By Amanda Montell
The author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language dissects the tricky dynamics of work emails.
It’s the mid-2010s, and the internet is having a collective meltdown over how “unprofessionally” women are speaking these days. We’re in the thick of the #GIRLBOSS era, when journalists at business and lifestyle publications start mass-publishing think pieces about how speech qualities like hedges (“just,” “I feel like,” “if that makes sense”) and hyperbolic typing styles (all caps, emojis) make women in the workplace appear unauthoritative and unfit to lead. “Without a doubt, women include more exclamation marks, emotions, and emojis in their written communication,” penned one journalist, condemning the phrases “I think,” “I was wondering,” and “thanks” for the way they “water down your authority at work.” Articles with headlines like “The Most Common Communication Mistakes Women Make” and “Why Women Should Write More Like Men” abounded.
Drawing poorly-informed, pseudo-feminist conclusions about women’s “inferior” communication styles is suddenly the trendy thing for brands and magazines to do — and it’s a trend that sticks. Half a decade later, I am still bombarded with a daily onslaught of similar messages, telling women we need to quit with the “insecure”-sounding mumbo-jumbo and adopt a more direct, masculine way of speaking in order to be “taken seriously.”
As a linguist, I know that actual, empirical linguistics studies show that hedges and tag questions (“Right?” “Does that make sense?”) are not actually used more by women than men; they are simply noticed and criticized more in women’s speech. And as a feminist, I know that just because a certain linguistic feature may very well be more commonly used by women (like emojis) doesn’t make it inherently bad. In fact, linguists have consistently determined that women (particularly young urban women) are our culture’s linguistic innovators, and they use these language forms not as mindless affectations, but as power tools for establishing and strengthening relationships. Deep down, popular criticisms that women use “too many” exclamation points, hedges, and emojis in their emails are not really about the language at all. Instead, they’re reflective of underlying assumptions about who holds more power in our culture.
Time and time again, scholars find that women who wish to take up professional space are expected to strike a precarious balance of appearing pleasant and polite, like the sweet-tempered caregivers we’re used to women being, as well as tough and authoritative, like capable leaders. “The two things clash, and women can be negatively judged for erring too far in either direction,” comments Oxford linguist Deborah Cameron. This tricky negotiation of traditional femininity (which has historically been backdropped by a private setting) and confident leadership (which is a public enterprise) is one that social scientists have termed the “double bind.” Most women who pursue a high-profile career end up falling on one side of the double bind or the other: either competent but bossy and unlikeable — or pleasant and likeable, but incompetent as a leader.
In 2021, as even more of our professional interactions are typed rather than spoken in-person, a glaring spotlight is shone on how the double bind shows up in emails. “To exclamation point or not to exclamation point” has even become a viral meme. What woman executive among us has not struggled with a dilemma like this one: Let’s say you want to assign a project with a tight deadline to your assistant. You could phrase your email with a straightforward tone and no-frills punctuation — “The project needs to be done by tomorrow at 3pm.” — but, because we have certain expectations of how women are supposed to communicate (politely, indirectly), you might come off as a cold shrew. On the other hand, you could pepper your email with hedges, exclamation points, and smiley faces —“If you could possibly have the project finished by tomorrow at 3pm, that’d be AMAZING. Thank you so much!! :)” — but, because we have certain expectations of how bosses are supposed to communicate (bluntly, directly), that might make you seem jumpy and unsuited to power. Of course, there are plenty of men in the workplace who grapple with how to conduct themselves over email; but, because our vision of masculine speech and authoritative speech align better, this negotiation isn’t usually as tough for them.
One can ask what is the “right” tonal balance for a woman executive to use in her emails, but the real question should be, why does this conundrum exist in the first place? Why do we perceive men’s voices as more authoritative by default, while “feminine speech” is innately marked and in need of fixing? The truth is that in general, female public figures are judged by their speech significantly more than their male colleagues, just as they are judged more harshly by their appearance. We tend to notice the delivery of what women say before the content, and negatively evaluating a woman for using “too many” exclamation points in her emails is motivated by the same thing as criticizing a woman for wearing too tight a skirt or too bright a lipstick. Critiques on both sides of the double bind are a means of linguistic objectification. And as long as it remains rare for women to fill positions of authority, then we can expect their clothes, bodies, voices, and emails to be inevitably ogled.
I asked linguist Deborah Cameron for her advice on how ambitious women can navigate the double bind — how we can refocus people’s attention from the emojis in our emails to what we’re actually saying. She had a pretty good idea of what doesn’t work: “It seems to me (sad irony) that women who think about it a lot and try hard to fix it … are often judged even more negatively than women who don’t seem as concerned about impression management (Michelle Obama, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel).”
Eventually, once it becomes more typical for women to lead and for men to follow, then there won’t be such a disproportionately tight margin of error for women bosses’ communication styles, because we will no longer automatically associate women with subordination. But the process of navigating the double bind will likely remain difficult as long as gender inequality exists. So, in reality, there’s no hard-and-fast answer to how many exclamation points and hedges you should put in your emails (though, for me, the answer is usually a lot). After all, even if every woman in power were to craft her emails to perfection, and manage to come across as balanced as the Angela Merkels of the world, it still wouldn’t solve everything. Our bias against how women leaders sound is structural, not individual.
As Deborah Cameron says, “Teaching young women to accommodate the linguistic preferences, aka prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it.” That’s because, in the end, women’s speech is not really the problem here; it’s our sexist attitudes toward that speech. “The business of feminism is surely to challenge sexist attitudes,” continues Cameron, “to work against prejudice, not around it.”
In the meantime, what I can say with confidence is that if the pundits, trolls, and disgruntled employees are going to bust your chops no matter how you communicate, you might as well write the emails that sound the most authentically like you. That might mean culling back a few exclamation points, adding a few hedges back in, or leaving your tone just the way it is. And all the while, I think the most important email etiquette “rule” women executives can follow is to remember how patriarchal our standards of “authoritative speech” really are, and not to judge other women for defying them!!! :)