Expert Comment: can new app make a difference to the language women use at work?Friday 8 January 2016
English language lecturers Dr Lisa Nahajec and Dr Linda McLoughlin give their opinion on a new app aimed at women which checks emails for self-doubting and undermining words such as ‘just’, ‘maybe’, ‘sorry’ and ‘actually’.
The creators of Just Not Sorry, who were inspired by the writings of Tara Mohr, say it will “warn you when you use words or phrases that undermine your message” and that “words will be underlined for correction with additional information about how using the phrase is perceived.”
Dr Lisa Nahajec and Dr Linda McLoughlin write:
This kind of language, hedges, minimizers and apologies, are concerned with what Halliday referred to as the interpersonal meta-function of language – the negotiation of relationships between speaker and hearer, writer and reader. For this reason, they are important in managing the relative power positions between interlocutors.
However, they can also indicate and enact power relationships; a tendency to use hedges, minimizers and apologies can perform powerlessness and speakers put themselves in a subordinate position. Conversely, a tendency to avoid this kind of language can perform a relatively powerful position, but speakers run the risk of damaging what linguistic (im)politeness researchers (e.g. Brown and Levinson, Leech, Culpeper, Bousfield, Watts) refer to as face. Our face is our need to be approved of on the one hand, and be left alone on the other; all interaction is potentially a risk to these needs and interlocutors use language to negotiate and minimize potential damage. Negotiating the fine line between managing the risk and appearing subordinate can be difficult as it impacts so deeply on our performance of identity as well as our need to achieve a goal (whatever it is that drives the interaction).
We should be careful, however, in making assumptions about who uses this kind of language. It may well be that more women use hedges, minimizers and apologies than men, but it does not make such strategies women’s language or women’s language ‘tics’. Rather, it is those who find themselves in powerless positions that may tend to use these kinds of terms and, given the sociohistorical context, women are likely to find themselves in such powerless positions. But so do men. O'Barr and Atkins' study of courtroom discourse found that so-called women's language features were neither characteristic of all women nor limited only to women. They propose that features such as hedges and tag questions should be labelled 'powerless' language rather than women's language. The fact that women are more often in powerless or less status enhancing positions says more about society than an inherent defect in women.
We would just add that this app is part of a long tradition of advice to women regarding their perceived deficient speech. Blaming women for their lack of success in the workplace serves the interests of patriarchy since if women are their own worst enemy then nothing materially has to change.
From a political point of view, to suggest that women can improve their lot by changing their speech disregards the nature of the patriarchal society we live in. Janet Holmes has written on the valuable contribution women make in cementing social relationships - to suggest that they adopt a more assertive stance would be to undermine this. It also does not take into account the social repercussions for women who break out of the expected gender stereotype - women who are more strident or assertive are hardly thanked for being so.
This app addresses the symptoms but not the cause; rather than attacking women’s talk we should be addressing why women tend to find themselves in relatively powerless positions.