Just riffing

« previous post | next post »

Ellen Leanse, "'Just' Say No", women2.0 2/17/2014 (republished as "Un'Just'", LinkedIn 5/15/2015, and  "Google and Apple alum says using this one word can damage your credibility", Business Insider 6/25/2015 — the quotes are from the Business Insider version):

A few years back I noticed something: the frequency with which the word "just" appeared in email and conversation from female co-workers and friends.  I first sensed this shortly after leaving Google and joining a company with a high ratio of female to male employees. […]

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn't like. It was a "permission" word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking "Can I get something I need from you?"  

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a "child" word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the "parent" position, granting them more authority and control. And that "just" didn't make sense.

She reports a little experiment:

So I ran a test in the real world.  

In a room full of young entrepreneurs, a nice even mix of men and women, I asked two people — a guy and a girl — to each spend three minutes speaking about their startups. I asked them to leave the room to prepare, and while they were gone I asked the audience to secretly tally the number of times they each said the word "just."  

Sarah went first. Pens moved pretty briskly in the audience's hands. Some tallied five, some six. When Paul spoke, the pen moved … once. Even the speakers were blown away when we revealed that count.  

We can easily check her hunch numerically on a larger sample of conversational speech — though not from "young entrepreneurs". In the Switchboard Corpus of transcribed telephone conversations, female speakers used the word just 12,285 times in 1,615,233 words, for a rate of 7.6 per thousand, whereas male speakers used just 9,997 times in 1,644,076 words, for a rate of 6.1 per thousand.

For a sample of informal written text, we can look at the PPC Facebook Corpus, where female participants used just 934,319 times in 219,774,851 words, for a rate of 4.25 per thousand. Male participants used just 487,831 times in 112,841,213 words, for a rate of 4.32 per thousand.

This is far from a strong confirmation of Ms. Leanse's hunch. And we can see what might be going wrong if we look at how just is actually used in these sources. A more-or-less random sample from the Switchboard Corpus:

not just merely had a farm but had ten children had a farm ran everything because her husband was away in the coal mines and you know facing that situation it it's quite a dilemma i think

it was probably one of the most strengthening things for our family
getting down together and doing that and and just the children were involved in the decision because it involved just them

yeah just because they're grandparents that doesn't automatically make them a good child carer

right that's just a matter of defining priorities i guess

uh-huh yeah t- t- tell me about it i just got rid of a a diesel engine Escort
well i um i i had good luck with [it] until it finally just blew up on me here a few weeks ago

the people that were doing it it was just a racket to them

i'm still astounded that that uh one they let anyone do them and two that they have any effectiveness whatsoever um because i'm usually so insulted by them i just hang up as soon as i recognize what they are

yeah we get the full benefits but we've just really got a wonderful system that we're working under

In none of these examples, it seems to me, is just plausibly seen as "a 'child' word", that serves to "put the conversation partner into the 'parent' position".

Dictionaries support the view that self-belittling uses of just (the adverb) are far from the dominant case. Thus the M-W entry gives only the glosses

1 a :  exactly, precisely <just right>
_b :  very recently <the bell just rang>

2 a :  by a very small margin :  barely <just too late>
_b :  immediately, directly <just west of here>

3 a :  only, simply <just last year> <just be yourself>
_b :  quite, very <just wonderful>

4 :  perhaps, possibly <it just might work> — just about :  almost <the work is just about done>

The American Heritage Dictionary gives the adverbial glosses

Precisely; exactly: just enough salt.
Only a moment ago: He just arrived.
By a narrow margin; barely: just missed being hit; just caught the bus before it pulled away.
At a little distance: just down the road.
Merely; only: just a scratch.
Simply; certainly: It's just beautiful!
Perhaps; possibly: I just may go.

The "only", "merely" and "perhaps" senses might sometimes be "child words", but by no means always, it seems to me.

The Oxford English Dictionary gets around to some perhaps-relevant usages under sense 6.c. of the entry for just adv.:

6. Used to place the focus on a particular word or phrase.
a. No less than; absolutely; actually, positively, really. In weakened sense: neither more nor less than, no other than; simply, merely.

2006   Build It May 46/1   It is such a simple structure, just a set of A-frames and purlins for the roof and a couple of pillars.
2004   J. McCourt Queer Street viii. 138   We taxi over from Kismet just to watch them—they're fantastic!
2011   C. Zimmer Planet of Viruses 13   Human rhinoviruses certainly impose a burden on public health, not just by causing colds but by opening the way for more harmful pathogens.
2011   New Yorker 10 Oct. 107/1   Jake. Jake. Jake. I can't say it enough. I just love the sound of his name.

b. colloq. Used to emphasize the action expressed by a verb in exhortations, instructions, threats, exclamations, etc.

