The language of women
Earlier today, I was talking to a friend I’ve known for more than two decades when, twice, she prefaced her opinion with, “I feel.” The third time she shared an opinion, she began with, “I think.”
“Why do you do that?” I said. “I asked for your thoughts. I know it’s you speaking. Why preface your opinions with a disclaimer. Women do this all the time. Men almost never do that.”
Fortunately, my friend loves me, even when I’m like this.
“We were talking about jackets,” she said. “I didn’t think you-.” She paused, and recalibrated. “I don’t need you to correct how I speak.”
I don’t want to scold here, but look, too many of us have fallen for this notion that our opinions are incidental. If we weren’t raised to believe this, we have plenty of opportunity to learn it in the workplace. We don’t want to be “pushy” or “arrogant” and so we become walking apologies for having an independent thought. These throwaway phrases – “I believe,” “I think,” “I feel” and, the worst, “I’m sorry but” – telegraph uncertainty and give others permission to ignore us.
Every time I bring this up – on Twitter today, for example – the main thread of responses is fascinating, and the chief rebuttal is as predictable as it is righteous. Why should women change when it is men who need to stop acting as if their every opinion erupted from the burning bush?
It reminds me of the recurring objection whenever I advocate for generous tips for those hourly wage earners on whom we depend, such as restaurant servers, bartenders, hotel housekeepers, airport wheelchair attendants and valets. Why should we the customers have to compensate for cheap bosses refusing to pay their employees a living wage?
Outstanding point. Corporate greed is not our fault.
However, decades of corporate practices have made clear that our refusal to tip, or tipping with the stunted generosity of a coal-hoarding Ebenezer, has done nothing to further the cause of justice for these hard-working people. Yes, their bosses should pay them more, but until these workers can join a union, we should never pretend our outrage is going to pay their electric bills or feed their families.
Similarly, while we women are waiting for certain men to experience the epiphany of an unexpressed thought, let’s share our opinions as if we mean them, which we surely do. In a discussion of ideas, it is clear that we are speaking for ourselves the moment we open our mouths or put our fingers to our keyboards. Let’s get to it.
Quick example. Let’s say we are worried about our country and we want other Americans to worry, too. Which of these statements is more likely to recruit others to our cause?
A) “I feel our country is in crisis.”
B) “Our country is in crisis.”
In the first instance, we are wringing your hands. In the second, we have issued a clarion call.
Yes, there is the risk of appearing to state as fact things that we don’t know for sure to be true. Here’s how we fix that: Know our facts, and share them. Problem solved.
And now a word about “just.”
When I meet someone, and there is time to exchange more than a sentence or two, it is my habit to say, “Tell me about yourself.” I am interested in other people, but I admit that saying this when I’m feeling tired relieves me of the need to talk. This comes in handy when talking to many men.
Now, what I’m about to tell you is anecdotal. However, I do talk to a lot of people in my roles as a columnist, author and public speaker – and also as a senator’s wife, which is not a staff position no matter how many times someone tries to hand me a packet of materials the size of a pontoon and says, “I figure you’re the best way to get this to the senator.”
We’ll leave my response to that for another day.
When I say to women, “Tell me about yourself,” more than half – let’s say 85 percent – begin their responses with, “I’m just…”
“I’m just a teacher.”
“I’m just a mother.”
My personal favorite: “I’m just a physician.” To which I responded: “Slacker.” And then we had a moment.
No one is just one thing, and that is certainly true of every woman, no exceptions. If you doubt my facts on this, turn to the next woman you see and say, “Tell me about yourself.”
Ignore the “just.” That part is never true.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.