Words are power

words are power

I was in the library last week and an older gentleman came in and demanded that the librarian (a young women) look on the reserve shelf to see if his books were there.

The reserve shelf is right in the middle of the library so that patrons can easily look for themselves so I wanted to say “why don’t you look yourself, you lazy bastard” but I was conscious that he might have disability that prevented him leaning over (unlikely) or he was blind (equally unlikely given that we were in a library, but they do have talking books). After it was established that he did have a book waiting for him he said, “check it out for me”. No please or thank you, which I thought was a little rude, but I guess he was just getting to the point very quickly. On the other hand, good manners cost nothing, as my mother used to say.

It made me think about how frequently we use modifiers in our everyday speech. Modifiers are words that dilute declarative statements and include softeners like “sort of”, “kind of” and “a little bit”. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry” we say “I’m a little bit hungry” or “I’m kind of hungry”. It weakens our language.

In the workplace we rarely we hear women make declarative statements unless they are members of the Executive and I suspect that’s because women on the fast track have done a course called something like Women in Leadership and have been told to be bold and forthright. The rest of us say things like “if that makes sense?” at the end of our sentences or “I’m no expert, but…” at the beginning of our sentences. We think we are being polite, but often we just end up sounding uncertain. It’s not just women who do this, but the fact is that I mostly hear women talking like this which is kind of weird in this day and age.

I work with some brilliant woman who constantly deflect any praise they receive. This is sad because they really deserve to be recognised. Instead they say “it was nothing” (not true it WAS something) or “I couldn’t have done it without my team” when really the team couldn’t have done it without their leadership.

I’m also conscious that people with an academic background are prone to using modifiers. After all, you can lose marks in an essay by neglecting to say “the research says” or “it seems that” before you make an assertion of fact.

For many of us, it’s hard to work out how to sound assertive without being rude and without sounding like a pompous ass.

One suggestion is to be on the look-out for unnecessarily apologetic language. Being simple and clear is helpful. For example, if you are writing an email to someone you don’t know very well, don’t start your sentence with “I’m sorry to bother you”. Just explain who you are and what you want. Don’t waste their time fawning or telling them your life story, just make your writing simple and direct and don’t forget your manners. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

7 thoughts on “Words are power

  1. Yes apologising is a habit that is hard to break once you get started.
    I love your advice. It’s much nicer to thank people than to apologise.

  2. I learned a great tip a couple of years ago: Don’t say “I’m sorry” when it’s not warranted. Ever since then, I have noticed how many women are continually apologizing in instances like you mention (i.e. the beginning of an email). Instead, say “thank you.” For example, if I’m late somewhere I no longer say “sorry” — I say “thank you for waiting for me” or “thank you for your patience.”

    1. I think it’s hard to shake those modifiers in our language as I’m sure they go way back to ye olde English – ‘your humble servant….’ and all that!!! I remember one instance when a man accidentally tripped over a dog and apologised saying ‘sorry’ which I thought was very polite but not sure the dog noticed!!! Something in our cultural heritage seems to compel us to soften what we say. My Scottish relatives often add the reverse negative in the sentence like ‘Is there not something we should be giving them……’ and add the word ‘wee’ as in ‘would you like a wee cup of tea’. Interestingly they can also be very direct if they think someone’s out of line. On the cultural front, I have an Argentinian friend who remarked about how often we apologise for things – she said they don’t do that in Argentina because it’s understood that mostly it’s accidental – there was no intent to do harm so you don’t need to say sorry All the time.

      1. My replies seem to be going weirdly in the wrong place but I’m not going to apologise!
        I did want to say that I hadn’t considered that apologising is also a cultural thing. I love the idea that Argentinian people just assume that there was no intent to do harm.
        It’s a hard habit to break once it gets entrenched in your language. I think we need to be constantly vigilant.

    2. A few people at work have read this post and commented about the way women constantly apologise, so it’s obviously a common problem. Thank you so much for your suggestions.

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