2004   J. Wilson Diamond Girls 19   You're getting way too lippy, madam. Just you watch it.

c. Used to weaken the force of the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as unimportant.

1826   B. Disraeli Vivian Grey I. ii. xvii. 266   I'll just walk on, till I'm beneath her window.
1912   R. F. Scott Jrnl. Mar. in Last Exped. (1913) I. xx. 592   It was blowing a blizzard. He [sc. Captain Oates] said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
1955   E. Tarry Third Door v. 69   We don't want to get you in no trouble with the white folks, but could you just show us how to write a letter?
1995   .net June 77/1   You should be able to view GIF images automatically in all Web browsers by just clicking on the image.

d. colloq. (chiefly Brit.). Used parenthetically to strengthen an assertion, a response, or (now usu.) a rhetorical question (usu. a negative one): certainly, definitely, indeed.

1943   K. Tennant Ride on Stranger iv. 37   ‘I don't believe you'd do that anyway yourself. Just grab money.’ ‘Wouldn't I just,’ her mentor said exultantly.
1969   P. O'Brian Master & Commander (1970) xi. 355   Oh, if I had his cullions in my hand, wouldn't I serve him out, just?
2010   J. McGregor Even Dogs (2011) iii. 63   Ben made sure the job got done. Didn't he just.

So to sum it all up, Ms. Leanse's specific lexical advice will probably not be helpful:

[M]aybe now that you've read this, you'll heighten your awareness of that word and find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known.

In other words, help take the "J Count" down. Take the word out of your sentences and see if you note a difference in your clarity — and even the beliefs that fuel the things you say.

It's actually easy, once you start paying attention. Like it?

If so, then, to riff Nike: well … "Do it."

Finding "clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known" is a good idea. Avoiding the word just, on the whole, is unlikely to be an effective means to that end.

[Though I should add, echoing Terry Hunt's comment below, that things may be different in the tech-business context Ms. Leanse is writing about.]

An irrelevant lexicographical note — the cited article has two examples of riff as a transitive verb ("to riff Transactional Analysis"; "to riff Nike"), where "to riff X" apparently means "to improvise on a theme by X", or "to use an expression inspired by X", or maybe just "to approximately quote X".

This is an innovation, I think — COCA has 130 instances of "riff on", and 4 instances of "riff off of", etc., but no examples (as far as I could tell, of transitive riff.

It's a useful extension — I can't think of another word with exactly that meaning. I wonder whether there are other examples out there, and whether it'll catch on.



  1. ajay said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 8:26 am

    The 18th century poet who wrote this about the Strand in London:
    In Craven Street, Strand, ten attorneys find place,
    And ten dark coal barges are moor'd at its base;
    Fly, Honesty, fly! seek some safer retreat,
    For there's craft in the river, and craft in the street.

    provoked this reply:
    Why should Honesty fly to some safer retreat
    From attorneys and barges, God rot 'em?
    For the lawyers are just at the top of the street
    And the barges are just at the bottom.

  2. Terry Hunt said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 9:56 am

    I just want to say that I think Ms Leanse may be on to something in the very specific context she describes: business milieux in which the speaker may sometimes be approaching someone external to the business to ask a favour of sorts, and at other times be collaborating with in-house peers.

    The business I work in carries out tests on and repairs to equipment often sited on the land or premises of third-party 'Site Providers'. My colleagues who plan the visits to sites (which number something of the order of 100,000) often have to phone Site Providers to apprise them of this necessity and arrange a date and time, and so frequently begin with the words "I'm just calling to . . . ." that they make me wince. In this circumstance their supplicatory approach utilising OED sense 6 c. as above is appropriate.

    However, if the same self-deprecatory "just" is over-used in ordinary in-office conversation, it comes across to me as unnecessary, and almost as cringing. Ms Leanse's personal observation that this use of "just" is gender weighted, and her suggestion that minimising it by women, in a business-presentational context, would benefit their standing, sound at least plausible. Independent corroboration would, as I think the OP implies, require a more focussed analysis than that obtainable from whole-corpus counts.

  3. Brett said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 10:31 am

    I am mystified that anyone would have this reaction to "just." I wonder whether there's a particular usage in Leanse's social group that she has noticed—one which isn't so common in the general population.

  4. Vance Koven said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

    I haven't seen mention of another sense of "just" that seems to have been trending in recent years (decades?), and that's the conversation-stopping sense, as in "just do it!" or "just say no!" No back-talk, no temporizing, comments are off, go do as you're told.

