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23rd Mar 2016

Are These Two Words Making You Sound Weak?

Andrea Mara

“I just wanted to check if you were interested in this idea I had…” – so begins my email. Not just one email – most of my emails.

If I were using the Just Not Sorry app, I’d be in trouble. It’s a Chrome plug-in that checks your emails to count how many times you use words like ‘just’ and ‘sorry’. The idea is that for those of us who are a little apologetic in our communication, we can self-censor and make changes.

The app was created by Tami Reiss, the CEO of technology company Cyrus Innovations. It’s aimed at women who have a tendency to use weak, hedging, or apologetic terms in communication. Along with ‘just’ and ‘sorry’, the app highlights ‘I’m no expert’, ‘actually’, ‘should’ and ‘I think’. When you hover over the red line, a comment appears to explain why the word or phrase is making your communication weaker.

It has had mixed reviews. Some hail it as a fantastic tool for breaking bad habits, but for others, the idea that we need to change how women speak rankles.

I’m in the rankle camp.

Instinctively, though well-intentioned, the whole idea feels wrong. As though we can’t be trusted to come up with our own style of communication. Couldn’t it be that we’re actively choosing to communicate the way we do?

Whether it’s through nature or nurture or societal influence is up for debate, but it is generally accepted wisdom that women are good at communication, and that gender balance in boardrooms is something to aspire to, in part because heterogeneous groups make better decisions.

So doesn’t the same apply to written communication? Should we really be trying to write more like men, or couldn’t it be the case that women are actually quite good at writing emails? (And ‘actually’ would get me in trouble with the app.)

It is interesting trying out the plug-in and it doesn’t do any harm or make any changes to text or auto-correct the words. But it is inherently suggesting that writing ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ is somehow wrong, and I’m not convinced it is. As someone who puts a lot of time into finding the best way to word emails, I wonder if there’s a blurred line here between politeness and weakness?

If I write, “Did you read my email?” – to me, that sounds a little curt, especially if addressed to someone I’m hoping will fix a problem or send work my way.

Similarly, “Can you get back to me please?” sounds demanding.

I’m much more likely to write, “I just wanted to check if you had seen my email?” or “Would you be able to come back to me by Tuesday?”

To me that’s not apologetic – it’s just politeness.

For years, working in financial services, I spent time crafting emails so that I could strike the right tone – particularly if I needed someone to help me, or if I needed to complain but without causing upset – to get a problem fixed rather than get the recipient’s back up. A badly worded email can be the difference between getting a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in any situation, so to me, it’s always been worth taking that extra bit of time to get the ‘yes’.

This practice also means that when I do need to send a firm email, it has more impact – it stands out. Oh oh, she’s cross now.

A generation ago, conversations with family and friends took place face-to-face or by phone – today we rely on WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, Twitter and text to stay in touch. We use kisses and emoticons to set the tone – we pepper our sentences with exclamation marks and smiley faces. It’s something that’s evolving all the time, as we spend more and more time in written communication with close friends and family.

But in a work setting, we need another way to do it. If kisses and smileys are not okay, then words like ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ take their place, along with the odd exclamation mark. We soften the tone just like we do in casual conversations – it’s not apologetic – it’s diplomatic.

And of course, there are times when stronger words are needed – when a confident tone is best. But I think we can decide for ourselves when that is. The Just Not Sorry app wouldn’t like my use of ‘I think’ in that last sentence but that’s okay. I’m just not sorry.

Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.