The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Telling women to apologize less isn’t about empowerment. It’s about shame.

"Sorry," but we don't need new email plugins. What we need is for people to stop picking apart the ways we communicate.

Adam Berry/Bloomberg News

There’s a new plug-in for Gmail called Just Not Sorry, which is currently making the media rounds on Slate, NPR, the “Today” show and elsewhere. The app is aimed at women who in their emails use what its creator, Cyrus Innovation chief executive Tami Reiss, calls “undermining words,” such as “sorry” and “just.” When a user types such words, they get underlined in red as if they were misspelled. In a post on Medium, Reiss frames this as a service to women leaders, because such words sabotage their authority.

Sorry, but no.

In the past couple of years, speech and language patterns associated with women have been subject to increased and unwarranted scrutiny: not just those “undermining” words, but also upspeak (a rising intonation at the end of a sentence) and vocal fry (an unnaturally low, creaky voice). But I’m not even convinced that women use these modes of speaking more than men do. In a great piece for New York magazine’s blog the Cut that defends these ways of speaking, Ann Friedman quotes linguist Debbie Cameron who notes, “We’ve also learned that some of the most enduring beliefs about the way women talk are not just over-generalizations, they are — to put it bluntly — lies.” It’s also worth noting that —as Cameron did in a blog post last week responding to Just Not Sorry — often those who come out most strongly against women’s use of these speech patterns are business experts “peddling advice to women,” not linguists.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say women do use “sorry” and “just” more than men. (These words certainly are perceived to be more associated with women.) If this is the case, I’d argue that they are doing so not because they are carelessly conforming to gendered expectations to the detriment of their careers, but because they’ve learned through trial and error that using speech this way is ultimately more effective.

In her book, “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen points out that at the outset, women are trapped in a double bind when it comes to expressing themselves at the office — they’re seen as weak if they speak in a “feminine” way but as domineering and even crazy if they speak in a “masculine” way. If women “speak in the styles that are effective when used by men — being assertive, sounding sure of themselves, talking up what they have done to make sure they get credit for it — they run the risk that everyone runs if they do not fit their culture’s expectations for appropriate behavior: They will not be liked and may even be seen as having psychological problems,” Tannen writes. Neither method seems to be a guarantee of getting women the authority they desire.

Because we’re already fighting against so many cultural assumptions, in many instances, women have discovered that they are more respected and successful when they conform to those gendered expectations. In “Talking from 9 to 5,” Tannen offers the example of a doctor who is one of the few women in her specialty. At first, this surgeon tried mimicking the military-style order barking of the male surgeons who trained her. But that approach backfired — none of the nurses would listen to her. So she changed her way of speaking, because she found, “if you try to be authoritarian, like many of your male colleagues are, it won’t work with most nurses, but if you ally yourself with them and respect them as professional colleagues, they will be your best allies.”

What Just Not Sorry also glosses over is language’s highly contextual nature. What is appropriate, effective language when writing to a boss might not work with a subordinate; you wouldn’t use the same tone or wording when emailing a close colleague as you would to a new intern; you might not even use the same style of writing when communicating with a woman colleague as with a man. It’s a mistake to assume that every style of speech will be interpreted in the same way by different groups of people.

An oft-cited example is a study done by linguist Cynthia McLemore on Texas sorority girls. While young women are often told that upspeak undermines their authority, these sorority sisters used upspeak to cement their authority. As Douglas Quenqua put it in the New York Times, senior members of the sorority, “used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks.”

Tannen addresses the word “sorry” specifically, which she says is often useful as a “conversational smoother” — making the other participant feel at ease — an approach that has its own logic. As she writes, “For many women, and a fair number of men, saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t literally an apology; it’s a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation.”

Needless to say, I won’t be signing the pledge that Reiss created to help publicize her app, which reads: “In 2016, I will be a more effective communicator. I will not use ‘just’ or ‘sorry’ in emails, which undermine my message. I will talk about what I know, not what ‘I think’.”

What she doesn’t seem to grasp is that communication is a complicated dance between speaker and listener, writer and reader, and that use of these words and phrases can be incredibly useful in the realpolitik of the workplace. My fervent hope for 2016 is that there are fewer articles and tech hacks preaching at women — particularly young women — about how they should be speaking, writing and presenting themselves to the world. Maybe if their communications weren’t constantly picked apart, even by well-meaning observers, they’d have more of the deeply felt confidence they need to succeed.