Sheryl Sandberg and Ben Franklin lean in together

March 22, 2013
"Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf)
“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf)

If you’ve heard anything about Sheryl Sandberg, you’ve heard that she tells ambitious women to pay attention to how they speak.

Lots of people are paying attention to how she speaks.

Her call-to-action, “Lean In,” debuts at No. 1 on our bestseller list this Sunday. Her book sold eight times as many copies as the No. 2 title.

In one chapter, the chief operating officer of Facebook gets down into our diction on a granular level: “Pronouns matter,” she says. “Whenever possible, women should substitute ‘we’ for ‘I.’ A woman’s request will be better received if she asserts, ‘We had a great year,’ as opposed to ‘I had a great year.’”

But Sandberg offers this advice with a sigh.

“I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations,” she writes, but using inclusive language and putting on a “friendly expression” are “means to a desirable end.”

Sandberg frames her critique of corporate culture in terms of gender, and that’s the way it’s been received by defenders and scoffers alike. But some of her most specific advice would have won hearty approval from one of America’s earliest and savviest negotiators: Ben Franklin.

Franklin
“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (Red and Black Publishers).

Consider, for instance, how Franklin pursued his plan to start a school in Pennsylvania. Just as Sandberg would advise, he was careful to substitute ‘we’ for ‘I.’ He proposed his idea for an academy “not as an act of mine, but of some publick-spirited gentlemen, avoiding as much as I could, according to my usual rule, the presenting myself to the publick as the author of any scheme for their benefit.”

And listen here to how precisely he watched his language so that he wouldn’t come across as aggressive or confrontational:

“I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself . . . the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainlyundoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceiveI apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc.”

Like Sandberg, Franklin spoke this way not because he was meek or wimpy or lacked confidence, but because it was more effective. “I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner,” he wrote. “The conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction.”

When Franklin tempered his language, camouflaged his authorship and acknowledged his opponents’ feelings, was he acting like a woman? Or was he simply behaving like a person more interested in the success of his ideas than in the elevation of his ego?

Sandberg may be speaking to women, but we could all lean in to hear her time-tested advice about getting things done.

On Twitter @RonCharles

Moments from the feminist movement:

 

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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