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Hi! I know you're really busy and I'm *so* sorry for bothering you….This is probably a dumb question…I think you might want to consider…if you get a moment, would you mind…maybe I missed something but…Does this make sense? Sorry again…(smiley emoji)…
How often have you incorporated these phrases into your professional emails and conversations – phrases filled with soft language, self-deprecation, qualifiers and emojis?
I'm Lanna Crucefix, the communications manager at The Globe and Mail, and I'm fascinated with how we use language to get what we want while creating and maintaining relationships, particularly at work.
With overt instances of sexist language thankfully, if slowly, decreasing, we're turning our attention to how people communicate, and what that means for they are perceived. There's plenty of research and anecdotal evidence demonstrating that men and women have different communication styles. While this naturally doesn't apply to all men or all women, and has cultural, class and status nuances, I've found that Canadian women tend to use more team-based, upbeat and inquisitive phrases, rather than declarative language. Think: "Would you mind completing the report by 5 p.m.?" as opposed to "Get me the report by 5 p.m."
A report by the Harvard Business Review is depressingly clear on the negative impact of such soft language in the workplace. Published though it was in 1995, the report's findings strike a familiar theme: Women today still see their louder, more assertive co-workers collect accolades and have their ideas more accepted in meetings. As Leah Eichler put it, it's rewarding "I" talk over "we" talk.
I use soft language and a shocking number of exclamation marks, much in the way a baker applies a crumb layer when icing a desert. In my role, a priority for me is not necessarily one for the person I'm contacting. My request is another speck on their already-overloaded work cake, and I like to think acknowledging that sets the stage for a smoother work interaction.
The question is – does it? Or am I coming across as less assertive than I should be and devaluing my contributions? Language is a dance where words, body language and context create a much larger experience than what comes out of your mouth or from your pen. We know, for example, that "okay" is not simply okay. Do you have different reactions when a teammate replies to your suggestion with [thumbs up emoji] Okay!, ok, or k? I do.
Then I saw an article in Quartz which discussed why women should reduce their emoji use, noting that "emoji and exclamation points are the emotional labour of digital communication." The writer was empowered when she embraced more direct and confident interactions. Interesting, I thought. I'll try it.
My experiment lasted less than a day and was extraordinarily uncomfortable. I felt dismissive and rude, although no one commented on my new assertive language or changed how they related with me. I tried again the next day, simply removing exclamation marks. They were back by the end of the week.
Still, I persisted and had some wins. I stopped ending every email with a cheery "Thanks!," even when I was the one providing the work. I stopped prefacing comments with, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but…". While I was still fine with admitting that I could have misunderstood an instruction, any language that hinted at "I'm an idiot for not getting it" had to go, and did.
That's when I realized that no one seemed to notice. They nodded and went on with their days. The language I used was for me, as my own personal comfort zone. The important thing was that I was honest and clear, and that didn't change.
Just observing my behaviour was a useful exercise – one that I'd encourage you to try on Monday. How did you end that email? Say your point in a meeting? Deal with that co-worker issue? It might have been perfect … or you might want to try the same soft language detox and see if anything changes for you.
Neither style is inherently better than the other. Where we fail is when we assume that the feminine version, and those who follow it, are implicitly more tentative, less confident and inferior as a worker or person.
I do my best to remember that communication is a two-way street with lots of detours. As long as we all manage to get to the end, I'm not going to worry if the path I take is different than yours, theirs or his.
What else we're reading:
When I began walking into rooms and wondering why the hell I was there, I chalked it up to aging. Trouble concentrating on reading anything longer than a tweet and an inability to remember words had me rushing to Dr. Internet. Then I found Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by podcast host Manoush Zomorodi. The book, which includes exercises and challenges, forced me to realize that I, through my dependence on my phone, might be the cause of my own problems. According to Zomorodi, devices allow us to enter a constant state of mental distraction, our minds zooming around like hummingbirds – always in motion and never landing. And it's not just scrolling: A quick calculation showed my addiction to podcasts resulted in 60 hours of lost daydreaming time in the last month alone. I've now put hard limits on how much I use my phone, leaving it in my bag and returning to an analog bullet journal for my lists. It's been hard, but by giving my mind space to wander, I do feel calmer and more creative. – LC
Computer science and data visualization may sound unapproachable to many, but that's exactly the problem, says University of Calgary professor Sheelagh Carpendale. "A democratic society really relies on an informed society," she says. "If decisions are being made on data, and we are illiterate, we run the risk of not having an informed society anymore."
Data literacy is the focus of Carpendale's research. She's both an artist and a computer scientist, and she uses the intersection of these fields to make complex data more accessible. Last year, for example, her lab InnoVis worked with the National Energy Board to help people understand Canada's energy and pipeline systems. The team used government data to create an interactive feature of charts and graphs illustrating how energy is used in different regions, across different sectors and more. She wants to use data visualization like this to empower people to make more informed decisions.
Carpendale is one of the top scholars in the male-dominated field of computer science. Her research group, though, has a higher percentage of female team members. Women, she's observed, seem more likely to apply their technical expertise to something they think will benefit society.
Still, being one of few women in the larger sphere of computer science can be tough. And while Carpendale thinks it generally gets more difficult for women as they move up in an organization, she says that doesn't mean it's impossible to do so. She encourages women to find energy in their passion and to look for colleagues they admire. "Look around for the people doing the work you find fascinating and talk to them. Figure out how they did it." – Kiran Rana
Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you'll amplify it by passing it on. And if there's a woman you think our readers should know about, tell us about her. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.