Career / Career Development / Speak Up

Why language softeners in the workplace should be the rule, not the exception

. 6 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Why language softeners in the workplace should be the rule, not the exception

As a young writer who loves writing as much as being disappointed with the prospects on online dating, a bad grammar is my biggest turn off. And a basic Google search for this piece showed me I’m not alone.

Recent researches on the online dating spectrum cite several grammar snobs and how misspelled words was perhaps the biggest reason for dissuaded potential suitors. Clearly, communication matters. This made me think of yet another place where communication ends up taking precedence over all else – the workplace.

There’s been a gradual rise in the number of organisations, programs and initiatives focusing on empowering women in the workplace. From helping women build their careers, rendering financial and business acumen, to empowering women in the domestic sphere as well. An interesting by-product of this surge has been the rising discourse on language, communication and vocabulary.

With so many women taking to entrepreneurship and establishing themselves in positions of power and leadership of varying degrees, the discourse on vocabulary is more significant than ever.

This aforementioned surge, coupled with the era of wokeness that start-up cultures are thriving in today, there has been an increasing emphasis on language and speech. More and more well-meaning influencers of different kinds are giving thought to the words women should say (or shouldn’t say), and how the words should be said.

workplace communication

So why is this discourse on vocabulary important?

I have been told that I avoid confrontation as much as I can. And it’s true. I avoid it till the point it suffocates me and then I avoid it some more. But it did not strike me until very recently that this lack of confidence is a much larger conditioned gender problem than a personal self-esteem problem.

The problem of gender parity in workplace communication

As a network that is dedicated to creating a nurturing ecosystem for women to have the autonomy to be able to create their own careers, we get several chat requests and inquiries of precisely this kind. There are so many women out there with stories that highlight the lack of courage to stand up to bullies – more often than not their male bosses. Just this morning, I was interacting with a woman who was struggling with having a boss who just wouldn’t quit flirting with her.

And then, on the other side of the spectrum there’s women leaders purposefully toning and softening their language so they’re heard. Amongst other things, tendency stems from the complexity of the Likeability Trap.

The trap of rehearsed likeability in workplace communication

So in order to avoid coming off as any of those things, women more often than not resort to simply behaving more ‘nicely’ and attempting to appear more likeable. This practiced niceness brings about a general air of congeniality and likeability. All of which in turn results in being able to demand and extract work in the manner you deem right.

The Likeability Trap describes how women who behave in authoritative ways risk being termed as difficult, arrogant, or bossy while those who are too nice risk having their competence questioned.

It’s almost like a case of choosing your battles – a conscious choice that you unconsciously make nearly every day. Being assertive, while expressing a view that counters the more popular one right now, versus being assertive while presiding over the office meeting and getting the actual work done in the manner you know is right – we would all choose the latter.

But I digress. To read more about the Likeability Trap and all of its complications in detail, click here.

The gender-problem with language softeners

Issues like the Likeability Trap further breed more issues – the most prominent one that directly attacks vocabulary being the notion of language softeners.

If likeability is the end – language softeners is the means to this end.

In the quest to appear likeable and not-too daunting, vocabulary is the first and foremost thing that is impeded in the process of assertion. There’s endless research that shows how and why women make extensive use of phrases like ‘I just feel…’ or ‘we were thinking…’ or the usual dallying words like a soft ‘maybe’.

When did language softeners become this critical?

In accordance with the term’s actual definitions, language softeners are merely means to a polite conversation. Colloquially speaking, we’re all taught to use language softeners as children. The problem arises when external conditioning makes its usage more mandated and significant for one gender over another.

Think about it, when was the last time you heard men in positions of power in the workplace use language softeners? And when was the last time you were able to frame a direction or assign a task to a subordinate without using much?

The problem is leadership is defined in male terms. Think about all the adjectives you would use to describe a conventional ‘man’ and now think about all the adjectives that one would ordinarily associate with a leader. Chances are, there will be a major overlap between the two.

Let’s try to run the same adjective-test here. Think about all the adjectives that are conventionally associated with women and womanhood. Now think about the nature of jobs and industries that are ordinarily open to women. Where did positions like CEO’s, Managers and Entrepreneurs fall in that list? #FoodForThought

The concept of female leadership

Building from this, the notion of female leadership can most certainly get complex. Ad a result of which the gender as a whole has been conditioned to finding other ways around being accepted in positions of power.

Which is why the notion of using language softeners in the workplace is much more than just being polite – it’s about the gender of the person in power; and how this affects the ways in which the power is both received and disseminated.

Which is why all of those aforementioned organisations propose the transition in vocabulary – especially for women. The need to do away with language softeners, the need to empower vocabulary, and the need to internalise and own your dominance are all things that demand a transformation for women.

But here’s what I’m thinking – how about we ask the make counterpart of the workplace and leadership equation to soften their language, rather than the female one to harden theirs’?

There’s so much talk about gender parity in the workplace and how hardening the female workplace vocabulary is the way to achieve it. But in this quest of gender parity, the idea of a positive and congenial workplace culture altogether gets lost.

Language softeners as the means to a positive workforce

As I recount my experience with my bosses in the past, I feel particularly thankful to have worked primarily in women-centric organisations.

And if I think about why that is, a favourable and solidarity-induced communication is the first thing that comes to my mind. With the immense conditioning that is drilled into women generation after generation – of being soft, of not taking too much space, of being tiny and acceptable (both physically and in thoughts), of sitting and speaking in a certain polite manner and basically everything that is meant to impede their movement (both physically and in thoughts); they’ve simply become akin to warm, nurturing, and everything that lies on the spectrum opposite to assertive and dominating.

But won’t it make for a much better workplace if men receive a similar conditioning and the idea of language softeners becomes the norm rather than an option?

So what would it look like if we stopped asking women to harden their language, and instead encouraged everyone to start softening it?