Student guest post: When words lose their power

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lily Stephens is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She has interned at Chapel Hill and Durham Magazines and as a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern at Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times.) 

“I think the AP Stylebook says to capitalize formal titles directly before a name,” I say to my classmate. Actually, this is a lie. I know the Stylebook says this.

So why would I couch my statement with “think?” In J557, our Advanced Editing class, we spend a lot of time editing in teams. In these situations, I periodically catch myself making qualifying statements that aren’t strictly necessary. Generally, I’m considering someone’s emotions and trying not to hurt their feelings.

I know from experience that it can be pretty embarrassing when someone points out how many misspellings you haven’t caught in a one-page article. And sometimes being sensitive in those moments can keep your co-editing relationship on friendly ground. Like alerting your date to the fact that there is an entire spinach leaf wedged between his teeth, working collaboratively on a piece of writing is an art.

But it’s a thin line to walk between thoughtfulness and undermining your own credibility. Though I’m confident that my classmates feel comfortable working with me, I’m not so sure about their belief in my editing skills. The more I invite them to question me by couching statements with “I think” or “correct me if I’m wrong, but,” the less they trust me when I make a claim. And as I’ve run into this more and more, I’ve started to notice myself communicating similarly outside of the classroom, too. So why am I constantly using language that makes me sound less confident than I really am?

My research (read: several hours poring over Google search results) has been pretty enlightening. It turns out that as a female-identifying person, I’m more likely than my male counterparts to “soften” my communication.

In an interview about the themes of her book “Playing Big,” author and career coach Tara Mohr talks about the speech habits women in many cultures have adopted that are diminishing our words. She explains that we use words like “actually” and “just” to come across as more agreeable, but this often impedes the message we’re trying to get across. Mohr says: “I also believe that it’s because for centuries, women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us.”

This reminded me of a saying I’ve often heard from women in my family, that “you have to let a man think he’s making the decision.” It’s always seemed like outdated advice, but that’s akin to what I’m doing when I say that I “think” the AP Stylebook says something. My classmate ends up looking it up and coming to that conclusion for themselves. It’s not something I do exclusively with male classmates, but it ends up affecting others’ perception of me and by proxy the gender group I identify with.

Tara Franks, who teaches courses on gender and communication at Arizona State University, explains: “If I’m unable to assert my opinion with the same authority that a man can and therefore, I’m not taken as seriously, and that’s repeated over time with multiple women in similar contexts, then what happens is women as a whole lose credibility in a particular space.” This, in particular, makes me think a little more seriously about whether I should change the way I communicate.

I should say that although the evidence is clear, it doesn’t mean that it’s every woman’s responsibility to police her language in order to undo centuries of socialization. Even typing that sentence was exhausting. However, I’ve found it really interesting to be a more aware of my communication style in light of this information.

Here are the steps I’ve started taking in my own life:

  • Try to be more aware of when I’m making qualifying statements.
  • When I notice that I’ve made one, I ask myself what the motive was, and whether it was good.
  • When I really know what I’m talking about, try to say it confidently. People can learn from my expertise (e.g. in Harry Potter trivia).

Of course being sensitive in our communication is useful, but I think the takeaway here is that in doing so we should strive to be intentional with our words.

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