Choose Your Words

In the exciting times of your early career, be it a first job, a major new challenge, or navigating your way from high school to University, making the right impression in front of your professional peers seems to be constantly front of mind.

So when you see an article doing the rounds from Ellen Petry Leanse, a former Google executive who says we’re all doing ourselves a disservice by using a certain word in the workplace, it sure makes you sit up and think twice.

Leanse argues that women have a tendency to use what she describes as “permissive language” more than men, and this is one of the many things that sets us back in the workplace. The prime example of this language is overuse of the word “just.” Everything from “I’m just checking in” to “If you can just give me an answer, then …” to “I just noticed this issue…” The problem, she argues, is that females use this in many more situations than males. Where a female might say “Hey Steve, I just noticed there seems to be some kind of issue with the campaign and it isn’t really doing what we wanted and can we maybe just have a quick chat about what can be done,” a male might be more direct and say “Steve – this campaign isn’t driving results, what’s going on and what are you going to do to fix it.”

In those two statements, the same point is being made, but the difference in effect between the two is pretty strong. Or to put it more metaphorically, the author, said:

“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?”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that “just” didn’t make sense.”

The difference between men and women in the workplace, and more specifically the gap in their pay rates is no new issue, but lately, much of the discourse has been around what we as women can do to stay on a level with men, to ensure we compete in worlds they dominate and to make sure we aren’t doing anything to hinder our own possibility of success. At least, this is the thinking behind Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement. So a discussion on whether our language might be holding us back certainly is pertinent.

After reading that article, it really made me think about the way I use language at the office and whether I could make more assertive and effective statements. What really jumped out to me when reading the article was the idea that using such submissive statement goes entirely against what we’re often trying to do: come across as strong, credible, trusted advisors. In my line of work, I manage a range of clients that look to my company for work advice they can’t source within their own, and they pay a premium for it. I’m their sole point of contact, so there are very few situations where I wouldn’t want to sound like I am confident, that I know what I am doing, that my team is full of experts and that my clients should look to us for reliable advice.

But it isn’t just my particular corner of the world where one looks to give that sort of impression.
Whether you are the captain of a sports team, you are working on a group project and want to make sure your ideas get across, you are applying for a job or giving a presentation in front of colleagues or classmates, there are all kinds of situations where you want to come across as smart, confident and trustworthy. And the last thing any of us want is to accidentally undermine ourselves with simple linguistic errors.

So, like the author, I shared the article with my team and started a discussion on whether we should be avoiding the use of “just” and being more careful with language. Interestingly, it was one of the males on the team that came back with a definitive “Oh man, I definitely overuse the J word. I’m going to be more conscious of it in future.”

Since reading the article, I have found myself consciously rewriting emails and reminding myself not to be scared to be direct and to the point with messages. It reminded me to think carefully about whether being more concise would actually improve a situation, rather than trying to smooth it over with gentle language. However, I also found a few situations where I deliberately did want to include a more gentle version of a statement. Be it trying to calm down a situation, managing clients who liked to be right all the time, or working with interns who were navigating new situations, so I didn’t want to be overly harsh or direct when they were perfectly entitled to make a few mistakes along the way.

By this stage, I was entirely confused. From a starting point of nodding along as the internet declared “just” to be “the J word” that we were no longer allowed to say, to realising it was actually a pretty useful tool in certain situations, I knew there was only one person to turn to: someone that knew a whole lot more about this stuff than I did.

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