No need to be sorry about “Just Not Sorry”

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_DSC0291A new app “Just Not Sorry” has been designed to free women from diminishing their authority at work through the self-inflicted need to apologise.

There are phrases that women use (allegedly) that are holding them back in the workplace and this app is meant to prompt them to evaluate what they are saying and come up with a better i.e. more assertive, phrase to replace it.

When words like “sorry” or “just” are typed into a Gmail they are underlined for correction with a warning such as “Using ‘sorry’ frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership” or ” ‘Just’ demeans what you have to say“.

So far so good you might think. let’s discourage the use of “undermining words“. But no, it’s attracted the wrath of feminists and journalists such as New York business editor Alexandra Frean (writing in The Times).

Sorry, but women don’t need to be told how to write” she says. This is just part of the trend offering spurious advice on women’s speech patterns which are supposed to empower women but risk doing the opposite – in her opinion.

Now Frean is an American and from her on-line presence seems a familiar sight at conventions and the like and probably one of the “lean in” brigade. But is she right?

She refers to women using “upspeak“, which makes every sentence sound like a question, or “vocal fry” when their voice descends to a croak instead.

And then she asks where is the evidence that women do these things more often than men?

Well I remember a speaker from a British university presenting on this very subject at an international leadership conference in Germany a couple of years ago where she presented such evidence.

And from my experience as an executive coach working with senior women this is not uncommon. Maybe it’s that we Brits are a bit less forward than our American cousins.

She then argues that woman might be using these qualifiers, not to display weakness but as persuaders and conciliators.

She also refers to research at Rutgers university that found that women who spoke confidently about their strengths were seen as less attractive and less employable. 

She’s not the only critic of the app. Professor of linguistics at the University of California in Berkeley Robin Lakoff says that telling women how to talk discourages them from speaking.I know the developers of the app would say, in all sincerity, that they are trying to help women by telling us how to talk, but these hints never make anyone a better speaker; their effect is to make women less articulate because they suppress our spontaneity and make us embarrassed about whatever we do”

She says whether a word is used correctly depends on the context and there are times when saying sorry is OK and other times when it is inappropriate. These kinds of words (or discourse markers) have the ability to soften what a speaker is saying or make difficult conversations more comfortable. They also make people feel better and able to get along, something she says women are better at than men.

So arguments on both sides – and all from women, including the person who designed the app is Tami Reiss who describes how it came about here.

In short she was inspired by a number of women coaches and leaders including Tara Mohr, a leadership coach and author of “Playing Big” a book that exhorts every working women to “find your voice, your mission, your message“. (seen here on YouTube

51v-To8l8LL._AA160_She gives examples such as “I could be wrong but…” and “does that make sense?” and says there are three reasons women use these undermining phrases.

  1. It’s an unconscious habit that women have picked up from other women
  2. Women who use these phrases want to appear likeable and worry about coming over as aggressive or arrogant. (I posted about women’s dilemma some time ago in “Too nice or too bossy” in regard to leadership).
  3. The third reason is the inner critic we all have which creates self-doubt (and gives rise to imposter syndrome, something else I posted about earlier)

Mohr says the feedback she has had from people following her recommendations has been positive and her clients report getting faster replies to their e-mails and having their requests taken more seriously.

Mohr also takes a strong view about women coming out of 2,000 years of oppression! According to her women have a lot of work to do, both unlearning and learning, to be able to fully embrace the freedoms that women now have.

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