider the difference between these two questions: “I was wondering, is that going to be ready in time?” vs. “Is that going to be ready in time?” The first way slowly creeps up to the question instead of addressing it head-on. It panders and dilly-dallies. This isn’t the mark of a respected, authoritative leader. Remove it from your vocabulary.
5. “I think…”
Here’s a little secret; once I picked it up and internalized it, I was never the same: No one knows anything. We only think. All anyone ever says is their opinion. “That restaurant sucks.” “This article is really good.” “The movie was about a woman who just moved to New York, and…”
The difference is that women say their opinion as if it’s an opinion – by prefacing it with “I think.” Men say their opinion as if it was fact. I first noticed this several years ago with a guy I was dating. I remember the scenario as if it were yesterday: we were talking about one of our favorite songs and debating about the meaning of the lyrics. It was actually this song:
My boyfriend at the time said that the song was not about a romantic relationship, as it might seem from the choral refrain (“I want you back”). He said, without a hint of doubt or speculation, that the song is about the lyricist’s dead mother.
I was shocked, as I’d never understood the song like that. The way he said it made me think he might have heard it in a band interview or something. So I asked, “How did you know that?” “Well, it’s obvious,” he said. Which meant that he didn’t know. He thought. He just thought more highly of his opinion than I thought of my own.
This was a life-changing moment for me. I never would have stated my opinion as if it was a fact I’d heard right from the horse’s mouth. It wasn’t until he did it that I realized I could, too. After that, I started to notice it everywhere I went.
At work and in social situations, men continuously stated their opinion without the “I think.” So go ahead. Remove “I think” from your vocabulary except when it’s needed to sidestep confusion. The “I think” is implied. Including it in the sentence muddles your point and undermines the authority of what you’re saying.
Next time you want to share your opinion, please do so. But give some thought to whether it’s necessary to preface it as what you “think.”
I’m sure I’m not the only woman who ends nearly every professional email with the word “thanks.” There’s an implicit gratefulness (for everything) present, even when the person on the receiving end is not doing you any favor in particular.
It’s another way that women are socialized to be more polite and expect or require less of others than men do. We even do this with each other. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be polite in emails, or that you shouldn’t say “thank you” for things when it’s appropriate.
But I do urge you to look at your work emails and notice how many times you are ending them with the word “thanks.” Again, no one is doing you any generous favors out of the goodness of their heart. This is work. You are doing your job. They are doing their job. You don’t need to be apologetic or overly polite for asking for something.
Take this for example: “Can I see you in my office please? Thanks :)” vs. “Can I see you in my office please?” The thanks isn’t necessary. They aren’t giving you a charitable donation or loaning you their coat. They are doing their job. Also, no smiley face necessary.
It’s not actually about eliminating certain words from your work emails. It’s about eliminating the mindset that you are any less important than anyone else, or that your opinion is less valid than others’. Ladies, I have news for you:
- Your opinion is just as valid as those around you.
- You have every right to speak up in that meeting.
- You don’t need to apologize for taking up the time of others you work with, especially if what you’re writing about is your job.
- You are strong and you are worthy.
Women, you have power. Now use it, and stop apologizing for it.