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Stop policing how women talk

Advising women to change their language contributes to conformity to masculine norms
Sarah Liu
Women often feel compelled to get rid of certain linguistic tendencies and phrases to talk more like men

It was like Grammarly with a twist.

A few months ago, during my usual routine of falling into a zombie-like state while mindlessly scrolling through TikTok on a Saturday afternoon, I stumbled across a video encouraging women to erase the word sorry from their vocabulary with the help of a Google Chrome Extension: Just Not Sorry. As the name implies, the extension helps the writer reduce their use of phrases that may undermine the writer’s confidence by underlining them in red. The creator of the extension, Tami Reiss, said her intent for her app was to help women apologize less. Now, I didn’t end up downloading the extension (probably because I was somewhat afraid that I would find red lines coloring every single one of my emails), but I did become more conscious of when and where I used the word sorry.

After a week, I found that sorry was indeed a part of my daily vocabulary, but not in the way I had expected. On most occasions, I didn’t apologize for a failure on my part, but instead, as a way to add a polite tone to making a request. For example, when I wanted to move in front of a classmate standing in front of me, I asked, “Sorry, can you move to the side?” Through my usage of the word sorry, I was able to make a firm request without coming off as annoyed. 

It’s these types of apologies that the app Just Not Sorry and other media are trying to help women eliminate from their everyday communication. Studies show that women say sorry more often than men, but not just for its dictionary definition. When we think of the word sorry, we usually think of the word as a way to make up for a failure, but we actually use this rhetoric in various ways. We may apologize to show empathy to others or to assert ourselves without demonstrating aggression. 

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Recently, there has been a rise in the popularity of the idea “stop saying sorry,” which advises women on becoming more successful in the workplace by changing the way they speak. For example, there have been multiple viral TikToks and articles that provide women with a list of words to use instead of sorry. The reasoning behind this is that apologizing to be polite undermines one’s confidence and underscores one’s insecurity.  Besides apologizing less, various business articles also recommend that women get rid of certain linguistic tendencies such as uptalk, the tendency to end a sentence with a rise in intonation, and vocal fry, a way of speaking that is low-pitched and is often characterized as rough, in order to seem more professional in the workplace. In fact, an article by Plos One found that young womens’ voices with vocal fry were viewed as less competent and less educated than those without.

But the issue with these pieces of advice is that when women are told to apologize less and get rid of uptalk to talk in a deeper pitch, they are, in essence, being advised to talk more like men. In the workforce, people infer that the “masculine way” is to be forceful, unapologetic and arrogant in all forms of communication. Subsequently, any deviation from that is inherently feminine and hinders success. 

These tips to empower women by changing the way they talk undoubtedly stem from good intentions. By talking more like men, women can find a method of self-preservation in a workforce that still largely supports a patriarchal system. But the rise in popularity of this mantra underlines a more significant problem of how masculine habits are often considered the default, constructing a narrative that women need to be more like men. Ultimately, telling women they need to change the way they speak to be successful only conforms to masculine norms. 

In the workplace, women are simultaneously told to apologize less if they’re not assertive enough and to be less domineering and bossy if they’re too assertive. It’s a situation where no outcome grants women the authority they deserve. So instead of telling women to change how they communicate, we should be changing the culture in which actions like showing empathy and saying sorry are seen as weak and undesirable. We should be creating a culture where women are respected in their professions no matter their style of speaking. 

Because these biases are heavily ingrained in the minds of many, change won’t happen immediately. However, as high schoolers, we are the next generation to enter the workforce, and thus have the opportunity to make the most significant changes to this culture. Instead of telling women to apologize less, we should teach everyone that it’s OK to apologize. 

While a change in language may indeed help amplify women’s voices, it does not truly address the root problem. The problem is that the presence of women in the workforce, which includes their linguistic trends, has yet to be normalized. 

Empowerment doesn’t just mean uplifting women to be confident and authoritative. It also means uplifting women to be comfortable in their own skin, in the way they dress and in the way they communicate. Ultimately, women should talk the way they feel most comfortable, whether that includes “sorry” in their vocabulary or not. 

It’s time we realize that saying sorry is nothing to be sorry for. 

This story was originally published on El Estoque on March 24, 2023.