Choose Your Words

Thursday August 27 2015
by Harriet Geoghegan

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.

That person was my friend Shaun Kennedy who has a degree in linguistics, and is a fantastic person to debate issues like this with. Here's an abridged version of our conversation:

Harriet: Do you think that 'permissive' words like that have the effect the writer suggests?

Shaun: Just from my own personal instinct I would agree with what she says about it qualifying a statement in order to lessen the request or diminish the weight of it. Emails (and Instant Messages) are always interesting to look at in terms of tone because they're typically seen as more formal by nature, especially given their importance in the workplace, and so using 'just' is an easy way to make the discussion seem more conversational, especially if you're managing up or something.

Harriet: Very true. Do you think it is a gender thing? Are girls more likely to use permissive language or qualifiers like “just”?

Shaun: The most accepted theory these days is that there are no inherent classes or differences based on gender but there are styles of speech that can be used by either depending on the role they're fulfilling in a conversation, and that role is not dependent on gender. Linguistics is all about social construction. But another theory states that gender differences are more related to cultural differences. The theory states that men tend to use a “report style,” which looks to communicate factual information, where women are more like to use a “rapport style,” where the concern is around building and maintaining relationships. If that is true then using a word like "just" is perfect for the rapport over report type.

There are also studies that correlated women as being more polite in their language, but weaker as a consequence of trying to avoid negative face. So yeah, it could be that women use it more.

Harriet: Interesting. What would you advise, in terms of language, people do when trying to make good impressions and project confidence - be it work, school, socially etc? What other words do you know of that come under that category?

Shaun: Well qualifiers (words that limit other words' meanings) and intensifiers (words that enhance other words' meanings) are what you're looking at when you want to express your confidence in what you're saying. So if you're qualifying what you're saying you're obviously not confident in the information you're trying to express. If you are confident in it, and you're still qualifying it, it might be because of some other reason, whether it's a role accepted in the context, or culture, or whatever. Academic writing typically "hedges" with the use of qualifiers to ensure that an accurate level of certainty is portrayed, for example.

I would recommend keeping those two types of words in mind when you're communicating, and you want to be sure that your level of certainty is being accurately projected. Qualifiers are words like may, might, could, appears, seems, suggests, probably, possibly, etc. Intensifiers are like 'very', 'really', 'terribly', etc. The term that author uses, 'permission words' isn't a thing so far as I know but it certainly has the same effect as a qualifier, in that it modifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, so that it is lesser. So I would group those together. If you want to avoid hedging your communications in the office then use fewer qualifiers.

'Just', when used in the context of that article, is an adverb. Sometimes it's specifically used to reduce the force of an imperative (“just follow the directions” v.s. “follow the directions”), or to convey a less serious tone (“I just called to say hi”), or to convey humility (“we just wanted to thank you”). That comes by way of its other adverbial meaning of 'simply, barely, merely' the qualifying sense that I was talking about before. But interestingly it comes from an etymological line that would have once been an intensifier, as the Middle-English sense of 'just' as an adjective meant 'exactly, sincerely, precisely', and is linked to the 'just so' meaning (“I want everything just so”). And they both stem from the latin -iustus, which is where we get the English word Justice. A bit off topic, but something I found interesting.

Harriet: Very much so! That’s quite the turnaround from the issue in this article. Do you know of any other words that come under that category?

Shaun: Linguistics is concerned with what people do, not what they should do, and so evolution of language is interesting to me. Like when people complain that literally no longer means literally, in the way people use it these days, but it instead means the exact opposite. Which, for a start, is true of a lot of words. I can sanction a request, and that's a good thing, or I can sanction a country, and that's bad, for example.

When you're choosing words, or altering your diction as the rhetoric scholars will put it, you're going to influence your style. And that's always going to influence the audience's impression. We already talked about word choice for expressing confidence with qualifiers and intensifiers, and the other way to influence style is through tone. Which is best done in writing, I've found, by simply imagining a situation where those words would be spoken rather than read, and writing them to mimic that situation. If you're writing a short request email to a coworker, write it as though you're asking them by the water cooler. If you're writing a proposal to your boss, write it as though you're speaking at the board meeting. If you're texting a friend, you're going to write it as though you're simply conversing in person, and so on.

Harriet: Wow Shaun, thanks for your amazing advice, I feel a lot less divided on the topic now.

Shaun: I knew those rhetoric papers would come in handy haha.

Shaun certainly gave me a lot to think about, and it really started to reassure me. Yes, I was glad I was recognising that my language was at times having unintended consequences and not projecting the confidence or clear messages I wanted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to impose a complete moratorium on a word. While I could get down to the nitty gritty on which situations it is and isn’t appropriate to use the word, what I have really learned from this experience is to have a heightened awareness of whether the words I choose to use are having the right effect for my situation.

I’m glad that the “J word” is now a good psychological checkpoint that makes me think “Could I be more clear, direct or assertive here?” It also forces me to think “Am I wording this too strongly? Should I be a little more casual when talking to this particular person?” All in all, a bit of linguistic education from Shaun has really helped me to choose my words more carefully, and I am very grateful for it!▼

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