We’ve all seen the Facebook articles pop up on our feed. The ones titled “The One Word Women Should Stop Using in the Office”. They’re so common, we can guess the word without even clicking: “sorry”, “like” or “just”.
If the experts quoted in these articles (including Ellen Petry Leanse, a former Google and Apple executive, who kickstarted the debate on the pitfalls of saying “just”) are to be believed, these verbal tics make us sound nervous, apologetic and even childlike.
That’s not even mentioning the apparent problems inherent in our very tone of voice, with experts claiming that uptalk (also known as Valleyspeak) and vocal fry (a creaky voice a la the Kardashians) make women sound uncertain or even annoying to listen to.
Now, apparently, we don’t only need to worry about what we wear, how we look and how we ask for a pay rise – we must also pay heed to the minute inflections, tones and words.
But are we really ruining our chances of a promotion by uttering the word “sorry” one too many times?
“There are many perceived stereotypes about the way women speak,” explains Ng Bee Chin, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University. “These include the perception that women are more polite, don’t swear, are incoherent, talk too much, interrupt, and love to gossip.”
However, she adds, these cliches have no basis in reality − or, if they do, it’s only because of society’s inherent discrimination.
“For example, women are more polite because society expects them to be more polite. Do men ever encounter this type of policing? Rarely.”
Another major problem with the theory that women use tentative linguistics more than men is there’s no proof. The issue may be we are more likely to overanalyse women’s speech while ignoring the same verbal tics in men.
“The way we express ourselves is 100 percent cultural and learnt. There is nothing about gender differences in language that’s genetic,” says Ng. “Vocal fry and uptalk also occur in males but no one points a finger at them.”
But while we might know this, the reality is we all want to progress in the workplace. So should we try to change these language quirks? Would conforming actually make a difference?
Some experts believe when it comes to this topic, we just can’t win. As Penelope Eckert, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, says, “no matter how women decide to speak, someone will figure out how it isn’t effective in the workplace”.
Ng agrees. “If we conform, we are likely to be characterised as ‘aggressive’, ‘unfeminine’ or ‘overly-ambitious’, whereas an ambitious man is evaluated positively as ‘dynamic’, ‘career-oriented’, ‘successful’ and someone to respect.”
According to Jolene Tan of Singapore gender equality advocacy group AWARE, the policing of women’s speech is another way for sexism to rear its ugly head. “When we focus on how a woman talks, we are deciding that her presentation is paramount to the content of her words.
“Similarly, we do this when we centre women’s appearances, clothes, and mannerisms above all else. “As long as we subscribe to the double standard that women need to speak a certain way in order to be heard, women are going to fall short of these ever-changing expectations.”
Despite the temptation to hold back until we’re senior enough to ignore such language policing, Ng stresses the importance of not cooperating with these cliches.
“As society becomes more enlightened and we have more women leaders, this may change,” she says. “But until we get there, it’s important that women support each other by not buying into these stereotypes. We need to listen to what we say instead of how we say it.”
Text: Deborach Cicurel