The Language Women Use in Business & What That Really Means

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Reading Time: 4 minutes 

The way women use language can sometimes be perceived as undermining their confidence. It’s something women have been conditioned to do and it’s a part of how they communicate.

Why Is This?

In a bid to appear less assertive, softer, not being a burden, they start inserting a myriad of words, that do them a complete disservice. All women do this at some stage and it can be circumstance dependent, but since it’s not commonly spoken about, they aren’t necessarily aware of how their choice of words impacts on their life.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how expert, how qualified or how senior a woman in the workplace or the business environment is, the same effects are still evident. Women are not aware of the negative impact it has in their careers and professional lives.

Confidence and how women (and men) are perceived is often subliminal and imperceptible. Confident people get those promotions, access to projects, support, financing and so much more. So, what happens when women are not putting themselves forward as confident? What happens when they undermine themselves consistently without even realising it? What happens when the choice of words expresses a lack of self-belief and imposter complex?

The answer: it manifests as being turned down for jobs, passed over for promotions, not getting access to the projects, not getting the financing…and the list goes on.

There are several factors that contribute to this perception:

  1. Hedging: Women tend to use more hedging or qualifiers in their speech, such as “I think,” “maybe,” or “sort of,” to soften their statements or appear less assertive. This can create an impression of uncertainty or lack of confidence. It connotes that they aren’t certain about what it is that they are saying and need validation from others.
  2. Apologising: Women often use apologies more frequently than men, even when it may not be necessary. Apologising unnecessarily can give the impression that a woman lacks confidence in her opinions or actions. We hear this in situations, e.g. I’m sorry, can I ask…do you mind if I…sorry but…
  3. Politeness: Women are often socialised to be more polite and accommodating in their speech, using phrases like “please” and “thank you” more frequently. While politeness is generally valued, it can sometimes be perceived as a lack of assertiveness or confidence. Now I’m all for manners and good etiquette, so this is about raising awareness of what is a good balance and making sure that women are not undermining themselves.
  4. Upward inflection: Women sometimes use upward inflection, or “uptalk,” at the end of their sentences, making statements sound like questions. This can make their speech appear less assertive or confident. Some accents do have a natural upward inflection, but in women it can make them seem like they are doubting themselves and looking for outward validations.
  5. Minimising achievements: Women often downplay their accomplishments or use self-deprecating humour as a way to avoid appearing boastful. While this may be a way to navigate social norms, it can inadvertently undermine their perceived confidence in their achievements. So here’s a reframe. If you’ve got accomplishments and accolades, then it’s not boasting to speak about them. If the information is factual, don’t be shy about sharing it across Linkedin, your social media and in meetings. Don’t be afraid to take credit for your input and your successes.
  6. Minimising the intrusion: This often shows up as ‘I’m just…’ That word ‘just’. I’m just checking in…I’ll just leave that with you…It’s heavily tied to point 2 in apologising for intruding on someone by email, by phone etc.

It’s important to note that these linguistic behaviours are not inherently indicative of a lack of confidence. As I mention above, no matter how much a woman is an expert, these linguistics patterns can show themselves. They can be influenced by societal expectations and unconscious biases. But the fact is that every time this undermining language is used, women lose out.

What’s the Antidote?

Firstly, it’s about women becoming aware of how they write and speak.

My advice is if women can engage a coach or have a trusted bestie, mention this to them and ask them to highlight any particular linguistics tendencies that may not be serving them. After a few times, the women will become aware and then they can start redefining their writing and speaking habits to back up just how confident and able they are.

Ask For Help

To close, I had a coaching client recently and the word ‘just’ was everywhere as she spoke to me. I asked her to re read her emails before sending them and to catch herself when saying it. She did so and texted me back the very next day to say her confidence had shot up exponentially as a result of this seemingly minor change. She hadn’t noticed how she was practically apologising for nearly everything!  That was the first step towards a positive change.


Keeping in Touch With NetworkingJean.ie

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Jean Evans
Jean Evans is an expert on all things networking. It is her passion, and one that is borne out of experience and plenty of trial and error, mistakes and mishaps. Through her blogs and social media channels, Jean shares tips, tricks, hacks and ideas on how to become an effective networker in business.

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