Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Weak words? Soft talk?
There it is, in the New York Times. Women have permission for soft talk.
“’Stop using weak language.’ If you’re a woman, you’ve probably gotten this advice from a mentor, a coach or a teacher. If you want to be heard, use more forceful language.”
“This advice may be well intentioned, but it’s misguided.”
Having been one of those mentors, coaches, or teachers, I’d like a word …
In his NYT Guest Essay, Dr. Adam Grant explains why “weak language” is beneficial for women. The gist is that when women are direct, strong, and straight-forward, they ruffle men’s feathers and wind up getting slapped down in the end.
Talking tentatively, Dr. Grant asserts, is a smart strategy to avoid the unjust repercussions that occur when we violate the stereotype that “men should be dominant and assertive, while women should be kind and caring.”
I’m not sure I’d call this dominant, but I am going to assert that we can be kind and caring and strong, self-confident, and capable. All at the same time! Imagine that!
The truth is, Dr. Grant makes some good points. I prefer “soft” as a descriptor for the disclaimers, hedges, and tag questions he labels “weak language.” I do agree there’s a time to strategically use all of them, no matter how assertive we might generally be.
The key is in that word “strategically.”
Soft language in service of a communication goal … you might think of it as verbal judo. And it works like a charm. Most people are more open to a position that incorporates some of their own thoughts. And they find a request more palatable if it doesn’t come off as a direct order, don’t you think? (Yes, “don’t you think?” is a tag question.)
A little hedging, a tag question, or a disclaimer like, “I might be wrong, but …” can make it a whole lot easier for the other person to pick up what we’re putting down. We usually have a better chance of enlisting someone in our cause if we put it to them gently rather than demand that they fall in line.
That’s what I mean by using soft language strategically. It’s not necessarily our default style—it’s a choice we’re making because it will help us accomplish our goal.
Interestingly, our former president has recently started using some softening language. The Bulwark points out that Donald Trump is hedging a bit now on his once-strong statements about 2020. Adding some qualifying words to his most recent posts. “I’m telling them that in my opinion the election was rigged.” “I believe I won that election by many, many votes…”
Whether the new qualifiers will help Trump accomplish his goals remains to be seen.
For the rest of us, consciously choosing to soften our statements and recommendations can be effective. That doesn’t mean being a doormat though.
I offer a couple of caveats in my coaching with clients, especially the women.
Language is only one of the communication modalities we use at any given time. They’re hearing our words and seeing our facial expression, noticing our gestures, reading our tone of voice. To say nothing of picking up our vibe, sensing our energy.
It’s worth considering the message we’re sending with the way we’re smiling—or not. With the way we make steady, direct eye contact … or study the rug.
Are we holding our body close and tight, with arms folded across our chest or hands clasped in our lap? Or is our body open and expansive, arms out, away from our body and hands in motion as we speak?
Is our voice tiny, tight, and strangled, as if we’re loathe to let our thoughts escape out into the world? Or are we breathing fully and deeply, speaking from our core so our voice emerges strong and resonant, with plenty of variety in tone to emphasize a point?
And what about that vibe or energy or aura? What is that saying, perhaps at the non-conscious level?
It all makes a difference in how we’re perceived.
Soft, conciliatory language can be persuasive for sure. I’d argue it’s most effective when delivered in a grown-up voice, with a face and a body that make it clear: “I’m owning my space. And my opinions. And I’m making room for yours.”
Note that I’m advocating “I own my space.” Not, “I’m trying to own your space.” There is a difference. We’re not talking about throwing our weight around here.
Adam Grant is right when he says it can be a problem for women when “people perceive them to be forceful, controlling, commanding and outspoken.” I learned that in my first radio gig, when my colleagues taped a scrawled sign on the door of my studio. It said, “Chief Bitch.”
In a perfect world, those people who react negatively to an outspoken woman would be moving past their outmoded thinking. This, of course, is not a perfect world.
So, we may have to accommodate those folks for the time being as we work toward a different understanding, as Dr. Grant says, “able to recognize the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.”
“Assertiveness is advocating for yourself,” in his view. “Aggressiveness is attacking others. Standing up for yourself isn’t pushy — it means you’re not a pushover. It’s not a selfish act but an act of self-preservation.”
Sounds pretty darn good, don’t you agree?