How we use language to undermine ourselves

I remember a while ago reading about using the word ‘just’ in work emails, and that it can make us come across as less competent. I thought about the emails I sent at work and realised… I always use ‘just’. Here are some phrases that come up a lot in my sent mail folder:

“Just to let you know…”

“I was just thinking…”

“Just my thoughts on the subject!”

“Let me know if that doesn’t make sense”

“Just checking in to see…”

“Sorry, can I ask…”

Before reading up (/listening to podcasts) about the language we use and particularly how women communicate in the workplace, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the way I communicate at work, but now I’m realising what an effect it has, not only to the people we’re communicating with, but to ourselves.

Apologising when there’s no need, using ‘just’ (which can be seen as apologetic) and insinuating that what you’ve said may not make sense is… basically a subtle way of saying to whoever’s reading the email, and to yourself, that you need to apologise for having a voice and that what you’re saying probably doesn’t make sense anyway because you’re incompetent.

Hmm. Not cool guys.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, while men do use these language patterns to, statistically they’re used more by women.

Why do we undermine ourselves?

So, why do we do it? There are probably a whole host of reasons, including learnt behaviour from those around us, but what resonated with me the most when researching is this idea that we’re trying to soften ourselves and to be likeable.

We worry that if we remove the ‘justs’, the ‘actuallys’ and the ‘sorrys’ we’ll be seen as a cold, harsh bitch. I know for a fact this is why I do it.

How can we stop undermining ourselves?

Is it as simple as saying to ourselves, “stop worrying about what other people think and get rid of all the softening?” I don’t think so. I think it’s more a case of tweaking so that we reduce the undermining phrases while remaining positive and warm.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the person to email my team:

“Send me your agenda for this week.”

It’s just not how I roll. But equally, if I were to send this:

“Just a quick one, when do you think you’ll have time to send over your plan for the week?”

It leaves me looking wobbly, unsure and that what I’m asking for is unnecessary. There is a middle ground though.

“Hi all, Let’s get together at 10 and go through your agendas for the week and set some priorities.”

I’m still being friendly, polite – but I’m communicating my needs and intentions in a confident way. In my eyes there can still be room for friendliness and manners, it’s just helpful to recognise where and when we may be undermining ourselves and looking at how we can remove this in a way that we feel comfortable with.

It’s about confidence and self-belief, not rudeness.

Here are some things to try if you recognise any of the undermining language:

First, listen to this brilliant Hashtag Authentic podcast episode which explores the subject in more detail, then try the following:

  • Ask yourself what phrases/words you use that could be undermining yourself.
  • Pick one (just one to start) and actively try to remove this from your emails.
  • If you feel uncomfortable, find a way of remaining friendly and warm without using this language (include non-work conversation, include friendly greetings/sign-offs like: ‘looking forward to hearing your thoughts’, inject some humour).
  • Move onto removing this word/phrase from real-life conversation too (a little harder as we can’t edit speech!)
  • When comfortable, start the process again and notice any other language you could work on.

I’m desperate to read ‘Playing big’ by Tara Mohr as she goes into this in much more detail! But essentially a lot of why we ‘play small’ at work is down to low self-belief and trying to come across as humble and likeable. Which is totally understandable, sadly it’s something a lot of women grow up with.

But we can work on it. We can build up our self-belief, we can let go of our reliance on other people’s approval. We can learn to believe in our abilities and stop undermining ourselves without losing our values and morals. It just takes a little work and self-awareness.

Are there any undermining words/phrases you recognise here?

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