Words are just words, right? What matters is what we really think. What’s in our hearts.
In recent weeks that argument has been floating around more than ever. While it’s true that you can say something without meaning it, that alone could lead others to question everything you say.
In this era of texting abbreviations, emojis, and disposable forms of communication, words seem to be as plastic and expendable as our coffee cups and receipts. Yet, even as we don’t believe that our conversations are permanent character witnesses, the way we speak casts a light on plenty of our issues. One particular word that appears more in the way women talk is “just.”
Corporate strategist Ellen Petry Leanse says she noticed this speech pattern when she left Google and started working at a company with a more female dominated work force. It was in the memos, emails, voice messages, even in the random person stopping by her office:
“I just wanted to check in on…”
“Just wondering if you’d decided between….”
“If you can just give me an answer, then…”
“I’m just following up on…”
Now you could say those people are simply being polite. You might even argue that those are phrases used by both men and women alike. But before going into that, let’s dissect the meanings behind these harmless words a bit. If we compare “I just wanted to check in on…” with “I’m checking in on…” you’ll notice a clear difference. The first is asking for permission to do whatever needs to be done; it clearly hands over the power to the person being given the information. On the other hand, the second asserts that this will be done. The power structure remains the same.
Why do we feel the need to pre-apologize for someone’s attention? Before we say the thing we’re going to say, we’re already taking away its relevance and importance. Without being fully aware, we're telling the other person that it’s not important and that we don’t want to be hold liable. We shrug off the responsibility and the veracity of the information. In other words, we say “I wanted to check in on this, but I’m not sure. Don’t remember I said it because I don’t mean it. Stop me at any time if I’m wrong. I probably am wrong, anyway….”
It’s not that we’re aware or unaware of doing it; it’s the fact that we’re obviously afraid to use the right words, both conscious and unconsciously. Either we don’t want to be responsible or we don’t want to come off a certain way. In a world where anything we say can be copied, reproduced, and twisted into the wrong context, these little crutches such as “just” help us navigate and dodge accusations or negative implications. Yet they also take away the boldness of our statements.
Petry Leanse debunks the claim that using these words are just for politeness and manners’ sake, “Yet I began to notice that just wasn’t about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”
Is it possible that, because of social constructs, as women we believe we need to tone down our strong-sounding ideas? After all, who’d want to come off as bossy, pushy, aggressive, or scary? By the way, all those adjectives have been used as describers for women in positions of power. Clearly this is an issue of the female gender still not feeling like they can do or say the same things as their male coworkers. They don’t want to overstep their boundaries because they want to be liked more than they want to be respected.
Before anyone gets up in arms about that last statement, I’m not claiming women don’t want to be respected in their place of work or study. I’m saying that we’re willing to do somersaults in order to not be called a bitch or one of the ugly words mentioned above. We’ll do an entire Cirque Du Soleil worthy contortion of our thoughts in order to fit the status quo. So what would happen if we dropped all these backbends and hyperextensions?
While we might run the risk of being criticized by our peers for thinking we're above our station, it’s more likely that little by little we’ll be taken more seriously. By taking off the training wheels, our language sounds more mature, and we sound more sure of ourselves and our ideas. Of course, this comes at a price. We need to really think about what we say before we say it. We can’t throw around statistics; we’ve yet to research, since we won’t be able to blame on, “I just read it on some website.” We can’t bullshit our way saying we did something like, “I was just thinking of doing this random vague thing…”. And, most importantly, we can’t be meek when we’re trying to get at the bottom of something.
So instead of saying, “I just wanted to know if this weird thing was done,” why not say “I’m here because I want to know if this thing got done.” Try it. Every time you catch yourself going for that word, take a moment, reflect, and think of another, clearer, way of saying what you were going to say.
It’s not easy. Trust me, I had to stop myself at least twenty times to not use that word. But eventually it will be worth it. You’ll be providing strength and meaning to your statements. Your arm will rest from not having to hand out excuses and apologies for things you haven’t done. You’ll notice how your words sound better when you’ve thought about them and their power. You’ll stop looking at them as disposable and start turning every thought into a concrete permanent conversation.
Images by Yung Chen Lin
"Just" Say No by Ellen Petry Leanse