Just yesterday, I walked into a bathroom while another woman was walking out. We did not run into one another, or impede one another’s paths. And yet, impulsively, without making eye contact, we both blurted out, “I’m sorry.”
Apologizing for breathing, taking up space, and doing just about anything besides sitting in demure servitude is a skill many women share. As countless studies have proven, women apologize far more frequently than men do, largely because men are socialized to believe they have far less to apologize for.
This habit translates seamlessly online, where “lady language” manifests in women’s incessant use of exclamation points, reassuring emojis, and typed-out “sorry!!!”s. Such “hedges,” as gender linguist Susan Herring calls them, are the emotional labor of digital communication.
“Already as toddlers, the idea that girls should take others’ feelings and desires into consideration before speaking or acting has formed,” Herring told me last year, when I was reporting a feature on how sexism plays out on instant-message platforms like Slack. “And for boys,” she added, “conflict isn’t just okay, it’s encouraged.” That’s why men are more likely to make declarative statements (using “boosters” like “always,” “definitely,” and “obviously”) to strengthen their assertiveness, while women often use “hedges” (words like “perhaps,” “might,” and “I think”) to soften statements into suggestions.
If you, like I do, begrudge your knee-jerk hedges, you may enjoy the Gmail Chrome plugin called Just NOT Sorry, created by Tami Reiss, Steve Brudz, Manish Kakwani, and Eric Tillberg of Def Method, a software consultancy based in New York.
Once you’ve installed Just NOT Sorry, which takes approximately 20 seconds, the plugin alerts you whenever you write minimizing words like “I’m sorry,” “I just,” or “I’m no expert” in an email, by underlining such phrases in red. When you hover over the underlined phrase, the plugin provides succinct pop-up advice as to why you should amplify, and not undermine, your message. The advice comes from experts like Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a labor economist specializing in gender, and Tara Sophia Mohr, author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. (Should you choose to keep the underlined words, they will not appear underlined when you send your email.)
I installed the plugin to check its functionality, drafting an (overly dramatic) mock-up apology email to my editor, for a report I theoretically hadn’t finished. It worked well, as demonstrated by the screenshots below:
Of course, you don’t need to be female to appreciate or benefit from this sort of advice. We’re all prone to apologize for one reason or another. As the late ad wordsmith and feminist advocate Lois Wyse famously said: “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.”
The patriarchy’s influence on women’s (and men’s) linguistic habits is centuries-strong. No Gmail plugin will topple that dynasty, but calling out the ways in which we unintentionally diminish our voices is a meaningful step forward.