(opinions) Cool Girls

For those of you entrenched in the world of TikTok, you may be familiar with the subgenre of young women making fun of themselves for the overly excited, happy way they speak in the workplace. This video shows a young woman documenting her process of emailing a coworker with the caption, “Updating my email style to match my male colleagues.” She tweaks her draft by deleting several deferential words, which could seem inconsequential, but these edits transform her email from timid to commanding.

The comments section of the video is filled with statements from women who have had similar experiences: “I’ve started taking out (phrases) like ‘I think’ when I know for sure I’m right,” said one user. “I usually have to remove like 5 (exclamation points),” said another. 

TikTok’s success lies in its relatability. The algorithm magically concocts a stream of videos that align perfectly with not just your surface-level interests, but your thoughts and beliefs too. If this sounds alarming to you, you’re not alone — but for most people, any apprehension regarding the scarily accurate algorithm is quickly replaced by appreciation for the deep sense of community the app provides. The views and likes on this video prove just how relatable it is to most women, particularly the ending where the woman’s shaking hand betrays her confidence. We may not all share the experience of altering an email to be more direct, but we have all worried about how we are perceived by our peers. 

This TikTok makes two important points. The first is that women’s default mode of communication is to be overly friendly and non-confrontational, to ask questions instead of demanding answers and to avoid placing responsibility on anyone else (particularly men). Secondly, the video shows that it requires effort to unlearn these tendencies, and making that effort can be uncomfortable and daunting, evident by the creator’s shaking hand.

When we have these conversations about the difference in the way men and women speak at work or in school, the advice or goal is often the same: that women should have the confidence to speak more like men. 

“Every five years or so there’s some flare-up in the media about something women are doing in their speech that they need to stop doing,” said Dr. Abby Walker, linguistics professor at Virginia Tech. “It’s usually something like saying the words ‘just’ or ‘like’ too much, or using uptalk.”

Uptalk, according to Walker, is “when you say a statement that isn’t a question, but has a rising intonation; so because rising intonation is typically associated with questions, people hear (a statement) and think you’re asking a question.”

Women are told that excessive use of hedging words such as “just” and “like” conveys a lack of confidence in what is being said, and that by saying a non-question with an inquisitive tone, the speaker is subliminally communicating an awareness that what they’re saying could be false and that they wouldn’t mind being corrected. These linguistic choices are thought to soften their message, so naturally, if women want to be powerful, they believe they must ditch the language they’re comfortable with for a more direct, less friendly alternative. It’s true that women should be able to be as direct as men without judgment. But is the way men speak actually better for everyone?

The TikTok shows that there’s a drawback to the switch from timid to commanding: the first email was friendly and welcoming, while the second was emotionless and unpleasant. When people cut the “I think” from their statements and change all question marks to periods, it closes the door on discussion. 

“You could argue that it’s incredibly rational to say: ‘Here is my opinion; it is not a fact,’” Walker said. 

The people I dread working with are not those who cap their emails with multiple exclamation points, but those who can never admit mistakes and who refuse to open their minds to the perspectives of others. 

The latter group probably doesn’t use uptalk, and they’ve probably never felt the need to “soften” their statements with tag questions either, such as, “It’s cold outside, isn’t it?” People argue that if you know it’s cold outside, why weaken the statement with a question? But a question invites a response, and discourse is what runs a company — so perhaps stereotypically female speech patterns are more productive in the workplace. 

“If women are using (tag questions) more than men, then the interpretation is almost always that it’s something weak,” Walker said. “But what if it’s not? What if it’s social or friendly or engaging — all of these positive things?”

It’s good advice to avoid uptalk or tag questions if you’re a professor or if you’re a Ph.D. student presenting a dissertation, but in social settings, including the workplace, eliminating these linguistic choices from our lexicon will not benefit anyone.  

“Studies have shown that when the ‘likes’ are taken out of a recording, that people will rate the person as less friendly and less likable,” Walker said.

Maybe the way women soften their language isn’t always entirely logical or necessary, but it has a purpose. So why, then, do we continue to push this idea onto women that they need to change the way they use language? 

These instructions are well-intentioned: feminists know that when a woman is direct, she is called bossy or other demeaning terms, and they want to fight against that. They’re absolutely right to work toward this: women should be able to do everything men do and not be criticized any more than their male counterparts. As far as we have come in the fight for gender equality, we are not there yet, as one TikTok commenter shows. 

“I started (changing my email style to be more direct) and my boss called me into his office because the guys were complaining (that) I was being rude,” she said. 

But feminists are so accustomed to fighting for women to be able to do what men do that they might not have stopped to consider whether they should. Yes, women should be able to be direct and straight-faced without comment from their peers — but maybe instead of yet again inspecting women’s habits, we should start critiquing men, and encouraging men to be more like women. 

If men incorporated some deferential filler words and a few exclamation points, their coworkers might feel enabled to speak up and introduce new ideas that would further a project goal. Their subordinates might feel more encouraged and befriended, leading them to climb the ladder at their current company rather than defecting. Women are too scrutinized for their likability, but we shouldn’t forsake likability altogether. Instead of discouraging women from being personable, let’s encourage men to more likable and approachable  — and that starts with speech.