Just Not Sorry is a new Chrome extension that highlights and removes certain “self-demeaning phrases” from your emails. Among the words to get the boot: “just,” “sorry,” “I think,” and “I’m no expert.” It’s meant to solve the supposed problem of women’s verbal self-sabotage, but there’s just — yes, that’s right, just — one problem: women’s language is not the contentious issue here. Rather, it’s our reaction to their language that is truly problematic.
But first, the facts.
Women’s speech patterns differ from men’s, thanks to differences in socialization. We encourage girls to use their words instead of their fists — which is honestly something that everyone should do — but then we do some pretty messed-up, backward BS. Like criticizing the female sex as a whole for talking too much, even though women actually talk less than men. Or teaching girls and young women to defer in an effort to avoid being “bossy,” then insisting that they do the exact opposite in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. And, hey, we’ll even give you an app to help you fix your broken, broken speech, young lady.
Look, this isn’t a new trend. Valley Girls. Upspeak. Vocal fry. “Like.” Pick a decade and you’ll find one verbal tic or another that’s the supposed scourge of women’s credibility. But if the sexes have different speech patterns, it stands to reason that men have just as many linguistic quirks as women. And they do; we just don’t talk about them.
Male actors — such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, William Shatner, and Christopher Walken — have made entire careers out of their verbal tics. When women like Zooey Deschanel and Lena Dunham speak differently than the “norm,” they’re pegged as bad influences who undermine impressionable young women.
And, as Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert points out, men also regularly participate in “women’s” speech trends. We ignore this, of course, because men are the norm. They set it. That’s why you’ll never see an article about the verbal tics men should abandon immediately, even though they’re legion: catcalling, “bro,” disregarding women’s statements until they repeat them as their own, “no homo,” #NotAllMen, etc. Sure, you might see one article or another criticizing these phenomena, but you won’t see them labeled as linguistic quirks.
For women, navigating the world without being undermined by their own speech is a rigged game. To use “feminine” language sets oneself up to be viewed as unreliable, insincere, and incompetent, but a woman who substitutes “masculine” patterns will inevitably be perceived as bossy, pushy, and even bitchy. The precarious game of gender judo begins when she tries to reconcile the reality that, although the rampant policing of women’s speech is an injustice, behaving as if that injustice does not exist because it should not exist almost guarantees failure.
Ask anyone who received an email from me during my first grown-up job search, and they’ll tell you that I was overly polite. I answered Hi Kristian with Dear Ms. Smith until instructed to do otherwise. I had been taught to use formal language in professional writing, even in conversations that would be much more casual carried out in person, and I stayed true to my lessons. The thing is, my education was somewhat outdated.
That’s not to say that you should open your cover letter with Wassssssup? We haven’t come that far. But you should understand that it’s quite common to open an email with Hi Sarah, and to proceed in a conversational tone, at least in my line of work. Over-apologizers and serial-deferrers will find themselves in unfamiliar territory here, but who doesn’t? To enter the workforce — or a doctoral program, a different field, a new position — is to blaze a new trail, after all.
Which brings us back to Just Not Sorry. If you frequently use “self-demeaning phrases” and haven’t learned how to change them out for more assertive language, Just Not Sorry could be the tool you need to write and speak mindfully. Self-editing is a valuable skill in any field, and it’s one that only comes through experience. Using assertive language does lend an air of competence and authority, double standard or no. So, if an app will ultimately make you more successful, you should probably use it.
As The Mary Sue‘s Teresa Jusino points out, at the end of the day, this Chrome extension is just that — no more, no less. It’s a tool to be used by those who want it and disregarded by any who don’t. While I take issue with its role in a culture that vilifies women’s speech, I cannot deny that many people — men and women alike — could benefit from its use. That being said, no one needs it, because the linguistic patterns it corrects are not cracks in proper language.