In the Spotlight


The word “just” has been highlighted this past year as a prime illustration of the female tendency to apologize too much in written and oral communications. (“I’m just wondering if you’ve had time to review my idea.”) According to some workplace communications experts, women tend to be more empathetic than men, and that trait often shows up in messages that overuse words like “just,” “I think,” and “sorry” to avoid ruffling any feelings.

In fact, in an article for Slate, writer Christina Cauterucci noted, “The Just Not Sorry extension, which is downloadable at the Chrome app store, underlines self-demeaning phrases like ‘I’m no expert’ and qualifying words like ‘actually’ in red” (as if they’re spelling errors).

Armed with this insight – whether you’re a gal or a guy – what catches your attention in the following paragraph?

I’m somewhat frustrated with Jack’s rather nonchalant attitude toward proofreading. I almost think I should probably mention this pattern to Jill. Maybe she has been a bit disappointed in Jack’s attention to detail herself.

Okay. Too easy, right? The paragraph is loaded with tentative language (“somewhat,” “rather,” “almost,” “think,” “probably,” “maybe,” “a bit”). That’s way too much waffling for three short sentences.

Sweeping generalizations

Here’s my take on tentative writing and gender differences. See if you agree.

• Words and phrases like “fairly” and “I’m guessing” are essential because we so often want to allow for shades of gray, but all of us need to watch out for overuse of tentative language.
• Many women would benefit from emulating men to write with more directness and confidence.
• Many men would benefit from emulating women to write with more courtesy and warmth.
• Women and men do themselves a favor when they write with conviction.
• When we edit documents of any importance, we should pay attention to each use of qualifying language and determine whether we want to express ourselves more assertively.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at   

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