The Languages of the Sexes

By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards

Everyone speaks differently.  We all have different speech patterns, accents, and mannerisms that give us our unique voices.  One language that many people share—you may be familiar with it yourself, as I certainly am—is “woman in a meeting.”  What exactly is this language?  It describes the tendency many women have in professional or academic settings to speak passively, hesitantly, and apologetically.  Now, women don’t do this because they lack confidence, but rather because they often feel that watering down an idea will make it more palatable to male colleagues.  Assertive women are seen as aggressive and unappealing, so professional women feel the need to temper their speech in order to be heard.

In an article, Alexandra Petri, a writer for The Washington Post, rewrites historical quotations as they would have been said by a woman in a meeting.[1]  Her example that most resonates with me is her version of “Give me liberty, or give me death.”  The famous quotation by Patrick Henry is rewritten as “Dave, if I could, I could just—I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know?  That’s just how it strikes me.  I don’t know.” 

When I first saw Petri’s article, I thought it was funny, but after reading some of the quotations I started feeling uneasy.  Uneasy that this happens at all, but particularly because I felt that I was being personally called out for my own habits to speak in such a passive manner.  I cannot think of a moment when I felt frustrated, in a moment in class or elsewhere, with my inability to convey an idea.  Yet those speech patterns—saying “I’m sorry,” stammering, bringing up my personal feelings as an attempt to make the idea seem more important, and ending with “I don’t know”—are all too familiar.  I wonder, how can anyone take me seriously if I undermine myself with the way I speak?  Those tendencies have been present my whole life, something I see in conversations between my parents, in class discussions, in politics, and beyond.  Of course, men are guilty of similar habits of nervous, indirect speech, but not in the same widespread capacity. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author and feminist, explains in a TED talk that we teach “girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.” So, speaking “woman in a meeting” comes from a lifetime of being taught to be mild-mannered in the face of men who hold large presences.  So is talking about “woman in a meeting” a good or a bad thing?  Do we perpetuate it and create a stigma, or bring awareness to a problem that can be fixed for future generations of young women?  I’m not quite sure yet, but I know that future generations of young women will look to us for how to act carry themselves, and I want them to see something different.