Today I want to focus my thoughts to talk about women – or language used about women, and used by women, specifically.
Did you see how many people turned out for the #WomensMarch across the world in January? Of course you did. In fact, some of you (I’m looking at you, Lu) marched yourselves. Aside from the ginormous issues that challenge us (I won’t go into them here today, but I certainly will in future), I think there are lots of small but pervasive issues that challenge us every day in quieter ways. One such issue that I’ve been thinking about is the language we use about women, and the language that women use ourselves when we’re at work, at home or even chatting to our children.
So, let’s talk about that.
I should add right from the outset, that this is not solely an issue about women. In fact, it’s a conversation I’ve had with Lee because I notice that he uses some of this language about himself, (the likes of which I’ve highlighted below, as you’ll see as you keep reading) and I’ve noticed some of my male colleagues use it too. But, for the most part, it is something I see women doing over and over again, and at a time when the President of the United States can brag about grabbing a woman by the pussy and still be the President (???!?!??!!!!), it feels right to draw the link between women and this language specifically.
So, here we go…
The words we use about women
If we take a moment to think about the connotations of certain words, and the contrasting pictures they evoke, we’ll notice that the female equivalent of a term conjures up a negative image. For instance, bachelors are fairly cool, independent men, right? After all, ‘bachelor pads’ are desirable and kind of alluring. But what’s the female equivalent of a bachelor? A spinster. An unwanted or somehow undesirable woman who is ‘past her prime’ or left on the shelf.
Or, take ‘master’. A word that implies someone who is commanding or particularly adept at something. But the female equivalent? Well, it’s ‘mistress’. A word that instantly makes us think of the woman our husbands/boyfriends have secret, sexual relationships with – someone we loathe or pity (or perhaps even both).
I don’t think these words are deliberately used today to put women down, but rather are pejoratives that have evolved over time, arising and changing against particular social conditions. But, we still them today without knowing or intending their true or original meaning. Spinsters were, literally, women who spun materials such as wool. Mistresses were women in control, in positions of authority.
Next, take stock of the insults and swear words you know. Think of the most derogatory put-downs you’ve heard other people use or used yourself. For the purpose of writing them here, I’ll go for the tamer variety; you know – pussy, bitch, slut or whore, for example. These are just a few (and of course there are more), but you’ll notice that they either centre around sexual behaviour, an association between ‘weakness’ and femininity (particularly if the insult is addressed to a man), or the practice of reducing women to animals.
We’ve all heard little boys telling their mate to “stop being such a girl” or heard a grown man tell his friend to “stop being such a pussy”. Equally however, I’ve heard (and myself said) the equivalent in reverse, saying things like “uh, he’s such a dick!”, which serves to reinforce the point that we shouldn’t be making insults out of genitals. It seems such a small thing, but it speaks volumes, doesn’t it?
The words we use ourselves
But the worst thing? It’s the language we use ourselves. The language that’s clean and simple, non-sweary, everyday and common.
For example, how many times did you speak to a work colleague last week and begun with “I just wanted to ask you” or “I’m just emailing you to say…”?
Truth be told, I’ve thrown a ‘just’ in there to soften a request, a question or a direction many a time. In fact, I must have said ‘just’ at least five times last week, and that’s because my good manners and desire to be liked is overwhelmingly strong.
But that desire to be liked (or not be demanding) is demeaning, isn’t it? Granted, adding ‘just’ has its place sometimes (and I’m mindful of the fact there’s an added layer of complexity here in the fact that I and many of you are British; as a nation we’re generally keen good manners and not imposing ourselves on others). But on the whole, it’s not a necessary word.
So, here are a handful of words I want to point out to you in the hope you’ll become more aware of the impact of your choice of words.
“I’m just checking in”, “I was just wondering” or “could you just?”. We’re trying to be polite, I know, but we’re being so deferential – something that isn’t always appropriate or effective if you have a requirement or a request. Don’t diminish what you want. If politeness is important, why not just add ‘please’ to the end of your request?
Swap it for: A simple “I need to know” or “Please would you”. There’s no need for ‘just’.
If you’ve done something wrong, you need to apologise, right? So we should be quick to say sorry if we’ve actually messed up. But, saying “sorry!” because we’re already at the microwave while someone’s waiting for it? Not necessary. “Oops, sorry!” because we’re moving through a doorway and someone has to wait for us? Not necessary!
Swap it for: “Thank you for waiting”. Because that’s what you actually mean, right?
“I can’t fit in that extra work” or “I can’t meet you for dinner” suggests that you’re capable of doing something, but simply don’t have the skill or desire to pull it off.
Swap it for: I won’t. “I won’t be able to complete that unplanned work” or “I won’t be available to meet you for dinner” feels intimidating to use at first, but it asserts your agency, respects your limitations and makes people feel less resentful.
Does that make sense?
When you’re talking to a colleague or chatting to a client, asking “does that make sense?” feels like a way of being polite. And I know what you mean by it. But what you’re actually doing is asking that person to validate what you’ve said, or reassure you that you haven’t just word-vomited all over them.
Swap it for: “Do you need to ask me any questions?”. Because again, that’s what you actually mean, isn’t it?
Did you solve an issue at work? Go out of your way to pick something up for your partner? Go the extra mile for your family member? When they thank you, try to not let “no problem” slip out – in doing that, you’re diminishing the value of the effort you’ve put in, or worse, implying that their gratitude is unwarranted.
Swap it for: A simple “you’re welcome”. It’s a polite way of acknowledging a person’s thanks while recognising that what you did has value.
When describing something and you preface it with “It’s sort of about…” or “This is kind of”, it makes you sound uncertain. You sound as though you lack confidence in yourself, or in the idea you’re presenting.
Swap it for: …. nothing. There’s no need for a ‘sort of’ or a ‘kind of’. You know your stuff.
I’m certainly guilty of using these words all the time, but since spending a little bit of time writing this post and thinking about the words I hear women using (or use myself), I’m making a deliberate effort to communicate differently.
I also want to tell you that I’m all for politeness. I’m the ultimate people-pleaser and peace-keeper (seriously – conflict makes my heart thud and I like to be liked… who doesn’t?), but I believe there are ways to communicate that don’t require you to diminish yourself at all. It’s more complex than this post covers (I haven’t even touched upon body language, or how things change depending on who you’re interacting with), but I hope it’s given you some food for thought.
Do you use any of these words without realising the impact it’s having on how you’re perceived, or how you feel about yourself? Are there any other words you think women should be particularly aware of? And finally, how often do you hear men using these words? Lee and I agree that using these words is something we both need to monitor in ourselves, and I’m interested to know what you think about that.