According to women's psychology professor Dr. Lucy Thompson, we live in a culture where certainty is highly valued.
Thompson points to social media sites, like Twitter or Facebook, where people are constantly offering opinions and angles on different issues.
Always being able to confidently and categorically make a point, Thompson said, is something that can be culturally celebrated. So, when we are unable to do so, it provokes an adverse reaction.
Tentative speech is a way of speaking that avoids taking a firm stance. There are four different forms in which this can manifest:
“Hedging” is the use of phrases like “sort of” to detract from a statement.
“Hesitation” is the overuse of “um” and “like”, which stalls speech.
“Intensifiers” are a form of attempted emphasis, using “very” or “truly." This perceived need to emphasize implies that the speaker feels insecure or like they need to overcompensate, before they even begin speaking.
“Tag questions” open up a statement, offering another to respond or typically disagree, by using phrases such as “right?” or “I might be wrong, but.”
Thompson says the issue arises when women demonstrate these forms of speech – it can undermine their position, leading them to be perceived as less competent or unconfident.
But the issue is not that women use this kind of speech more than men – because this isn’t necessarily true.
A study by Campbell Leaper and Rachel Robnett tests the claim that women use tentative speech more than men. Their findings concluded that women are “somewhat more likely” to speak this way, with an effect size of d=.23, a generally small size.
Greater use of tentative speech, they concluded, more so reflects “interpersonal sensitivity” than it does a “lack of assertiveness.”
Yet, discourse surrounds why women should take the exclamation points out of their emails and learn to be more assertive. But this way of communicating may not be for a lack of confidence or power, Thompson said, but possibly that women’s tentative speech is simply flagged more than men’s.
Women do communicate tentatively in emails, Thompson said, but studies also confirm the converse: Men also use tentative speech in email settings in which they are not viewed as being the expert or in a position of power.
“What this does is essentially lead us to question the idea that it's a simple relationship between women's subordination and men's dominance,” Thompson said.
In the professional world, the perception of women’s speech can result in hindrances and fewer opportunities.
“The way the women respond to questions is more highly scrutinized than the way that men do,” Thompson said. “We see that in relation to politics … Women, politicians and the way they speak, and answer questions is often scrutinized way more heavily than our men would answer.”
Women and leadership expert Michelle Kaminski said that it’s usually not a problem with what a woman says, but rather, a problem with how we perceive women within our society.
“Women who are too assertive are seen as not feminine enough and rejected for those reasons,” Kaminski said. “And if they're not assertive, then they're not seen as a good leader. So, there's always this fine line that women have to walk, and nobody really knows exactly what the right thing to do is.”
Kaminski typically sees more tentative speech amongst the younger generation of women.
Thompson said this might occur because from a young age, girls are taught to be sensitive to their interpersonal relationships with others.
“Women can use language that's more inclusive and welcoming to people and that's a good thing,” Kaminski said. “But not being clear and firm about their ideas can mean that they don't get credit for things and that they get passed over.”
Kaminski said it’s not fair to ask women to add the burden of removing any tentativeness from their speech at all times. What we can do, she said, is train ourselves to be more respectful and open to good ideas and leadership, wherever or whoever that may come from.
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