Close-up of a woman’s hands hovering over a laptop keyboard as she types.
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Why I don’t care if I say ‘just’ or ‘sorry’ in an email

29 Oct 2019

Blaming workplace inequality on innocuous behaviours only serves to distract from the real issues with a Sisyphean task, writes Elaine Burke.

During a meeting last week, a colleague hesitated while typing up an email. Her screen was in full view of the rest of the room, which is never an easy environment for typing up an email. But it wasn’t our peering gaze that was causing her to become flustered as she typed. It was her language. She wasn’t happy with the wording she was using and chided herself for using ‘weak’ language in the enquiry she was sending.

To be quite honest, I am tired of being told that the language many of us – mostly women – use in our emails and other communications is wrong for being ‘weak’ or lacking confidence. There’s plenty of advice to this effect that goes around. There are even plug-ins that can highlight ‘bad words’, such as ‘just’, so you can extract them before sending an email, lest you accidentally come across as deferential to your contacts.

But there’s nothing wrong with the way we write emails. And there’s everything wrong with the fact that we judge ourselves so harshly for this made-up misstep.

‘The gender pay gap doesn’t persist because you wrote “just” in a message or because you say “sorry” now and again’

The call to change the language of emails to be more direct is in tune with the call to change certain types of people – mostly, but not entirely, women – to suit the status quo of the workplace.

However, the gender pay gap doesn’t persist because you wrote ‘just’ in a message or because you say ‘sorry’ now and again. This is a systemic injustice that won’t be overcome with a strongly worded email.

In fact, all this advice does is give us yet another hill to climb. We need to check ourselves in every way to make sure it’s not our fault, instead of an unequal system that favours one type above all others. It’s exhausting and leaves little energy to tackle the real issues at hand.

There’s some ‘women in the workplace’ empowerment advice I have taken, but changing up my language is not one of them. To do so would be to constrain myself to someone else’s mould of how I should be, and that has just never been on my agenda.

Changing up your language won’t change the system. In fact, putting on the disguise of the ideal workplace archetype when it doesn’t fit – a sheep in wolf’s clothing, if you will – can have a rebound effect. Women who use more direct speech in their communications have often been written off as abrasive. Seems like it’s not really about the wording at all, is it?

‘We need to check ourselves in every way to make sure it’s not our fault, instead of an unequal system which favours one type above all others. It’s exhausting’

We won’t get equity in the workplace or otherwise until we open up to diverse ways of thinking, operating and communicating. To anyone who ever gave women in the workplace the advice that they should act more like the men to get ahead: your advice perpetuates the model that represses these women. Throw it in the bin.

Let’s stop pretending that people’s small acts and inoffensive day-to-day behaviours are what’s holding them back and own up to the systemic inequalities that are really keeping them from succeeding on merit.

Stop telling us what small changes we can make as individuals to break through a glass ceiling. Start thinking about why you are asking someone to change perfectly socially acceptable behaviour to fit into a fraught and aggressive business world that you so wholeheartedly accept.

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Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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