By Pieter De Wit

I am sure you will agree with me that, to gain respect and success in social and business settings, you often have to speak up using strong, affirmative language. Unfortunately, there seems to be a general misconception that many women lack this skill and that it is a more natural trait in men.

Women are often regarded as too emotional, so we sometimes try to correct them when they use words such as “like” or “just” as if they’re wrong and men are right. We feel the need to teach them how to talk like “confident men”! 

Yet, on the other hand, there is an unequal acceptance in swearing, it’s ok for men, but “unladylike” for women. This approach is unfair and, most of all, it ignores the underlying problem of prejudices and discrimination, and dare I say it — systemic misogyny!

Apologising Is A Sign Of Strength

According to research by Schumann and Ross in 2010, women apologise more while they speak but only because men have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. Personally, I see this as a positive quality in women, showing them to be honest and open. Instead of policing women, we should encourage men to commit less inappropriate behaviour and act more responsibly. 

In his 2001 report, Liberman found that in general, men use language fillers more often than women. And in regards to linguistic innovation, he claims that women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males. So, we really can’t say that women use less powerful language. Unfortunately, I think that when women use fillers, it is often seen as a sign of weakness, and we stop listening. Yet, if men do the same, suddenly they are perceived as weighing up their thoughts better. 

Historically, many women, such as Louisa May Alcott, a late 19th-century female writer, felt compelled to publish their research and literary work under a male pseudonym or use initials to hide their gender and to ensure they reached an audience. Alcott even references this issue in her classic “Little Women”. In such cases, it is evident that it is not what is said or written by women that constituted the problem, but merely the fact that the authors were female. 

Suppressing Women’s Voices

The expectation that women should not curse comes from the time that women weren’t allowed to exert strength. Since cursing is related to power, they weren’t allowed to swear, not simply because it was not “ladylike”, but because they were suppressed by men. Therefore policing women’s language and encouraging them to speak more “like a lady” doesn’t by any means help them to be more feminine, but instead reinforces female suppression. The old idea that women should speak differently, often in a simpering, childlike way, is nothing more than a cultural phenomenon that we should throw overboard.  

The Damaging Effects Of Policing Women’s Speech

Policing how women talk is still a big problem because it fortifies the power imbalance between the sexes. Besides, this reinforcement can have an inverted effect by making women less confident speakers, especially if we are correcting them all the time. Moreover, when women do start to speak up using strong language and showing confidence and leadership, they are often accused of being “ball breakers” or “bossy”. 

In some cases, phrases such as “I’m sorry” are seen as a sign of insecurity. Unconscious overuse is sometimes a sign that a woman had or still has an abusive relationship and is subjected to intimate partner violence. Policing them is confirming they are “wrong” and only emphasises and worsens their insecurities. 

Other phrases such as “I feel like” can be used to express authentic feelings. This can be a difficult but powerful way to build self-confidence and find your place in social situations. In a society where genuine feelings are replaced by superficial smiles and emoticons, we should encourage expressing true emotions instead of condemning them. 

Every person is unique in their character and has a unique story to tell. It is not up to us to decide what characteristics or speech patterns are superior or how anyone should behave or speak. In the past, we policed women thinking this would help them, but it only made things worse by emphasising the inequality between men and women and enforcing old cultural and social norms. 
Our voice is a unique instrument, and the vocabulary, volume, tone and pitch a person uses demonstrates their individuality. We all need to embrace this and respect everybody for who they are. The best way for a person to express themselves may not be through more assertive language, by apologising less or cursing more, but on the contrary, staying true to themself and being authentic.