  5. Lance said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    Harder to quantify on a search, but: I'm imagining the usage that Leanse observes is MW's definition 3a, "only, simply ". Specifically, because this has the same semantics/pragmatics as "only", it puts the sentence at the bottom of a scale, and in particular the scale is one of importance. Thus,

    (1a) No, I understand why you made that decision, but I just feel like no one listens to my ideas.
    (1b) Our startup is just trying to improve the telecommunications industry.

    set up the presupposition that "me feeling like no one listens to my ideas" or "improving the telecommunications industry" is something unimportant, and those aren't presuppositions that a speaker really wants to convey. It sounds–and technically is–strong to say

    (2a) No, I understand why you made that decision, but I feel like no one listens to my ideas.
    (2b) Our startup is trying to improve the telecommunications industry.

    So what she's seeing as putting the speaker in a "child" role–which might make sense as a Transactional Analysis riff, I don't know anything about TA–is in fact doing so because the speaker is saying "The idea or feeling I'm expressing isn't very important". My suspicion is that it occurs most frequently with "I", and perhaps with verbs like "think" or "feel" or "want"; possibly that's something that one could search for in a corpus, though I'm working very much on impressions.

  6. Eli Nelson said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

    @Lance: I agree with you that this is the use of "just" Leanse is referring to. However, I'm not convinced that it damages a speaker's credibility or conversational status.

    There are ways of using "just" aggressively as well as deferentially. If you say something like, "I'm just proposing A," the implication can be that that "A" is a reasonable or conservative approach, and that it would be unreasonable to object to it. There's nothing special about the particular word "just" either as far as I can see; equivalent formulations might use the word "only" or "All I'm saying is…"

  7. KevinM said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    Hey, don't rain on the just.

  8. Malibu Stacy said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

    Don't ask me, I'm just a girl!

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    FWIW I recall hearing a similar-yet-different peeve about over-use of a similar sense of "just" about 25 years ago. The rather different context was religion rather than business, and the complaint was about a particular style of extemporaneous prayer offered by some Evangelical clergyman (who thought that free-style improvising was more sincere and spiritually pure than reading prayers from a prepared text), and the claim was that such clergymen (maybe some female clergy as well but it was definitely not a gendered peeve) would stereotypically say things like "Lord, we just want to give thanks to you this morning for just all of the special gifts you've blessed us with" blah blah blah.

    I think the critique was a mix of Omit Needless Words and a worry that this was too informal a register (obviously, what register is appropriate for public prayer is itself a theological question on which there is no consensus). But on further reflection it seems like a real criticism was available to be made, that would run something like this: 1) this usage of "just" is not completely meaningless but it's often a low-content filler word; 2) an unusually high rate of low-content filler words in a given discourse can be taken as a sign that the speaker is not only not working from a prepared text, but isn't really thinking ahead as he/she speaks; to the contrary, he/she is launching into new sentences without having figured out where they're going to end up; and 3) speaking without thinking through what you're going to say at least a sentence or two in advance may in some contexts be plausibly interpreted as a sign of disrespect for your audience (whether human or divine) and/or lack of preparation for the occasion. It is possible to use an informal or folksy or intimate register and still sound like you've thought about what you're going to say before you say it, but overuse of this usage of "just" is unhelpful for doing so.

    I have no idea whether this analysis could adequately account (as an alternative to the "Transactional Analysis" one) for some of the instances that struck Leanse as problematic in terms of undermining the speaker's authority/credibility, but it might be worth considering.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    And to connect the dots to the gender issue, there's a voluminous sociolinguistics literature on gendered differences in register etc., and a business situation where females and males might have differing views as to what register is or isn't contextually appropriate is a recipe for potential trouble. More extreme situations (e.g.. a certain level of on-the-job use of obscenities was socially acceptable among colleagues in a particular business when it was an all-male workplace: does the arrival of female colleagues mean that the men need to clean up their language, or that the women should intentionally swear to try to fit in by sounding like "one of the boys," or some third thing?) will at least create tensions that the participants can probably identify without having ever taken a sociolinguistics class, but more subtle situations where people have different baseline expectations about how people should position their speech on e.g. a formality/informality axis or a seeming-prepared/seeming-spontaneous axis can lead to situations where people are rubbing each other the wrong way via their language use but necessarily can't figure out why.

  11. Rubrick said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    A specific manifestation of this which I've noticed (and sometimes been peeved by if I'm feeling irrational) is in the following common exchange: "I'm sorry, I interrupted you." "Oh, I was just going to say…." It seems to be a bit of a fixed phrase. It definitely has a feel of apology to it. And I'd be willing to bet is skews female, though it would be a very small wager.

    Sadly, I run into this more than my share since I do more than my share of interrupting. :-(

  12. maidhc said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 3:56 am

    I just want to concur with J. W. Brewer. This is something I have definitely observed over a number of years in conservative Christian circles where extemporized prayer is the norm. The before-mealtime "Lord, we just want to thank you for bringing us together on this day …" is a typical thing. It's not just clergy but ordinary people who pray at home. Given the social context, it's mostly men who do it.

    It may be just another version of the apologetic approach: "Sorry, Lord, I realize that, as an omnipresent omniscient being, you have many demands on your time, but I would just like to request that you pay a little attention to us for a second, OK?" Or like Terry Hunt's business calls: "Lord, I'm just praying to ask for some help with Cousin Joe Bob …"

  13. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 6:24 am

    In my job as a schoolteacher, the word "just" is the one that irritates me most. Children use it all the time in their excuses: "I was just…", etc. Quite often I retort that "just" is a naughty word, in the hope that they might use it less often in the future.

  14. Ron said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    If the self-deprecating use of "just" is so thoroughly gender-specific, why wouldn't listeners take it as a semantically neutral marker for a female speaker and not as a valenced comment on the credibility, salience, etc. of the statement? It seems at least as plausible to consider it a feature of discourse for women of a certain class or culture along the lines of the use of rising intonation at the end of a declarative sentence.

    In fact, I think Leanse's argument would be stronger if all speakers used "just" as a "permission word" and most of the speakers who used it happened to be women. I don't think that's what she is saying, though.

  15. Jenny said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

    I've never noticed a gender bias. Everyone seems to do this when they want to make things sound simple and easy.

    I used to watch Food TV, and some speakers loved to use "just" along with "a little." It was hard not to notice. Every sentence had the same form: "I'm just going to add a little salt to this," "I'm just going to turn up the heat a little," "I'm just going to do a little mixing until it's smooth." It appeared that the speakers were trying to make things sound simple, so the audience wouldn't be intimidated.

    Salespeople seem to use the word "just" when they want something from me, either in person or on the phone. "I just have a quick question," "Could I just talk to you for a minute," "I just want to show you something," "I just need a moment of your time." It doesn't always mean they want permission. It mostly seems to mean that they don't want me to object to the interruption because it was so small as to be hardly any trouble.

    So to me, the word "just" means that someone wants to downplay something's complexity or level of intrusion.

  16. Vireya said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    But then there's, "I'm just a housewife." which maybe women don't say any more, but it used to be the common response to the question, "What do you do?".

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

    @Ron: yes, she seems to be working from the premise "there are gendered differences in language use" (which is certainly true in lots of instances even if not adequately established here) to the conclusion "women should self-consciously abandon characteristically female patterns of language use and instead adopt characteristically male patterns." Which is not the *only* potential solution to the problem, if there is indeed a problem. And bonus points for (gratuitously?) characterizing the allegedly characteristically female pattern as child-like!

  18. Kieran Snyder said,

    July 2, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    I started writing about this before I realized that Mark had also done so. I didn't look at gender, but I did make a quick look at prevalence of the dictionary glosses in a Google corpus. At least in my quick (400 example) corpus, only 9% of the "just" instances contain that usage that Leanse is associated with gender.


    I totally understand the patterns of gendered language she's describing in tech and I believe she's really observing them; also I believe this is causing her massive selection bias when it comes to hearing the word "just" in this narrow usage.

  19. Tom V said,

    July 2, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

    From Chao Yuen-ren:
    The rain, it falls upon the just
    and also on the unjust fella,
    but mostly on the just because
    the unjust's got the just's umbrella.

  20. Mark S said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 5:56 am

    I'd just(!) like to echo maidhc's comment about "just" in extempore Christian prayer. It also occurs in some contemporary songs: "I just want to praise You …" I get the impression, though, that ironically, it's more of an intensifier than an apology, expressing strength of feeling, as in "It's just … so beautiful!" or "I'm just so amazed!" Perhaps the sense of "I just want to praise You" and similar comes from "I don't want to do anything else now but praise You".

  21. drive-by commenter said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    Ajay, #1: Those verses are from the 19th century. The first is by James Smith, Solicitor to the Ordnance, elder brother of Horatio Smith, and joint author with him of Rejected Addresses. The second is by Sir George Rose.

RSS feed for comments on this post