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Just Words


When I was in grad school, a very pompous male guest speaker came to my mostly female lab and at one point decided, apropos of absolutely nothing, to launch into a tangent about how women needed to learn to control their uptalk, complete with mocking imitations of how all our sentences sounded like questions. He might have been telling himself he was helping us by exposing us to some hard truth for our self-improvement, but he was in fact just making fun a room full of young female scientists. He inspired widespread silent rage.

Debbie Cameron says everything that needs saying about the complaint about women’s speech newly in vogue: that we say “just” when we ask for something. She notes that women who would recognize body-policing articles for what they are are share speech-policing articles uncritically:

It bothers me that even feminists don’t seem to see the force of this analogy. When feminists encounter articles with headlines like ‘Are you eating too much fruit?’ or ‘Why implants are the new Botox’, they know they are in the presence of Beauty Myth bullshit, whose purpose is to make women feel bad about themselves. Feminists do not share those articles approvingly on Facebook. Yet a high proportion of my feminist acquaintance did share Leanse’s ‘just’ piece, and some of them shared the Jezebel commentary which appeared under the headline ‘Women, stop saying “just” so much, it makes you sound like children’. An article headed ‘Women, stop eating so much fruit, it makes you put on weight’ would immediately have raised their hackles. So why was the Jezebel piece acceptable?

She goes on to say what I would have if she had not spared me the labor — “just” is minimal politeness inserted into a request, and if men don’t use it (and I’m hardly convinced that they don’t), so much the worse for them! Women’s ways of speaking are not a problem even if they are characteristically female:

[R]equests [are] speech acts whose force is, essentially, ‘I want you to do something for me’. Leanse evidently realizes that requests are prime ‘just’ territory, but what she doesn’t appear to understand is why. When you ask someone to do something you’re imposing on them: showing you’re aware of that, and trying to minimize the imposition, is a basic form of politeness. How polite you need to be depends on the seriousness of the imposition and the specifics of the context: if you see someone’s about to get hit by a car you yell ‘move!’, not ‘I wonder if you could just move a few feet to the left’. But in most situations, some degree of politeness is normal. Leaving it out doesn’t make you sound ‘clearer and more confident’. It makes you sound like a rude, inconsiderate jerk.

So what women are being criticized for–using ‘just’ when they make requests–is not a form of excessive feminine deference, it’s a way of being polite by displaying your awareness of others’ needs. Where is the logic in telling women not to do that? I think we all know the answer: it’s the logic of patriarchy, which says ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

Even if authors like Leanse, who wrote the “just” piece, think it might be expedient to talk like a man, at the very least they ought to acknowledge that the reason it’s advantageous is not because there’s some inherent problem with the way women speak, that politeness is the same thing as submissiveness, but because men have more power, so sounding powerful might mean sounding like a man. (It’s not really clear how gendered these differences are, though, and it may not buy you much to rid yourself of feminine vocal patterns. You’ll still be a woman, which seems the root of the problem.) These discussions of how to conform to norms set by men are just that — a way to get by, not a path to virtue and confidence.

And even when you are clear about what the problem is, drawing a bunch of attention to supposedly gendered distinctions in behavior can still have some costs. Vocal fry, which Cameron also discusses, was the subject of a recent segment on This American Life. The show shared the hate mail it got regarding women’s vocal fry, how unprofessional and immature they sounded, while they ignored Ira’s vocal fry in every single sentence. Even though I encountered the issue in the context of an explicitly feminist consideration of how fry haters were just sexist, I spent the next couple days self-conscious about my own vocal fry to hardly be able to utter a sentence without hearing it and feeling like my voice had a new unpleasant aspect. I’d never thought about my vocal fry before, much less considered it gendered or problematic.

The recent discussion has even led me to feel a little more critical of the Amy Schumer “sorry” skit. Soon after watching it, I heard myself say, “I’m sorry” when my boss bumped his elbow in the cab (and it really wasn’t an empathetic “I’m sorry” — more like a deeply programmed reaction that because there was an accident nearby, I may have done something to cause it, and had better preemptively apologize). I started wondering whether I should work on excising “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary. But I’m currently thinking: why? What harm is done by this occasional five-letter word? It takes mental energy to change the way I talk, and what does it buy me but hesitation and self-consciousness? Sorry, not sorry.

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