AS a writer, I regularly think about words. As a woman writer, I think a lot about how those words are ‘heard’. And I’m not alone. There has been a growing preoccupation with the way women speak. I’ve read countless articles on uptalk (the rising inflection that makes a statement sound like a question) and the obsession over vocal fry (a snappy name for “pulse register, laryngealisation”, or a sort of creaking out of words) that makes female presenters “impossible to listen to”. Then there’s, like, the random sprinkling of sorries, likes, justs, that diminish our supposed “executive power”. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

If you’re a woman bobbing your head in agreement, spotting yourself in these habits, stop. Men do these things too. Their voices fry, they upspeak, but there’s no spate of articles telling them to sort it if they want to get ahead. Men’s speech, written or aloud, is the default authoritative voice. Their speech acts are set against a portrait of a naturally powerful speaker.

Predictably, there’s an entire industry preying on women’s anxieties about their careers, their workplace power, and what they must change about themselves to get ahead. Not just pantsuits and great childcare – now the keys to success supposedly lie in a polished routine of verbal gymnastics. And to save you the grief of having to remember it yourself, there’s even a Gmail plugin, Just Not Sorry, that helpfully underlines all the times you’re minimising yourself. Read: “sounding like a girl”

Take, for example, The New York Times #1 bestseller, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. It explores how women “undermine their credibility” and “sabotage their own careers”, while providing tutelage on how to “empower” yourself all the way to success. There’s a whole chapter on “How You Sound”, going into forensic detail about touchy-feely language, apologising, qualifiers, talking too fast, speaking too softly, and twenty more things that are to blame for our stagnating careers. (There are also chapters on how we look, how we respond, how we think, act and market ourselves. Things that men apparently don’t have to consider.)


The perfect antidote to this contemporary horror is Mary Beard’s Women and Power. But it got me thinking about how I moderate my own speech at work. Specifically, in the pre-flight checks before I send emails. Pre-flight checks borne out of being called curt and bossy when I’m direct, and not getting things done when I soften things up. I was convinced I wasn’t alone. After all, words aren’t trivial things. They’re the interlocutor between thought and action. And our words are how we depict ourselves to others, which begs the question: what effect is the anxiety about how we speak having on women? In fixating on how to tighten up our words, we’re reinforcing the masculine ideal. We’re echoing the default, male standard of speech, rather than defining our own.

I asked women about their experiences of writing at work. How they speak, if they’re conscious of any habits, how they’re perceived. The response was overwhelming. A day-long conversation about women’s preoccupations that men don’t seem to be concerned with. They type an email, hit send, and move on. We, it seems, spend our time editing and moderating our speech because we worry about how we sound – too demanding or not authoritative enough. This “volume control” comes with a helping of anxiety men don’t seem to share.

Some responses:

“I’ve developed an errant ‘I’d prefer’ which am scything out of emails, as some people interpret this as ‘I don’t really mind’, rather than me softening direct instruction. Women I know get a lot more ‘you’re too blunt’ feedback too.”

“I go through each email and remove the apologetic language before sending. Just asking ... Thanks for your response! etc etc...”

“I write the email and then edit out any filler or self-deprecating comments designed to make the recipient comfortable.”

“Trying to make things that are required sound ‘optional’ so you don’t seem too aggressive.”

“I had my email ‘style’ brought up in my appraisal: too blunt and aggressive apparently. I now add a smiley face when I’m asking someone if they can do something that they should have done already. I was praised that I’m making an effort to address it. Yes, really.”

I’LL raise my hand and admit my own addiction: the exclamation mark. Not multiples(!!!), but at the end of sentences where I’m really not that excited. Never a problem in column writing or academic writing, where the speech is broadcast rather than transactional. But if I’m trying to get a thing done, without sounding overly domineering, that little mark drips off my fingers before I’ve even spotted it, leading to punctuation whack-a-mole before I hit send.

Summary: women are busy with pre-flight checks. Fixing our speech is false empowerment. It robs us of time and burdens us with worry. We’re obsessing over our speech because these linguistic forms are “feminine”. That means it’s a problem to be solved. As sociolinguist Deborah Cameron says of stereotyped speech patterns, “you can bet that people will disparage it — and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls.”

When men use their justs and their sorries, they operate differently to women’s, despite our intentions. From men, they’re softeners, as means of upping the friendliness quotient. They’re signaling words against a default authoritative voice, a stereotype that works in their favour. But when women use them similarly, they’re set against the negative stereotypes we have about women’s speech. They’re taken as indicators that the speaker lacks confidence or authority. Not only that, but they’re pointed to as self-sabotage if we don’t work to remove them.

So, advice on how to correct for this has to be a good thing, right? A means of empowering ourselves against a world where there’s an obsession with how we talk. Surely advice on how to shelve our linguistic tics is a good thing?

Erm, not quite. Moulding our behaviours to fit the image of power and authority (men) might give help us in the short term – but it does nothing to address the fundamental issue. That we still see women in positions of authority as novel, that we still view women and power as something to strive for than something that is natural. That’s why we view women with power as exceptions to the expectations of their gender.

What’s clear from the responses is that men and women both use situational moderation in their work emails. We need to start unfastening these linguistic forms from ideas of gender and power. There’s power in collaborative talk as much as directional talk – we’ve just trained ourselves not to see it. If “just” or “sorry” help men to get things done, then why should we stop using them?

The problem isn’t what women say or how they say it, but what we hear when they do. As Mary Beard says, we must learn how to hear the authority in women’s voices, written or otherwise. Having the freedom to speak the way we wish to is central to the fight for equality. Language isn’t an added extra, it’s core to the human experience. But having the luxury of being equally heard is not something that exists for women yet.