On the first day back at work after the holidays, I reread an email and deleted filler words—the usual culprits, including “I think,” “just,” and (my personal favorite verbal crutch) “no worries.” I’m not a huge believer in resolutions, but I decided to take advantage of the New Year to make a conscious effort to meter my words more carefully. Of course, I might have anticipated that 2016 would usher in “an app for that.”
Tami Reiss and a team at Cyrus Innovation created an app called “Just Not Sorry” to heighten awareness of the way women use qualifying language in professional communication. It’s a plug-in for Google Chrome that underlines trigger words found in your email, similar to a spell-checker. Scroll over the underlined word, and you’ll see a quick explanation as to why the word weakens your message. Reiss says, “We edit ourselves out, and we minimize ourselves. And these qualifiers we do because we’re afraid of coming off as too strong, when in reality, by adding them in, we’re making ourselves come off as weak.”
I agree that qualifying language in professional settings can undermine the fundamental meaning of a message. Undoubtedly, there are professional situations in which exaggerated qualifiers and overly cautious language can create confusion. Professional communication is challenging, and writing a clear email has become something of a rare art form. (Perhaps the true test of crafting an app to improve professional communication might be highlighting ambiguous instructions or simply banning all emails that end with “Thoughts?”)
In spite of these pitfalls, the notion that the use of qualifiers constitutes a professional weakness is inaccurate. One critical response from the Washington Post classifies the app as the latest product of an environment that is increasingly critical of women’s vocal patterns. The author goes on to insist that authority and gentle language are not necessarily at odds. In one compelling example, a female surgeon in a male-dominated specialty found befriending the nurses to be a much more effective means of communication than her male colleagues’ barking commands. Language that situates you as allies with your professional colleagues can cultivate a much more genial and productive work environment.
Reiss’ aim of reinforcing clear language is commendable, and her app is a creative addition to a web browser. (I thought of adapting the open source code to flag recurring words in my emails that I’m trying to excise from my vocabulary.) But surely in our quest for precise language, we need not abandon politeness, careful attention to our audience, and consideration of context. Qualifying words may express gentle consideration for other people’s agendas and concerns. Where these words promote tact and kindness in the workplace, let us use them freely.
It’s up to us to determine where these words fall short of conveying what we’re going for. As Reiss says in her essay for Medium, “The last thing you need is to seem unsure of yourself.” As a personal mantra for crafting clear emails, I’m adopting C. S. Lewis’ admonition: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no words left when you want to talk about something infinite.” In a similar vein of thought, my resolution for the New Year is to reserve my “sorry” and “no worries” for the occasions that truly merit them. If we continually use “sorry” when we’re not sorry, what words will we use when we truly are sorry? I want my words to have power not only to communicate authoritatively but also to heal, to comfort, and to foster kindness.
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