Just when you finally got a handle on saying “sorry” so much, turns out there’s another detrimental phrase in your lexicon keeping you from being taken seriously as a woman: “Just.” As in, “Just checking in,” and “Just following up,” and “Just wondering if you’d decided.” A former Google exec says this “permission” word is undermining your authority, and you need to cut down on your “J Count” pronto.
Writing at Business Insider, a former exec at Google and Apple named Ellen Petry Leanse says that, a few years ago, she started noticing that the many women she worked with were using “just” a lot in emails, conversations, and presentations. Leanse writes:
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.
Well, it does make sense if you think about how women are culturally conditioned to be so sympathetic and empathic to the needs of others well before their own that they essentially walk on permanent eggshells, as if invisibly bumping into humanity at all times. It makes plenty of sense when you think about how women live with the ever-present background fear of being perceived as a bitch or a nag, so the only way to prove we are, in fact, correctly socialized to understand that we are nothing special, innately kind-hearted, and also chill as fuck is by apologizing for every possible thing we might ever do, want, think, ask, need, feel. Sorry you bumped into me! Sorry I had a feeling and expressed it! Sorry I need you to treat me like a person! Sorry for existing at all!
The “sorry” epidemic is well-documented—women do apologize more, and perceive themselves as having committed more personal offenses than men, and the whole shebang even landed in a Pantene commercial that aimed to move some units by empowering women to dial back the deference while maintaining impossibly glossy manes.
Maybe it worked, in that our gender’s favorite form of hedging a request has turned from “sorry” to “just”? Leanse writes:
I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.
So she suggested a moratorium on the word with her team, who agreed that it undermined their image as “trusted advisors.” The more they caught themselves using it, the more they were able to eliminate it from communication, and the perception of their preparedness improved.
Then, Leanse decided to test out the “just” gender frequency in a mixed room of entrepreneurs who took turns speaking to the group about their startups:
I asked them to leave the room to prepare, and while they were gone I asked the audience to secretly tally the number of times they each said the word “just.”
Sarah went first. Pens moved pretty briskly in the audience’s hands. Some tallied five, some six. When Paul spoke, the pen moved … once. Even the speakers were blown away when we revealed that count.
Now, that’s not research: It’s a mere MVP of a test that likely merits more inquiry, but we all have other work to do.
Plus, maybe now that you’ve read this, you’ll heighten your awareness of that word and find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known.
Once you start paying attention to your own use of hedge words like “just” and “sorry,” it is indeed strange to acknowledge how often you work them into sentences and how habitual it can be. I reflexively apologize still when someone bumps into me, not because I assume I was in the wrong, but because I’m not omniscient and maybe I was being oblivious and sorry covers that regardless. I don’t even think of it as deferential, I think of it is being nice. Because in a perfect world, the other person would say sorry also as a mutual covering of the same potentially egregious ground. If a woman, she usually says sorry back. But if it’s a dude, I get a sorry as often as I am given a free monthly supply of tampons (once).
It’s not a huge deal, is it? But language shapes consciousness, and if women are the only ones softening their language or self sabotaging their own credibility—even inadvertently, only to be “nice”—it’s still reinforcing that it’s a woman trait to be nice. In a interview at GOOP with Tara Mohr, a career coach who wrote a book about such habits called Playing Big, we learn her take on “just”:
“I just want to check in and see…” “I just think…” Just tends to make us sound a little apologetic and defensive about what we’re saying. Think about the difference between the sound of “I just want to check in and see…” and “I want to check in and see…” or the difference between “I just think” and “I think…”
Inserting actually: “I actually disagree…” “I actually have a question.” It actually makes us sound surprised that we disagree or have a question—not good!
Using qualifiers: “I’m no expert in this, but…” or “I know you all have been researching this for a long time, but…” undermines your position before you’ve even stated your opinion.
Asking, “Does that make sense?” or “Am I making sense?”: I used to do this all the time. We do it with good intentions: We want to check in with the other people in the conversation and make sure we’ve been clear. The problem is, “does that make sense” comes across either as condescending (like your audience can’t understand) or it implies you feel you’ve been incoherent.
A better way to close is something like “I look forward to hearing your thoughts.” You can leave it up to the other party to let you know if they are confused about something, rather than implying that you “didn’t make sense.”
I say this stuff all the time, and believe me, I don’t think what I’m saying is the least bit inferior. In fact, inside, I feel a thousand percent sure of myself because if I didn’t know what I was talking about, I wouldn’t be talking. But still, I’m using the language presentation I’ve been taught to use, because when I don’t, I’ve been told throughout my life in one way or another—from a boss, a boyfriend, a coworker, a performance review—that I sound too abrasive. Like a bitch. Not nice. Angry. Uppity.
And that, the underlying discrepancy, is the real point here. Yes, women can change a certain amount about female self-presentation if we eliminate hedge words that undermine our authority—Mohr insists that when junior women removed the qualifiers she listed from their communication, they got “quicker and more substantive responses” in return. That’s great. But that may not always be the case. For every story of a qualifier-free move forward, there are a dozen anecdotes of a woman who never had used them in the first place, who always acted like she belonged exactly where she was and knew of what she spoke—and who never stopped catching hell for it.
So yes, take “just” out of your vocabulary, and don’t apologize for it. But don’t be surprised, either, if there’s just a lot more sorry waiting in line.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.