How About We Stop Policing Women's Language?

I was in my mid-twenties the first time someone called attention to the way I spoke in a professional setting. She was my supervisor, a few years older than I, and had already accomplished an impressive amount in her career.
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I was in my mid-twenties the first time someone called attention to the way I spoke in a professional setting. She was my supervisor, a few years older than me, and had already accomplished an impressive amount in her career.

In a taking-me-under-her-wing moment, she pulled me aside to caution me about speaking with an upward inflection. "You're a smart woman," she said, "don't let any of these men think you don't know what you're talking about." I could tell that the advice she gave me was some she had followed herself.

"Good looking out," I thought at the time. Clearly, she saw potential in me and didn't want anything about the way I spoke to keep me from future opportunities. After that, I started paying attention to the way I was speaking; I evened my tone so I would come across more authoritative, began counting how many times I said "sorry," and re-worded e-mails so that I didn't say "just."

As women, we get this kind of advice all the time. It seems like every week there is a new article popping up to "helpfully" guide professional women toward behavior that will allow them be successful. Commonly proffered tips include: Stop saying "sorry" so much. Don't use filler words like "like" or "um." Don't speak with vocal fry. Quit saying "just." And don't even think about using "I feel like." There's even a cottage industry growing up around the policing of women's language; recently, Chrome launched an app to help you stop saying "sorry" or "just" in your e-mails.

The arguments are familiar: Don't undermine yourself! Don't temper your opinions! Have more confidence in yourself! Count how many times you say it so you can see the scope of the problem! It makes you sound weak!

At the core of this is a belief that women can't naturally express themselves in a professional manner; they must alter their speech so that they can stop getting in their own way. I do not accept this--for several reasons.

It Gives Women One More Thing To Be Self-Conscious About

It's no secret that we live in a society that systemically devalues women. To name just a couple examples of this dynamic at play: Studies have shown that women are more likely to be disbelieved by doctors and must advocate for themselves more aggressively than men, and women coders are rated as superior to men only if they conceal their gender.

To be a woman in such a world is to be constantly policing oneself for safety, for acceptance, and to succeed. We alter our appearance to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we shrink ourselves to be less offensive or threatening to men. We are taught that we are responsible for the actions of men, and so we constantly monitor the men around us and adapt to their inclinations.

Our bodies, our walk, our talk, our goals--everything we modify to fit an ideal. And when we fail to be what they want us to be--including by not speaking "correctly"--we feel the tingle of embarrassment in our chests.

But this is all a trap. We weren't meant to win. We can't be too smart or too dumb or too nice or too aggressive or too sexy or too prudish. We exist in a world in which we are set up to fail.

It Asserts The Idea That Men Are Superior Communicators

Society has always valued the words of men more than those of women, to the point that men have been credited for discoveries or milestones actually reached by women, and that women have published their work under male pseudonyms just so people would engage with it. The problem isn't what women are saying, or even how we are saying it; it's that we are women saying it. A woman could have the formula to end climate change, cure cancer, and buy everyone their own mansion, and be ignored simply because she exists as a woman.

The solution to communication issues, then, shouldn't be that women emulate men; it should be challenging the very premise that men ought to be emulated.

Interestingly, the fact that we listen to men more than women has also skewed our perception of how women communicate in the business world. In truth, men exhibit many of the same vocal patterns women get lambasted for in the workplace, such as vocal fry and using the word "like." But we never call attention to the way (cis) men speak, because precious few things in this world are as powerful and authoritative as male privilege.

Verbal Tics Can Be A Sign Of Trauma Or Mental Illness

More than 38 million American women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Many of these women develop coping mechanisms to placate their abusers and protect themselves. I've seen first-hand how tempering statements like "I'm sorry" can be a result of such trauma or abuse. Who are we to say that women shouldn't use this phrase if it can help them feel safer?

Likewise, many people in treatment for mental illness or in therapy for their own mental well-being are actively encouraged to use "I" statements, like "I feel like," when processing their emotions. This method is widely used by therapists and psychologists to allow their patients to express themselves in a way that doesn't place blame on another person.

Certain mental illnesses can also contribute to repeated words and phrases, or verbal tics. These can be symptoms of traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, dementia, Tourette's syndrome, or drug and alcohol abuse. Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders are also trained to use coping statements that can assist in times of heightened anxiety.

My point is that you never know what someone has been through or why they developed certain habits. Policing their language completely erases the root of certain verbal idiosyncrasies, and takes away some of the tools they've been given to heal themselves.

It's Pretty Unfeminist

Feminism is hard to pin down with one definition, because it means a lot of things to a lot of people. At its core, for me, feminism respects the freedom of others to make their own choices that aren't harming anyone else. Feminism is a desire to put everyone on a level playing field, free of gender-based judgment. It's hard for me to think of anything more unfeminist than telling women how to behave in order to be respected.

Feminism doesn't wag its finger in the face of women who dare to be different. Feminism doesn't condescend to women who dare to defy convention. Feminism uplifts and celebrates difference, and acknowledges intersecting identities. When we can respect women's choices as a society, we won't have to teach them how to be taken seriously. Which leads me to my biggest issue here:

It Makes Women To Blame, Again

The culturally learned trend of criticizing everything women do just serves to degrade women further. We can't fix the patriarchy by playing by its rules; we can't make women respectable by throwing a mustache and some loafers on them.

We are consistently criticized for the way society fails us. We see report after report confirming gender bias literally everywhere. We know that it's unfair, but we still wind up convinced that it is us who must change. It's actually a brilliant tactic--if the oppressed are responsible for their own oppression (or triumph over oppression), then the oppressors are off the hook. No one will hold them accountable because we're too busy trying to fix ourselves.

It's not really about the way anyone talks. It's about reiterating (and encouraging) the notion that men have an excuse to not take you seriously if you don't jump through these hoops.

Well, I refuse to perform. I refuse to shake hands with the devil in order to fly. If I'm going to make it in this cold hard world, then dammit: I'm going to do it my way.

This piece originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.


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