Sorry, but I think you must be kidding?

I’m all for technology helping us to communicate better and connect more effectively. But this is crazy.

Just Not Sorry is a Chrome extension which will edit your emails for you, to make sure that you are only using strong, assertive language. No more of this “female speak”. Apparently we are too self-effacing, unassertive and apologetic in our business correspondence.

photo by Paul Green

photo by Paul Green

We say “sorry” way too often. We use “I think” more than we should. “We hope to” is for uncertain wimps. “Did that make sense?” is the death-knell for a well-reasoned argument. What we need to do, say experts, is transmit more confidence, never apologize, and remove all “weak-sounding” language from our communications.

This is going to extremes, and while it may seem like a way to help women achieve success and equality in the business world, it actually perpetuates stereotypes while ignoring the underlying barriers.

I do agree that almost all of us can use a bit of help on our persuasion skills. From those who are too deferent to those who are too aggressive, most of us fail to realize the power of words and phrasing to set a tone, transmit a message and win people over. Writing or speaking with confidence and brevity is a skill that is usually not given enough attention in education, in spite of its importance and proven impact.

And, I do agree that there is such a thing as “too deferent”, and that it is usually women who fall into that negative habit. On my last trip to London a young woman seated across from me gave up her seat so a guy could sit next to his girlfriend. And she apologized while doing so. A very nice person, obviously. But it struck me then that she really didn’t need to be apologizing for anything at that particular point in time. She should have been saying “you’re welcome”.

But that doesn’t mean that an email from her would be less interesting or worthy than one with shorter, more impactful sentences. Her niceness could well be the breath of fresh air that the reader’s day needed, her politeness could make her communication stand out from the others. In a room full of assertion, isn’t a gracious and respectful voice more likely to be noticeable? Isn’t someone who seems to accept doubt more likely to have a thoughtful opinion?

For all its processes, objectives and metrics, business is about people. And people like “nice”. People like understanding and respect. Efficiency is important. But so are relationships and trust, even in this technological and networked age. If people like you and see you as a “good person”, they’re more likely to want a relationship with you, and to trust you. I’ve found that politeness opens doors, smooths professional interaction, and encourages others to respond in kind.

Having made the case for politeness, let’s go deeper. What web apps or services like Just Not Sorry want to do, beyond pointing out the “weaker” words and phrases in your email, is to help you to write more assertively. It highlights words or phrases that it considers “weak”, so that you can re-think them, change your wording, use tougher language. In other words, write more like a man.

Do we really need to sound more like a man to be taken seriously? Do we need to act less like women to achieve gender parity? Isn’t that a bit like assuming that our main problem in the business world is that we’re not more masculine?

And I can think of few things more certain to weaken your confidence in your communication than a ton of red underlines – very similar to the spelling and grammar correction suggestions that most email services helpfully offer – indicating where you “went wrong”. Except perhaps feeling pressured to write something that doesn’t sound like you at all. Ironic for an app that aims to boost your (apparent) confidence.

That said, I thoroughly encourage brevity of language (although, as anyone who corresponds with me regularly knows, not necessarily of thought). “I think” is removed, not because it’s “weak” but because it’s obvious. The same with “just”, it’s usually unnecessary. Too many “ums” in a speech drive me mad (and men are just as guilty of those as women are).

Confidence is important in the business world and in life, for both men and women. But so is tone. And so is authenticity. Just Not Sorry may have its uses, and some may find it helpful. But it seems to me like another case of the Internet trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

Do we really want to live in a society in which “too polite” is regarded as a fault?

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