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.
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