By Kelcie McKenney
On a recent lunch break I was scanning my usual reads, skimming articles while munching on my sandwich, when I came across an article that turned my head upside-down and around a few times.
“Google and Apple alum says using this one word can damage your credibility.” Published on Business Insider and originally written by Ellen Petry Leanse on Linkedin, the article dove into Leanse’s realization of how overused the word “just” is by women in the work place.
After a move to a company with a higher female to male ratio, Leanse started to notice how common “just” was thrown into emails and conversations by women, and she soon started to recognize it amongst her friends as well. The word was everywhere, but what was the problem with that?
The implications, that’s what. “Just” is a permission word—“a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking ‘Can I get something I need from you?’”. It’s a term that sneaks into a woman’s vocabulary and opens with an air of subtle subordination, regardless of how polite we’ve been led to believe it is.
Mid-bite into my sandwich and about halfway through the article, I realized I was guilty of the “just” dilemma. Numerous time I’ve found myself adding “just” into a conversation to sound more flexible and welcoming, adding it into the text of emails when I was asking for something—especially when it was someone I didn’t know, such as a press contact or interviewee—and tossing in with discussions with my coworkers and staff members.
It made me suddenly self-conscious. When my lunch break was over and I returned to my desk, I quickly scanned my most recent article I had written that morning for how many times “just” had been used. At least one too many, and none with a grammatically justified reason. I opened my email and looked through my most recently sent and also found a plethora of “justs” littering the messages I was trying to convey. My phone went off, vibrating on my notepad, and I opened my most recent text to find my end of the previous conversation peppered with “just,” as well.
Although it wasn’t entirely shocking, it was upsetting. I wanted to sound confident and assertive in the way I communicated, not like I was asking to be heard. Besides, you know what they say: if you act confident you will be confident.
All this talk about “just” got me thinking about other phrases that were similar culprits in the undermining of women. Saying “sorry” too often came to mind—something I was also guilty of and have been for a long time. The use of the word “bossy” towards women, and never used towards men, popped up, too. These words and phrases undermine women, and, a lot of the time, we’re doing it to ourselves.
Leanse’s article blowing up created a bit of buzz, and a number of other voices have commented on her opinion and discovery of the word “just.” New York Magazine’s The Cut posted an article called “Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?” in opposition. Author Ann Friedman brought up that among the use of “just” and the propensity for women to over apologize, other examples of colloquial discrimination take place. There’s the argument of radio listeners that women on the air have “vocal fry,” making it impossible to listen to women. The “Valley Girl lift” or upspeak, where a woman’s voice raises at the ends of sentences—turning declarative sentences into questions—represents “an unexplainable lack of confidence” in those who use it.
But beyond these examples, Friedman argues that it isn’t women and their words that need to change, but instead society’s perception of the phrases. Women have colloquial language—filled with likes, justs, and sorrys—and instead of pushing that language down, men and women alike should accept it as a valid form of communication.
I’m not sure where exactly I fall. I agree with the NY Mag article that women get more flack than men do about their communication—it’s true that men use like, just, and sorry often, too, but hardly ever get criticized for it—but I don’t think accepting it point-blank is the answer either. Questioning your authority with “just” and being over-apologetic with “sorry” may be colloquial, but it doesn’t promote confidence and it isn’t doing anything to help us.
I had scratched my head at this when I thought about it at my desk again. What was the answer to the “just” predicament? Would total-societal change towards acceptance of the way women talk work? Could we ever accomplish something like that? Would it even help? My head began to get sore from all the scratching.
Maybe there wasn’t an answer. I was ok with that, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do to solve my own personal “just” problem: I wanted to face it head-on in honor of improving my personal confidence. It “just” wasn’t a necessary term, and cutting it out of my writing, emails, dialogue, and conversation would boost my own morale. And if I was swearing off of “justs,” I also knew I had to be more aware of how often “sorry” left my lips when it wasn’t necessary.
A dialect makeover, I’ll call it, but one of my own reasons. If you’re starting to question your own use of “just” or “sorry” or any other word in-between, consider cutting them out, too—but not for the wrong reasons. Keep in mind that your use of colloquial phrases and the way you communicate as a woman, or man, is perfectly acceptable, beautiful, and completely up to your judgment. NY Mag was right in saying that people need to be more accepting of the way women talk, or at least as accepting for both men and women. And whether you cut out those excess words or not, the way you build confidence is entirely up to you.
Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Digital Editor at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie watching internet cat videos, eating brunch, taking photos, and reading mystery novels.