You might be familiar with the bubble of fear that accompanies sending an email to an esteemed professor or any other distant authority figure. It’s the fear of wording, the fear of using it poorly or abusing it, and the fear of its power to influence perceptions of us.
In writing that type of email, I often ask myself: Am I being polite enough? Too polite? Will this professor think I’m a suck-up? Does excessive use of exclamation marks seem overeager or immature? These self-doubts, manifested in word choice and rooted in the fear of how I’m perceived, race through my mind so quickly that I fail to recognize their impact on my self-worth — and on others’, particularly women.
The day before spring break, a friend and I were talking about how most female students in our Orgo class prefaced their questions with a “sorry,” whereas none of the male students did the same. I see this everywhere — in seminars, dining halls and even conversation. “Sorry, but I was just wondering …” or “sorry, but I just noticed …” or “sorry to be a pain but could you … ?” Before speaking, women at Yale too often apologize for speaking at all, indicting themselves with an uninvited apology for taking up room at all.
This “sorry” epidemic is a popular topic. We like to believe that we’ve moved beyond the belief in female intellectual inferiority, but lingering effects of agreed-upon societal sexism often cause women to apologize for their curiosity. These same effects expand beyond the classroom and the spoken word; in the written word, too, women tend to shrink themselves, sacrificing honesty (bluntness?) for politeness.
More than just “sorry,” I see women using filler words as cushioning to avoid being called “bossy” or worse. For example, “just” is a popular filler word. If words cost money, then I use “just” like it’s free. When emailing a teacher to follow up an urgent, unanswered email, I always write, “I was just wondering whether you saw …” When texting lagging group project partners to ask them to do their share: “I was just checking in on …” I’ve seen most of my female peers at Yale do the same. “Just” is safe, nonthreatening and placating. “Just” softens our requests and prevents us from sounding like the overbearing shrews that empowered women are often accused of being. “Just” smoothes the edges of our commands, downplays their importance and dampens their urgency.
Women aren’t the only ones who use these filler words, but we use them more often than men and are more often reprimanded for it. Again and again, I see articles aimed at women saying, “Stop sabotaging yourself by using these words! Don’t let yourself appear weak!” I understand the rationale behind this criticism — in some ways, this piece is a condemnation of this type of talk. But I think those articles fail to address a bigger problem in our perceptions of gender and language because they fail to wonder why women feel the need to apologize in the first place.
Over and over, women feel obligated to regulate each facet of their lives, from their grooming habits to their diets to their language, both oral and written. Even as the movement for gender equality progresses — and it has! — we forget to question why women striving for leadership roles have to appear masculine, have to choose words carefully and precisely to appear “strong.”
We tell women to refrain from using certain words instead of encouraging them to question why they feel the need to be “soft” in the first place. On the flip side, we don’t even ask why being “soft” is deemed unacceptable. We reinforce the idea that in an academic or professional environment, gentleness — traditionally associated with “femininity” — is less desirable than assertiveness — traditionally associated with “masculinity.”
This concept used to be so intuitive to me, that soft was feminine and force was masculine. It’s in the fabric of our society, so ubiquitous that it’s invisible. But now, I’m not so sure. It’s a trap: Too forceful, and you’re “that bitch”; too gentle, and you’re “that pushover.” To be clear, it’s not that I’ve stopped admiring assertive women any less. It’s that I’ve learned to stop using the forcefulness of a woman’s words as a measurement of her strength. I’ve found freedom in recognizing this change in myself. It helps me become less judgmental and critical toward others, and more accepting of myself and my words.
Chloe Sales is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .