Un justified

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Deborah Cameron, "Just don't do it", language: a feminist guide 7/5/2015:

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article—mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence. This post was inspired by a case in point: a piece published last month in Business Insider, in which a former Google executive named Ellen Petry Leanse claimed that women overuse the word ‘just’.

Prof. Cameron makes an interesting analogy:

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’ […]

It bothers me that even feminists don’t seem to see the force of this analogy. When feminists encounter articles with headlines like ‘Are you eating too much fruit?’ or ‘Why implants are the new Botox’, they know they are in the presence of Beauty Myth bullshit, whose purpose is to make women feel bad about themselves. Feminists do not share those articles approvingly on Facebook. Yet a high proportion of my feminist acquaintance did share Leanse’s ‘just’ piece, and some of them shared the Jezebel commentary which appeared under the headline ‘Women, stop saying “just” so much, it makes you sound like children’. An article headed ‘Women, stop eating so much fruit, it makes you put on weight’ would immediately have raised their hackles.

This point is complementary to the question of whether the linguistic generalizations are even valid. In many cases, the assertions about usage, gender, and interpretation are empirically false. Certainly the claims about just are questionable at best (see "Just riffing", 6/29/2015; Kieran Snyder, "It’s just what you thought (except when it isn’t)", Jenga one week at a time, 7/1/2015).

The weak empirical foundation of such usage advice underlines the fact that its content is mostly ideological. It doesn't matter very much whether it's true, as long as it's felt to be morally instructive.



  1. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    This sounds like a battle of the straw men. "Women overuse the word 'just'" versus the "endless policing of women’s language".

  2. Stan Carey said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 11:48 am

    Deborah Tannen wrote about the double standard in You Just Don't Understand:

    Ways of talking associated with masculinity are also associated with leadership and authority. But ways of walking that are considered feminine are not. Whatever a man does to enhance his authority also enhances his masculinity. But if a woman adapts her style to a position of authority that she has achieved or to which she aspires, she risks compromising her femininity, in the eyes of others.

    She said that as a woman who had achieved a high level of professional status, she 'grapple[d] with this contradiction daily'.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

    The difference, which seems somewhat significant to me, is that in the context of language the advice is usually "do it the way the men do" (whether or not the perception of how the men do it is empirically accurate in any particular instance), whereas at least these days the advice on "what nail polish should I wear to appear professional in an office environment" is generally not "don't wear any, because the men in the office don't and imitating men in this regard is the best way to be taken seriously."

    And of course there is a vast popular advice literature encouraging self-improvement and professional advancement via self-conscious change of idiolect that has been aimed at a significantly if not predominantly male audience for a century or more – even if it's not aimed at men qua men as opposed to anyone whose native language variety is non-prestige in some relevant sense. The masses of people reduced to a state of nervous cluelessness because they've been told to avoid the passive but they're not quite sure what it is aren't only or (afaik) disproportionately female. Although since I believe it's a frequent claim in the sociolinguistics literature that men are disproportionately likely to use stigmatized/non-prestige forms, possibly as a form of self-assertion ("sticking to the Man" and/or not wanting to sound like some prissy teacher's pet), you could perhaps argue that the social-mobility-via-language-change message is in some sense targeted at males because they're the harder sell. (Thus the "do it the way the men do" advice referenced above is usually using one particular male subculture — typically high-achieving in a rather boring bourgeois and credentialist way — as the aspirational norm and ignoring the fact that other male subcultures follow different language-use norms and may actively disdain those of the particular subculture being treated as the one to emulate.)

  4. Rubrick said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    I'll offer the point that, while the "gender difference" angle is insidious and frequently bullshit, and encouraging people to constantly watch what they say is probably a counterproductive technique, it is clearly the case that how we speak affects how we're perceived, and that it's possible to hone this skill. There are people who make a living by being good at this; we call them "actors" (or occasionally news anchors or politicians, which is more or less the same thing).

    I think the unanswered question is how to discuss — and encourage — good speaking skills without devolving into "Stop using 'just'! Don't uptalk!". It's much easier to peeve about things that make a given speaker irritating than to explain why I'd do anything Sir Patrick Stuart asked.

    The same goes for writing, of course.

  5. Lane said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    And I wrote about the double-standard and "mansplaining" for The Economist, with Tannen as a key source.


  6. Peter Gerdes said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

    Unsurprisingly, looking for language differences based on what sexist stereotypes would suggest isn't a very good way to find usage differences. However, it's disappointing for people to go so far out of their way to insist there probably aren't differences when I think locating any actual differences would be quite interesting (probably wouldn't be of social significance and misunderstood if it was but interesting).

    I was particularly peeved to see the article talk about the percent of overlap in male/female linguistic abilities. It's something of a trick since the tails of a bell curve will have such a tiny fraction of the population anyway it would hide even a non-trivial difference in means.

    Given the still substantially different rolls our society favors for women and men (statistically speaking), humans homosocial preferences and the different mating incentives it would be shocking if we didn't find some differences in language use. Probably won't show up as much in professional settings so nothing like what all the fuss here is about but surely interesting.

    For instance, I'm exceedingly curious why people have the strong impression that women gossip way more than men despite evidence suggesting equal time spent on gossip topics. Is it really, as people self-report, that men don't show the verbal behavior when gossiping that we regarded as stereotypically gossipy?

    In any case I bet a bunch of interesting work has already been done looking at what differences in male/female speech patterns exist. If someone wants to provide a link I'd appreciate it.

  7. Peter Gerdes said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 10:14 pm

    Umm, n/m the request at the end of my last comment.

    I used the amazing new technology of clicking on the "language and gender" tag at the end of the post to find what I was looking for.

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