Talk the Talk

Several recent articles have focused on the way women talk – specifically that we too frequently use words like “just,” “actually” and “sorry” in the workplace. There is a new Chrome app dedicated to tracking these phrases, which are described in a Slate article as “self-demeaning.”These so-called self-demeaning phrases came into focus for me as a junior associate. I had recently returned from maternity leave, rotated to a new team and was working with a senior female attorney on a new transaction. We had never worked together before. After a conference call, she called me to debrief. What she said on our debrief call, and her follow-up advice has stuck with me.“You speak too softly, you apologize too much, you sound too nice, you will get walked all over,” was the gist of her feedback. I was dismayed. (And I probably apologized.) But as I replayed the call in my head, I realized... she was right. I had frequently lead with “I’m sorry but…,” and leaned heavily on “uhhhh” and “I think maybe…”. I was uncomfortable advocating points, even if I knew they were good ones.We took the next conference call together in a small room. This time, this senior attorney had me do most of the negotiating. Each time I would say “sorry,” up-speak, or speak softly, she would do something to get my attention – wave her hands, tap the table, mute the call. It was disconcerting – both the real-time coaching and the realization that I needed so much of it.It turns out that, to be able to really hear myself, I needed another person to interrupt me. These phrases and habits were crutches, clouding the message I wanted to convey. I haven't banished “justs” and “sorrys” from my work vocabulary. And I don’t think I’d want to. Sometimes I do “just have a minor question”. I would like to think I now use these phrases deliberately rather than reflexively, and I remain grateful for the senior attorney’s mentoring and guidance. For more on this topic (including some interesting critiques of the Chrome app), check out: The Washington Post, January 4, 2016, "Telling women to apologize less isn’t about empowerment. It’s about shame." NPR, July 23, 2015, "From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We 'Policing' Young Women's Voices?" The Atlantic, January 16, 2014, "A Female Senator Explains Why Uptalk Is Part of Women's 'Nature'" Annie Balla is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office. Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.