I’ve lost count as to how many articles, tweets and Instagram infographics I’ve come across policing women’s tone in work emails. ‘Never say ‘just’, ‘stop saying sorry, ‘remove all sign of emojis’ – always wrapped up as advice for women wanting to be taken more seriously at work. Serious = successful, after all. As if work wasn’t exhausting enough already, we’re still being told to study everything we say (let’s face it, we do that already) and filter out the pleasantries and the personality, or the assertive and assured words, before hitting send.
For every #GirlBoss championing women to be more assertive at work, there’s always another She-E-O, or man (funnily enough), in another camp saying that women in the workplace need to appear more palatable if they want to get on in their career. Love that for us.
Hands up if you’re guilty of saying ‘no worries if not!’ a lot of the time? I know I am. Most of the time when I say or write ‘no worries if not’ it actually means ‘I’ve so many worries, I have all of the worries, please send help for the worries’. The stereotype is that women want and like to people-please at work (and in life). That we’re more approachable and pleasant, that we apologise more and often start sentences with ‘I think' when it should really be ‘I know’. We’re told this is bad. That it prevents progression and us being taken seriously. I remember in a previous workplace where a colleague was promoted to manager level and, subsequently, was told by her manager to stop adding an ‘x’ to the bottom of her emails when sending them to the person she was now line managing. Why? Because it would make her appear more professional and set boundaries between them. Why is it that the common piece of advice in these situations is often: be more man, think more man, email more (like a) man, rather than do what comes naturally and is essentially more you.
With most women already feeling underconfident, undermined and questioning everything we do in the office, we don’t need another voice in our head, or on our social media feeds, tone policing our words. By telling women to change how they speak or write in the workplace, it places the onus on the individual and demands they pull up and change when really, the issue is institutional and societal. Asking those who are experiencing male-dominated corporate culture to (once again) change their behaviour just (whoops) continues to prop up the very same social structures. When you think about it, asking women to change their tone in emails in order to be taken seriously makes absolutely no sense. Surely women should just be taken seriously. Why is emailing like a heterosexual male seen as more appropriate and the only route to professionalism and progression? The patriarchy has so much to answer for.
What we need to question is why posts and articles centred on this topic crop up time and time again and encourage women to check their language? Why do we promote tone-policing among women when men rarely do the same? Why can’t women say and do what they mean? Surely there are more important issues to be concerned with. (PSA: there is – a global pandemic causing long-lasting effects, an epidemic of male violence which needs to be taken seriously and increasing mental health issues with decreasing funds to help, to name but a few.) Of course, workplace etiquette is important, but the ideal solution would be to email as we please and see fit (admittedly within reason), peppered with exclamation marks and all the emojis if we want to because we want to.
Though, is this a case of damned if we do, damned if we don’t email like a man? Too few exclamation marks and kisses and we come across as cold and unfavourable but too many, and we veer into the too friendly zone and therefore unprofessional. The difference between writing how you want to and how you should do is considerable, and it seems to be a double standard applied to women and women only which men and their email etiquette escape. Do we really need to think this hard about what we say or how we come across in the workplace? We just want to get the job done. Perhaps men should try using more exclamation marks or a smiley emoji every now and again? God, forbid if you email like a woman, you might like it.
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