I still remember riding in the car as a child, rolling my eyes as my mom scolded me for using uptalk, or as she put it, “ending all of your sentences as if they were questions.” While I’m glad she broke me of that particular habit, it wasn’t the first time I or my contemporaries were told to change the way they talk. Though I no longer identify as a woman, I retain many characteristics of so-called feminine speech—I apologize a lot, I phrase things as questions or invitations rather than statements, I offer my opinions with qualifiers. And for years, I’ve been told by friends, family, and society at large that I need to stop doing this. “Remove ‘sorry’ from your vocabulary and you’ll succeed at business!” blare a hundred thinkpieces and self-help books. “Stop apologizing and you’ll finally take control of your life!” And I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit.
Firstly, as I’m a Midwesterner and occasional femme, you’ve got to be pretty oblivious to think I was actually apologizing in that last sentence. When your female coworker says, “Sorry, but you’re going to have to finish that project yourself,” she isn’t apologizing for something she did. It’s not an expression of weakness, but a polite phrase that greases the wheels of conversation. It’s like a little nod to the requirement of being civil to the people around you. Every time I say, “Oh, sorry to hear that,” or “I’m sorry you’re sick,” and someone responds, “You don’t need to apologize!” I want to strangle them. I know that. I’m not apologizing, I’m expressing sympathy. It’s as if people have forgotten that the word “sorry” isn’t always an admission of guilt.
Beyond my personal aggravation with the language-policing of women, you have to wonder—why is it women who need to change their speech? Why do people have to stop apologizing, asking politely, or phrasing things as opinions? I refuse to say that if someone says, “I think we should close the account,” it is a mere opinion, to be disregarded. It’s clearly someone stating their recommended course of action, in a polite way that allows for further explanation if necessary. And yet, men and business experts seem to think this style of speaking expresses weakness, uncertainty, and incompetency. Could it be that it actually has nothing to do with the style of speaking, but instead with who is doing the speaking?
Feminine language is polite, diplomatic, and sensitive to the needs of other people—an excellent choice for business negotiations, customer service, or interpersonal interactions, i.e., the essential functions of most workplaces. It’s not the language that is the problem here. It’s the sexism that requires women to change themselves to adhere to an arbitrary standard. Personally, I think that men should try using more “feminine speech”. I can easily think of some bosses I’ve had who would have benefited from apologizing a little more and demanding a little less. And the thing is, their actions don’t need to change. Just a change of phrase and I’m a little less annoyed about staying late, or a little less hurt that my report needs to be re-written. Feminine speech has a lot to offer, and condemning it in or out of the workplace is sexist and foolish. Typically, it is clear what the speaker meant, even if they don’t say it in a bold statement or declaration. Pretending they can only be understood or respected if they speak in a “masculine” way is an excuse to rob women and femmes of their voices.
I’m not going to change the way I speak, because I mean what I say and I mean how I say it. I hope that all genders can realize the utility of being polite, sympathetic, and accommodating, rather than brusque and demanding, but whether they do or not, I will not be shamed for doing so myself. But hey—that’s just my opinion.