The latest innovation to capitalize on the insecurity of women isn’t another cosmetic or diet product; in fact, it’s aimed at empowerment. “Just Not Sorry” is an email extension that aims to “strengthen” the speech of women by removing “undermining” vocabulary from their emails, or rather, underlining phrases like “I’m sorry,” and “I think,” as if they were misspelled. To its supporters, “Just Not Sorry” is a way of helping women appear more confident. But it’s drawn some backlash, and for good reason: how is it empowering to add something to the laundry list of things women are told they should be insecure about and consciously work to compensate for? Moreover, isn’t it problematic to attribute these vocal tics exclusively to women, thus implying that men are somehow the more well-spoken sex, immune from the throes of “um”’s and vocal fry? And is it fair to write off these vocal tics as something that’s exclusively negative, when there’s evidence from linguists that suggests that young women’s vocal fads have a tendency to be adopted into the vernacular?
Maybe there’s something to be said about the positive effect of women communicating differently than men. Maybe we’ve adapted to use “just” and “I’m sorry” so that we can communicate more effectively, so that we can share our ideas without being perceived as too aggressive, or worse, too bitchy. It’s as if women have to comply to this impossible standard of not speaking too masculinely, lest they come off abrasive, but not too femininely, at the risk of sounding weak. Of course, to put these questions on the table, one has to assume that these issues plague the majority of women more so than they do the majority of men, which is a bold assumption to make in the first place, and something I’m personally inclined to regard as false.
Apologizing a lot in one’s speech is a topic very close to my heart. In fact, it was the first thing I wrote about for The Rock. Regardless of whether or not I want to get rid of this habit, I don’t think society’s criticism of how women speak is productive. Telling someone that they need to talk differently is the opposite of empowering. The fact is, other people don’t get to tell me how to be empowered. My empowerment should come from my right to speak uniquely, as a female, without being subject to criticism or having my intelligence called into question based on the tone of my voice. I want to live in a world where my speak can be filled with the “like”’s and “Valley Girl” lift I’ve grown accustomed to and still have people focus on what I’m saying, not the way I’m saying it or how my voice sounds.
The reality is that it’s already terrifying enough for young women to speak up in business and academic settings, and we aren’t really doing anyone any favors by putting that speech under further scrutiny. Maybe there isn’t something inherently wrong with the way women communicate. If you want to empower young women and create a culture where they can speak without fear of scrutiny or not being heard, don’t start by criticizing the way they speak. Listen to what they’re saying. Help them become confident with talking in the way they’re accustomed to. Don’t base your judgment of their intelligence on their voice. Stop policing their voices.