For Women in Law By Women in Law

The Female Email

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As a woman, I cannot tell you how many times I have had someone correct my tone or language – especially when it comes to emails. We all know the classic stereotype – women apologize more and we often qualify statements with “I think” and “I feel”. We use permissible words like “just”. Ever since my first day in law school, I feel as though I have been bombarded by countless seminars and articles that have all provided me with the same old advice:

  • “I am just writing to check in” translates to, “I’m sorry to bother you (with doing my job)”. Instead, women should try “I write to check in”.
  • “Does that make sense” translates to, “Do I make sense”. Instead, women should try “let me know if you need clarification” which shifts the onus on the recipient to speak up if they need clarification.

Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with these interpretations. My problem is that how women email in a professional setting has become such an issue that researchers have gone on to develop plug-ins for our browsers that scour emails to weed out female language (see one example, here). Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with using these types of apps. But for years I have wondered, what is it that bothers me so much about having to worry about how I am coming across in an email?

I have asked several male colleagues – how often do you re-read your emails before you hit send? The usual answer is once (for typos). When I ask “But do you ever think you are coming across as mean?” I am usually met with either a laugh, a look of confusion, or an “I don’t actually care if I am coming across as mean”.

So here is my problem. I’ve spent too much time filtering my emails to fit into this one specific expectation of how I, as a woman, should sound in the workplace. It is exhausting.

Policing women’s language and tone in the workplace is problematic for many reasons. For example, if a stereotypical “male” style of emailing – confident, emotionally detached, light on exclamation points – is seen as more professionally competent does it mean that women must mimic that style and write “like men” to be taken seriously? Shouldn’t women just be taken seriously without having to resort to that subterfuge?

If emailing “like a woman” perpetuates stereotypes about how women should act, but emailing “like a man” reinforces the idea that professionalism should aspire to male corporate culture – and either approach can be held against you anyway … then what are we left with? Women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Policing women’s email etiquette presents a broader double standard for women in the workplace. Women need to be professional but also friendly. Assertive but not bitchy. Competent but approachable. It’s an ever-impossible limbo that men simply do not deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The issue has really never been what women say, or even how they say it – the problem is that we assume women’s voices and writing don’t sound serious enough unless presented in a very specific way. Telling women that they need to fix some aspect of themselves – their voice, their tone, their email phrasing – in order to succeed shifts the blame to us as women. If we fail, it’s not because of inequality and sexism, it’s because we didn’t act enough like men. We were too meek, too submissive, too deferential.

To take it a step further – I argue that certain email behaviors typically associated with women can be very effective. It is no surprise that email communications inherently lack much needed non-verbal cues that we, as humans, rely on to get our points across when we speak in person. For example, email lacks tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. There is something to be said for strategically implementing softened language or heck – even an exclamation point! Sometimes this type of language can help avoid a misunderstanding between counsel or ease tensions on a heated file.

In her book, “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work”, Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen points out that at the outset, women are trapped in a double bind when it comes to expressing themselves at the office: they’re seen as weak if they speak in a “feminine” way but as domineering and even crazy if they speak in a “masculine” way. If women “speak in the styles that are effective when used by men (assertive, sounding sure of themselves, talking up what they have done to make sure they get credit for it), they run the risk that they will not fit within their culture’s expectations for appropriate behavior: they will not be liked.

In her book, Tannen addresses the word “sorry” specifically, which she says is often useful as a “conversational smoother” – making the other participant feel at ease – an approach that has its own logic. As she writes, “for many women, and a fair number of men, saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t literally an apology; it’s a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation.” Further, it makes you appear empathetic.

What’s overlooked by the language police is that it’s often those outside the power structure who are most creative, nimble and flexible in their language use. If women are more polite in their email language, it may not be because they lack confidence at all. In fact, it could be entirely strategic – knowing when and how to play nice and turn on the charm. Heck, the more I research this topic, the more I think we should be encouraging our male counterparts to start emailing more like women!

So what I am saying is – maybe this all isn’t that deep. Maybe we can just meet in the middle. If you want to be mindful of your language, then do it because you are writing like you – a confident, intelligent, articulate, and assertive woman. Not because you need to sound more like a man. I say this – email as you please! Want to pepper your email with emojis and exclamation points? Fine! 🙂 Prefer a more direct style? Also fine. Email how you want (as long as you are keeping it professional, of course).

Just please… please, stop policing women’s language.

About the Author

Guest Blogger, Jaeda Lee

Jaeda Lee is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing in insurance and health law. An avid volunteer, Jaeda gives much of her time to the ACTS Water Charity, an organization focused on providing clean, accessible water to those who need it most.

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