The new Chrome app Just Not Sorry is aimed specifically at helping women check the emails they are sending to highlight weak or filler words and phrases.
It’s a useful enough business tool but it’s something of a shame (see what I did there?) that the app focuses on women, and that the debates which it has sparked replay familiar ideas about women’s behaviour and position in the workplace.
The app, which was developed by Cyrus Innovation as part of its Female Founder initiative, highlights words and terms in emails such as:
- It’s just that
- I’m only suggesting
- It’s possible that
- Does that make sense?
The idea is that these expressions undermine the authority of your communication and weaken the impact of your message.
The app encourages you to delete the highlighted words and assess the effect of your edited missive. In most cases, the doctored email will be more direct and more effective.
The focus is on perceived female characteristics such as self-effacement, lack of assertiveness and a fatal desire to please, all of which prevent women from rising to the top of organisations.
Of course, there is an element of truth in this view, but discussions that place men/women in binary opposition serve only to reinforce stereotypes and encourage women to see themselves in subservient roles, always the tea-maker, never the tea tycoon.
The fact is that all of us could benefit from taking a fresh look at our written communication.
We exchange hundreds of emails, asking for information, giving information, giving instructions, making and altering arrangements, giving suggestions, rejecting ideas, telling us something good, telling us something we don’t want to hear.
People who back in the day would rarely have been required to put pen to paper now have to put things in writing all the time.
The combination of lack of time and lack of confidence in the complicated arena of vocabulary, syntax, grammar and tone results in forms of words which convey their basic meaning but which often undermine the message we hope we are sending about ourselves (or don’t even realise we are sending).
When you write that you are ‘sorry to bother’ someone, you feel you are being polite. You know you are not apologising from the bottom of your heart for pointing something out or asking a question. But the apologetic tone of phrases such as this make you appear lacking in confidence.
No matter what your gender or where you stand in the work hierarchy, the trick is to find a form of words which is appropriate, pleasant, direct and unambiguous.
I hope you don’t mind me making this suggestion
Here’s a suggestion for you to consider
I’m sorry to ask you to do this again
I need to ask you to do this again
If that’s a bit strong for you, try
I’m afraid I need to ask you to do this again.
It’s a bit softer, and you avoid the ‘s’ word)
Sorry, I don’t agree with..
I don’t agree with..
It’s not just about filler phrases, it’s about:
How do I address the person?
Do I use a greeting at all?
Is it all right to call everyone ‘mate’?
How do I sign off?
How many kisses do I give the CEO?
How do I ask for something without demanding on the one hand or grovelling on the other?
Do I know the meaning of all the words I’ve used?
Will they recognise that reference as just a bit of banter?
Now I’ve dropped the ‘sorry’, do I sound aggressive?
It was easier centuries ago when everyone signing off a letter declared that they remained, sir (usually) your humble servant and every communicant was ‘esteemed’. Clear conventions at least enabled you to get it right.
These days, it’s easy to get it wrong without realising.
For every person who thinks their email was just fine, there’s a disgruntled colleague poring over it, showing it to pals and saying ‘Don’t you think that’s a bit aggressive/insensitive/over the top?’
The language we use forms people’s perception of us, and it’s helpful to be given a little nudge to alert us when we use expressions which define us in ways we don’t want. Getting rid of an apologetic tone in emails is a good step towards feeling and appearing more confident.
However, a positive assertive style can’t be acquired by hitting the delete button, just as developing a written style which hits precisely the right note is a skill which requires work and practice. These are good areas to focus on if you want to increase your impact and influence at work.
In the meantime, back to ‘sorry’ (which actually can be more forgiveable than many many other linguistic tics). Decide which of these circumstances require an apology:
- a) You are late for an appointment.
- b) You start a meeting on time without waiting for latecomers.
- c) You give someone a lift in your car and the interior is messy.
- d) You get the job which your friend also applied for.
- e) You are expressing strong views about something.
- f) You are telling a friend that you don’t like/trust a third party.
- g) You’ve sent out wrong information.
‘All of the above’ is not the most assertive response. In most circumstances, you don’t need to apologise for b), c), d), f).
Get your internal app working with an ‘apology alert’ — and you could set up a little reward system for yourself. Every time you successfully fight the urge to say sorry inappropriately, treat yourself to something nice. Just while you’re getting the hang of it. Otherwise, all those congratulatory chocolates and yummy drinks might have you reaching for that app which gives you an electric shock every time you eat a piece of cake… joke.
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