Driving Linguistic Evolution Beyond the Patriarchy
I have recently seen a tweet circulating that says, “in 2022 we’re not finishing our sentences, does that make sense anymore.” I have seen this type of idea presented in many different ways. The general message: women have too much self-doubt. We should be more confident. It’s time to stop with the self-doubt and speak with confidence. The underlying message I hear: we should speak more like men.
There is a part of this message that resonates with me–the part about taking ownership of our language and cultivating our power through language. However, as I’ve been seeing these types of messages circulate in recent years, I’ve realized that some part of it has been bothering me.
Lack of Confidence or Cultural Gaslighting?
I do feel that many women, myself included, have had and continue to struggle with self-doubt. The patriarchal world makes it easy for us to doubt ourselves. It likes for us to doubt ourselves. On top of doubt, we’re supposed to feel shame for our doubt and guilt about our lack of confidence. If we could only be more confident, like men, then we would be more successful in business and in life.
I find this to be an example of deep cultural gaslighting that perpetuates the exact problem it points out. Even the most confident among us may start to doubt our confidence if the dominant narrative tells us we lack it. Even the most self-assured among us may start to wonder if the reason we aren’t as successful as men could be an inherently flawed self-esteem rather than misogynistic structural imbalances. Can we self-care our way to the top of a patriarchal structure? I don’t really think so, or necessarily want to. Even the strongest among us may stumble from time to time in a world designed by men for men.
It’s time for us to recognize this societal gaslighting.
Perhaps we don’t need to doubt our use of language. Maybe we don’t need to dissect our forms of communicating using a male lens.
A few years ago, I worked as the executive director of a nonprofit healthcare organization. During my time there, I received an award and grant for personal and organizational capacity development and was assigned a wonderful consultant. We worked closely together for about a year.
One thing that I learned by listening and watching the way Angela communicated was how to give space in conversation. Angela would often ask, “does that make sense?” And when I was speaking, she would affirm in a similar way. Six years later, I can still hear her lovely, calming voice in my mind, “that makes so much sense.”
Confidence & Empathy Belong Together
When Angela would ask me if what she was explaining made sense, never once did I perceive self-doubt from her. What I felt was that she was intentionally building space into our conversations, space for me to reflect, ask questions, and comment. It was a way to slow the flow of the conversation and check in with me.
Her affirmations while I paused during my time speaking were also helpful–and these questions “does that make sense,” and affirmations, “that makes so much sense” balanced each other into a beautifully constructive process.
She wasn’t asking me if it made sense because she was unsure of herself. It wasn’t about her. It wasn’t a lack of confidence. She was asking to make sure that we were both in the same conversation, to see if something needed to be reworded or clarified. And if something did need to be clarified, it wouldn’t be because she wasn’t doing a good job explaining, it would be because we are humans, and we often need clarification. I began to mirror her and do the same in conversation, and I felt shifts in my work relationships.
Maybe this kind of compassionate, intentional communication is needed more–in professional and personal settings. Perhaps we shouldn’t encourage women to speak more like men. Here’s a radical idea: maybe men can take some guidance from women.
Men, does this make sense?
Now, I am all about direct communication. I facilitate practices in direct communication. There are many moments in professional and personal contexts where the most direct communication possible is exactly what is needed. So I’m not advocating against direct communication.
In my workshops, we also practice empathetic listening, asking open and honest questions, and nonviolent communication styles. Different contexts require different kinds of communication. I believe we can be direct and empathetic at the same time. That we can communicate effectively while still pausing and allowing for spaces in our conversation, giving ourselves time to process.
Who Has the Power to Create Language?
Language, just like music, fashion, design, and culture in general, evolves. How does it evolve? Who drives linguistic trends and changes? Well, who usually has most of the social power? Could it be the same dominant group who has historically had access to academia and publishing power? The majority of the power of directing and creating movies, television, radio and news media?
Of course, there are marginal or subversive drivers of cultural change as well. But in every social narrative, there are dominant voices–and then there are all the others. A global (ahem, colonial) common factor is that women’s voices have been hushed, along with many other intersecting populations.
What I propose here is that instead of condemning ourselves as women for the way we speak, perhaps we could embrace our subtle and not-so-subtle differences, and see the potential strengths within them. Perhaps, instead of modeling our professional voices after those of men, we could analyze in what ways we can drive linguistic trends.
What I suggest, is that instead of gaslighting ourselves into filing our pauses and our sensitivities into the “lack of confidence” category, we embrace these and honor the place for them within the professional context.
Interested in practicing some of these communication styles? Medusa offers 1:1 coaching and workshops for classes, organizations, and small businesses. Get in touch today for practical communication tools.
Amy Schmidt is the CEO and founder of Medusa Media Collective. She is an editor, writer and teacher. She also teaches yoga, leadership, and empowerment self-defense for women. Her goal in writing is to create connection through empathy, and her passion is working to end gender-based violence. She likes her humor dry and her fruit juicy.