Just say ‘no’ to Just Not Sorry

The ever-awesome linguist Deborah Cameron:


When I’ve written about this subject before, my message has been addressed to the producers of bullshit: stop policing women’s language. But this time I’m going to focus on the consumers. Women, please understand: it’s not you that’s undermining yourself by using powerless language; it’s the bullshitters who are undermining you with their constant incitement to anxiety, insecurity and self-censorship. And you don’t have to let them get away with that; all you have to do is ignore them. Don’t buy their books. Don’t sign up for a training course. Don’t laugh at jokes about women saying sorry all the time. And don’t download the Just Not Sorry app. Because the suggestion that removing ‘just’ from your emails will significantly advance your career is an insult to your intelligence. And that really does demean you.

For more go here.  And you really should.

11 thoughts on “Just say ‘no’ to Just Not Sorry

  1. Apart from the issue of making male usage the standard, telling women to change their language also ignores context and experience.
    The same behaviour (and language) is evaluated differently coming from men and from women. E.g. studies show that women in business are often seen as aggressive or insensitive, where identical behaviour is seen as assertiveness or showing leadership when exhibited by men. So if women use different (less assertive) language this is an adaptive response to the reactions they have learnt to expect.

  2. I think the response may often come with a price. Suppose his assertive argument for a raise in salary succeeds. Would her supposedly more gender appropriate request have the same impact. I thnk there is a worry that it wouldn’t. Perhaps, though, it is just that she can’t win whatever she does.

  3. Hi philosophers, and thanks for the discussion. Re Helen’s comment, I just want to say that the ‘sending a message that women’s language is particularly defective’ thing is a more serious issue than she perhaps suggests. Every time a deficit account of women’s language becomes the focus of public discussion, what’s happening is that people are being primed to read women’s use of apology or hedging in a particular way–regardless of how, or indeed how much, any particular woman is actually using those features. (The same goes for male deficit accounts like ‘men can’t express their feelings’.) In my field we talk about the difference between ‘language ideology’ (representation) and ‘linguistic practice’ (behaviour). Behaviour is far more complex than its representation, but precisely because it is simpler, representation tends to have more influence on what people believe about language-use, and what they believe, in turn, influences things like hiring and promotion decisions. That’s why I spend a lot of time trying to reduce the credibility of things like the Just Not Sorry app. There is a lot of evidence that the representational stereotyping of women’s language is more damaging to women than their actual linguistic behaviour (which we are actually quite bad at accurately analysing in real time. With email, which is what the app is for, I doubt very much that the way you write–unless it’s way outside normal parameters–would become the object of any sustained attention at all).

  4. Thanks so much for stopping by Deborah– it’s an honour to have you here! Your point about representation is fascinating and really important. And, it seems to me, this makes clear why perhaps there’s no incompatibility between what you say and sometimes (perhaps often) mentoring women to be less apologetic in a job interview. The problem is the perpetuation of the stereotype: if the advice is based on an individual’s actual behaviour, it’s fine. Is this right?

    I’d love to know more about language ideology VS linguistic practice. Can you suggest a good starting place? I find myself wondering if there’s potential to use it in a liberatory direction as well– that is, get people to shift how they view women’s behaviour in a *positive* direction.

  5. It’s probably bad form to recommend my own work in response to that request (sorry [sic]) but I wrote the chapter on gender and language ideology in the Blackwell Handbook of Language and Gender (2nd edn, edited by Susan Ehrlich and Miriam Meyerhoff), and I’d say that at least has the virtue of being a fairly brief overview with a bunch of other references in it. BTW, I do think we should take on board the idea that people can be insufficiently apologetic or modest in a job interview. I remember being on a committee where one candidate’s extreme avoidance of any admission he didn’t know anything (even where we wouldn’t have expected him to), capped by a closing statement in which he told us we’d regret it if we didn’t hire him, totally put paid to his chances–tho on paper he’d looked like a front-runner. It wasn’t just that we all disliked his arrogant self-presentation and thought it wouldn’t be an asset in teaching, more that he’d shown a worrying lack of openness to learning anything from the mistakes every novice in any job is going to make. We suspected he had been on a course to teach candidates confidence in interviews, but if so it had badly misfired on this occasion.

  6. Thanks so much– not bad form at all! And I do agree about candidates like yours. (Who actually sounds reminiscent of George W Bush!) Interesting that possibly it resulted from having been advised to sound more confident! Yikes. This is why practise interviews are so important.

  7. Readers might want to know that for under $12 they can get used copies of the paperback edition of the Handbook Debuk mentioned. I was looking at Amazon US, but since one bookseller is in the UK, I assume you can get it there also.

  8. I am wondering about representation and representational stereotyping. Can it be an instance of sexist or racial stereotyping? If so, the issue of mitigating behavior is very vexed, like the recommendation that black male teens not wear hoodies.

    On the other hand, I was jokingly telling someone yesterday that I could easily imagine starting off an interview as a candidate with ‘sorry’. If the first question is about why I like to teach feminist philosophy, then I might well detect an unmet need which I could have met earlier, as in The Letter. ‘Oh sorry,’ could too easily be a natural response.

  9. Has FP also mentioned Prof. Cameron’s Response to Naomi Wolf (on vocal fry and uptalk)? Similar. I ran into it via a Language Log post, which has interesting discussion in the comments (including a comment from Cameron). Language Log has been very interested in vocal fry, mainly because (de facto head honcho) Mark Liberman is a phonologist who gets very irritated by pseudo-scientific theorizing.

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