Women and their words: Does language show authority?


Sorry, don’t want to interrupt your tea break, but I just wanted to let you know that this is a really useful article, and if you read to the end of it, it might just give you more authority at work. Sorry, again, I should have explained, it’s about women and the ways we speak when doing business.

Conversations have been doing the rounds in the media recently (the BBC, Elle magazine and Huffington Post, to name a few) about whether women are undermining themselves by using words that sound tentative and lack authority. “Sorry” is used a lot, a word that I don’t recall being in the vocabulary of the boys heading to Oxford and Cambridge who I occasionally hung out with in my youth. Nor do you find “sorry” being bandied about by senior male executives. It implies weakness and failure, and that would never do.

While it’s always dangerous to generalise, there appears to be a tendency for women to excuse themselves or leave the door open to question their assertiveness or authority. Phrases such as, “I may be wrong but…..” or “Does that make sense?” or “I’m no expert….” and “I kind of think…” are rarely uttered by men in business.

Tara Sophia Mohr, a professional trainer and coach from the San Francisco area, comments in a LinkedIn post on this subject that she was advised to eradicate these kinds of phrases during leadership and public speaking training. When she did, she found it “transformative” and said she was taken more seriously by colleagues, heard back more quickly from correspondents and generally felt more confident.

But the reaction wasn’t all one-sided. Another set of her peers on the leadership course said that they wouldn’t be changing the words or phrases they used in business. In fact, they said in the past they had been accused of being too direct. As a result, they had softened their speech. These women, says Mohr, were more likely to work for large corporations in male-dominated industries, the implication being that the women had adapted their behaviour to appear less assertive and confrontational around their male colleagues in order to appear more likeable but also to get things done (my italics). The trade off between being liked or being seen as competent is one that women and others in low-status groups contend with.

According to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science, “Women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so they are more likely to apologise in everyday situations. Even in situations where being direct is an advantage, such as negotiating a pay rise or time off work, women will tend to preface the request with an apology.

This isn’t to suggest that all men are rude and boorish while all women are meek. Clearly, though, there’s something going on that makes women feel they have to constantly temper their language.

Writing in the New York Times, Sloane Crosley has a different take on the “sorry” situation: “To me, they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologising. It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want.”

What are your thoughts on this? The debate is ongoing on whether this tentative language is undermining or strategically assertive. But for now, sorry, that tea break is calling.  

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Di Armbrust
Di Armbrust
8 years ago

I recently had a conversation with a senior manager in an organisation who was asked to pare back how she said things as she was “bruising male egos” What was so wrong with this was she was operating exactly the same way as the men. When wrong information was presented, she spoke up and corrected the information. She was prepared to discuss her views on topics in the same manner as the men – using the same tone and style. She doesn’t use the word “sorry”. I do think sometimes when women use the word “sorry” it is as a… Read more »

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Women and their words: Does language show authority?


Sorry, don’t want to interrupt your tea break, but I just wanted to let you know that this is a really useful article, and if you read to the end of it, it might just give you more authority at work. Sorry, again, I should have explained, it’s about women and the ways we speak when doing business.

Conversations have been doing the rounds in the media recently (the BBC, Elle magazine and Huffington Post, to name a few) about whether women are undermining themselves by using words that sound tentative and lack authority. “Sorry” is used a lot, a word that I don’t recall being in the vocabulary of the boys heading to Oxford and Cambridge who I occasionally hung out with in my youth. Nor do you find “sorry” being bandied about by senior male executives. It implies weakness and failure, and that would never do.

While it’s always dangerous to generalise, there appears to be a tendency for women to excuse themselves or leave the door open to question their assertiveness or authority. Phrases such as, “I may be wrong but…..” or “Does that make sense?” or “I’m no expert….” and “I kind of think…” are rarely uttered by men in business.

Tara Sophia Mohr, a professional trainer and coach from the San Francisco area, comments in a LinkedIn post on this subject that she was advised to eradicate these kinds of phrases during leadership and public speaking training. When she did, she found it “transformative” and said she was taken more seriously by colleagues, heard back more quickly from correspondents and generally felt more confident.

But the reaction wasn’t all one-sided. Another set of her peers on the leadership course said that they wouldn’t be changing the words or phrases they used in business. In fact, they said in the past they had been accused of being too direct. As a result, they had softened their speech. These women, says Mohr, were more likely to work for large corporations in male-dominated industries, the implication being that the women had adapted their behaviour to appear less assertive and confrontational around their male colleagues in order to appear more likeable but also to get things done (my italics). The trade off between being liked or being seen as competent is one that women and others in low-status groups contend with.

According to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science, “Women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so they are more likely to apologise in everyday situations. Even in situations where being direct is an advantage, such as negotiating a pay rise or time off work, women will tend to preface the request with an apology.

This isn’t to suggest that all men are rude and boorish while all women are meek. Clearly, though, there’s something going on that makes women feel they have to constantly temper their language.

Writing in the New York Times, Sloane Crosley has a different take on the “sorry” situation: “To me, they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologising. It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want.”

What are your thoughts on this? The debate is ongoing on whether this tentative language is undermining or strategically assertive. But for now, sorry, that tea break is calling.  

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

1 Comment
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View all comments
Di Armbrust
Di Armbrust
8 years ago

I recently had a conversation with a senior manager in an organisation who was asked to pare back how she said things as she was “bruising male egos” What was so wrong with this was she was operating exactly the same way as the men. When wrong information was presented, she spoke up and corrected the information. She was prepared to discuss her views on topics in the same manner as the men – using the same tone and style. She doesn’t use the word “sorry”. I do think sometimes when women use the word “sorry” it is as a… Read more »

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