Just the right word

In recent years, people – especially women – have become more aware of the use of their minimizing language, like “sorry” and “just.” In a number of articles and blog posts, people have written that women should stop using such language immediately, or risk having less successful careers. These writings state that the use of words like “just” in person and via email diminish the value and validity of what is being said.

Not everyone agrees with this logic. There are also a number of people who believe the nitpicking of language used by women is but another form of sexism. People argue that rather than focusing on how women are expressing themselves, we should be focusing on the subject being discussed.

Former Google employee Ellen Petry Leanse wrote about her experience with the overuse of the word “just” in the workplace. Once Leanse became aware of the frequency “just” appeared in her own communications and those of female colleagues, she actively worked to decrease their usage of the word. Leanse wrote that after making an effort not to use weak language, she and her coworkers felt their communication changed. “I believe it helped strengthen our conviction, better reflecting the decisiveness, preparedness, and impact that reflected our brand.”


Shane Ferro and Debbie Cameron argue that Leanse is using an antiquated form of feminism to defend her argument. They write that linguists have recently almost completely debunked the myth that women must use more forceful language. Ferro writes the issue is not with the words women choose, but with the people who feel the need to critique the words chosen. She states, “I can’t think of a worse use of my workday than having to check myself every time I said something out loud,” and goes on to say if anything, this would hurt her confidence.  

Cameron draws a parallel between people policing the language women use to policing women’s bodies. Although this may seem like a stretch, Cameron writes that, similarly to how the media and beauty industry profit from the insecurities they sell to consumers, articles and radio programs, like the one she wrote about on her blog, sell a different insecurity to women. She writes:

“Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘Is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘Do I look fat in this?’”

Cameron also points out that the success of men in the workplace has far less to do with the language they use and much more to do with their privilege. This means that simply telling women to emulate the behavior of males will not often work.

It is clear that people do not see eye-to-eye on the usage of the “j-word,” but it is evident that women should be aware of both arguments in order to formulate their own opinions. This awareness will either decrease the usage of weak language, or allow people to continue using the language they feel most comfortable with. It seems logical that the point being made by a speaker is far more important than if they use the word “just” too often, but a speaker should, of course, be confident with the topic at hand.

This becomes a cyclical issue; if we tell women to monitor the words they use, they will most likely become hyperaware of the words they choose. This will act as a distraction from whatever it may be they are discussing. Conversely, women should also be aware that certain mannerisms should be avoided, so as not to appear unprofessional. It is important to note this should be presented to both men and women, to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is a reminder that lack of confidence can be detrimental to both men and women in the workplace.

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