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I'm not sorry at all to use the word 'sorry'

There's a new plug-in for Gmail called Just Not Sorry. The app is aimed at women who in their emails use what its creator, Cyrus Innovation chief executive Tami Reiss, calls "undermining words," such as "sorry" and "just." When a user types such words, they get underlined in red as if they were misspelled. Reiss frames this as a service to female leaders, because such words sabotage their authority.

SORRY, but no.

In the past couple of years, speech and language patterns associated with women have been subject to increased and unwarranted scrutiny: not just those "undermining" words, but also upspeak (a rising intonation at the end of a sentence) and vocal fry (an unnaturally low, creaky voice). But I'm not even convinced that women use these modes of speaking more than men do.

In a great piece for New York magazine's blog The Cut that defends these ways of speaking, Ann Friedman quotes linguist Debbie Cameron who notes, "We've also learned that some of the most enduring beliefs about the way women talk are not just over-generalizations, they are — to put it bluntly — lies." It's also worth noting that often those who come out most strongly against women's use of these speech patterns are business experts peddling advice to women, not linguists.

But for the sake of argument, let's say women do use "sorry" and "just" more than men. If this is the case, I'd argue that they are doing so not because they are carelessly conforming to gendered expectations to the detriment of their careers, but because they've learned through trial and error that using speech this way is ultimately more effective.

In her book, Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, linguist Deborah Tannen points out that at the outset, women are trapped in a double bind when it comes to expressing themselves at the office — they're seen as weak if they speak in a "feminine" way, but as domineering if they speak in a "masculine" way.

If women "speak in the styles that are effective when used by men — being assertive, sounding sure of themselves, talking up what they have done to make sure they get credit for it — they run the risk that everyone runs if they do not fit their culture's expectations for appropriate behavior: They will not be liked," Tannen writes.

In many instances, women have discovered that they are more successful when they conform to gendered expectations. In Talking from 9 to 5, Tannen offers the example of a surgeon who is one of the few women in her specialty. At first, she tried mimicking the military-style order barking of the male surgeons who trained her. But that approach backfired — none of the nurses would listen to her. So she changed her way of speaking, because she found, "if you try to be authoritarian, like many of your male colleagues are, it won't work with most nurses, but if you ally yourself with them and respect them as professional colleagues, they will be your best allies."

What Just Not Sorry also glosses over is language's highly contextual nature. What is appropriate, effective language when writing to a boss might not work with a subordinate; you wouldn't use the same tone or wording when emailing a close colleague as you would to a new intern; you might not even use the same style of writing when communicating with a woman colleague as with a man. It's a mistake to assume that every style of speech will be interpreted in the same way by different groups of people.

Tannen addresses the word "sorry" specifically, which she says is often useful as a "conversational smoother" — making the other participant feel at ease — an approach that has its own logic. As she writes, "For many women, and a fair number of men, saying 'I'm sorry' isn't literally an apology; it's a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation."

Needless to say, I won't be signing the pledge that Reiss created to help publicize her app, which reads: "In 2016, I will be a more effective communicator. I will not use 'just' or 'sorry' in emails, which undermine my message. I will talk about what I know, not what 'I think.' ''

What she doesn't seem to grasp is that communication is a complicated dance between speaker and listener, writer and reader, and that use of these words and phrases can be incredibly useful in the realpolitik of the workplace. My fervent hope for 2016 is that there are fewer articles and tech hacks preaching at women about how they should be speaking, writing and presenting themselves to the world. Maybe if their communications weren't constantly picked apart, even by well-meaning observers, they'd have more of the deeply felt confidence they need to succeed.

Jessica Grose is the editor of the Lenny newsletter and author of Sad Desk Salad. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.

I'm not sorry at all to use the word 'sorry' 01/05/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2016 5:53pm]
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