In Defense Of Women Saying ‘Just’ And ‘Sorry’ In The Workplace

It is time for women to stop assuming that the way men speak and conduct business is the right way to do it. Since we are not the problem, maybe we are not the ones who need to change.

“Thank you for calling GrubHub customer care team” a friendly and informal female voice greets me when I call to add naan to the order I had just placed. The automated greeting ends: “And, just a heads-up, your call may be recorded for quality assurance.”

According to Ellen Leanse, the GrubHub greeter should change her message to exclude the word just. Leanse, a former executive at Google, recently penned an article in which she said that women should drop the word “just” from their vocabulary at work. It is a “permission word” according to her, and it’s not “about being polite.”

In describing how she saw the word used, Leanse compared it to women’s compulsive use of the word “sorry” and says that she saw it used to signal deference or subordination. And sometimes it was used to be deceitful. Striking the word, in her option, almost always makes the message clearer and stronger.

I sent the article to my friend Sandy. If you take Route 1 through the Southern states, you will at some point go past the apartment complex that she manages. The apartments are the newest and nicest in the county and for two counties to the south. Keeping a place like that in good repair and making the residents happy is no small feat. Fortunately, Sandy is as tough as nails and twice as sharp.

The funny thing is that no one in the complex would describe Sandy as tough or, God forbid, “pushy.” My bad-ass rebel friend becomes a sweet, simpering, deftly manipulative southern belle when she is at work.

It repulses and enrages Sandy, but she never speaks to her male employees as their boss, or gives them direct instructions. Instead, when she picks up her walkie-talkie to relay a request, she turns into a damsel in distress who is sorry to be such a bother, but she would be “eva so grateful if they would just take a peek at the toilet in 11B.”

It isn’t like she has better options. The men who work at the complex are like many good old boys and have made perfectly clear that they will not “take orders from a woman.” So Patty has to always sound as if she is making a suggestion, or as if they are doing her a favor. She apologizes, simpers, bakes them brownies, and generally treats them like the big old babies that they are. Her job depends on getting them to do their jobs.

So you can imagine how Sandy felt when she read Leanse’s article. I thought my computer might melt from the heated response she sent to me.

And she’s not alone in having a very strong negative reaction. When I posted Leanse’s idea to my Facebook page and asked my readers what they thought, one of my friends saw it as potentially helpful, a form of mentoring. But the majority of the responses pointed out how very privileged Leanse must be if she feels that women who need a paycheck to survive have any real option when it comes to paying at least symbolic homage to patriarchy.

My friend Angie wrote:

We are hostages in a society where we’ve been conditioned that to say things without a buffer will brand us negatively, nearly every social and professional interaction requires us to put on a softness where it wouldn’t be required of a man.

And of course, now we’re being told that it’s so unbecoming to see how meek we’ve been made.

We would never tell a hostage who’d been conditioned to certain behaviors for survival that they should just stop, and just change, and just not do those things.

I agree with Angie. We really have no way of knowing who will bristle at a woman being assertive. The best option for those of us who need our jobs is to walk and speak softly.

But we shouldn’t be debating whether or not it behooves women to adopt male manners. Instead, we should be discussing the underlying assumption of Leanse’s argument. She is saying that male patterns of communication are the right ways to communicate. Softer ways of communication, according to her assumptions, show weakness and are, therefore, inherently undesirable.

As Leanse says, the word “just” is a word of permission. But it is also a word of reassurance. It says, “Hey, I am not here because I want to brow beat you. All that I need is to know when that memo will be ready so that I can plan accordingly.” The GrubHub answering message is a great example of the word “just” as a signal of non-aggression, of saying that this is nothing to be alarmed about.

This brings me to the suggestions of my friend and fellow writer Simon who believes that men should begin adopting words like “just.” I could not agree with him more.

Seeking permission, telegraphing non-aggression, displaying humility—these are all things that men, especially those in corporate leadership positions, should be learning. Female styles of communication are not inherently or even practically wrong or inappropriate. Even Teddy Roosevelt, who believed in brandishing his very large stick, counseled leaders to speak softly.

It is time for us as women to stop assuming that the way men speak and conduct business is the right way to do it. Since we are not the problem, maybe we are not the ones who need to change.

Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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