Is your language holding you back?

A few years ago, I was coaching a senior Banker in creative thinking.  I had some music on my laptop and turned my back on him to switch the sound off. Before doing so, I said ‘sorry’, at which point he asked, “Why are you saying ‘sorry’?”

“Because it’s rude not to, when you’re turning your back on someone,” I replied,

“But you didn’t do anything wrong. Say ‘excuse me’. Why apologise?”

I nodded in agreement whilst pondering on his pedantic nature.

Firstly, he was in Banking, which has a very specific culture. Secondly as a South African male in Banking he was even more direct than many of the people I know in the same sector in the UK. When I was thinking ‘excuse me’, he heard ‘grovel, grovel, please forgive me.’


The Language Trap

Knowing how our language is interpreted in ways that we hadn’t intended was the subject of a study by Dr. Judith Baxter, Senior Lecturer of Applied Linguistics at Aston University.

She observed and recorded board meetings in 7 FTSE 500 businesses and analysed how women who have reached the top communicate and interact with their colleagues.

What she discovered is a key skill that women need to learn if they are to survive and be successful at the top. However, it’s not only women. I’ve sat in on a few meetings where men have also fallen into the same verbal trap.

The trap, as Dr. Baxter defines it, is called ‘double-voiced discourse’ (DvD). Women tend to use this more when they’re in a meeting dominated by men, mainly at a more senior level.

DvD is a type of linguistic second guessing, where possible negative reactions to colleagues are dealt with by using pre-emptive self put-downs. The message the listener gets is that of insecurity.

For example, Dr. Baxter noted that in one example a senior woman said, ‘I realise I’m talking too much, I better shut up’. She had only spoken twice in the board meeting.

Some examples of double-voiced discourse taken from the data are as follows:

  • To pre-empt criticism about a new policy, a senior woman to her team:
    ‘I know what’s going through your minds, so let me just say what I think first…’
  • In case she didn’t hear an important point in the discussion:
    ‘Correct me if I have missed something here, but it seems to me that…’
  • To soften a forceful statement if a senior women feels she is seen as threatening:
    ‘At the risk of sounding assertive, I just think…..’
  • To heighten authority if a woman feels she is not being taken seriously:
    ‘OK, guys, give me a break, you’re not listening to my point…’

I’ve found that one has to also be careful with the use of words such as ‘actually’ as in:

‘Actually, I have something to add to this’

Some may interpret that as:

‘Ooh, what a surprise! I can, in fact, add to this point!’

There’s also ‘just’ as in:

‘I just need to ask you whether we’re meeting tomorrow’

That sentence with the word ‘just’ and either softens it or can come across as almost apologetic.

‘So sorry to take up your time but can I ask, er…is it OK…to know what time we’re meeting tomorrow.’

This self-deprecating language can express a charming humility. On the other hand, there are certain national cultures and working contexts in which such forms of expression can hold you back.

(By the way, thanks to Kim Catcheside from Champollion for passing me her press release from Dr Baxter’s research.)

What specific language do YOU observe puts the speaker down?


  • Ana says:

    Very interesting points – why do we do it though? It seems to me that we live in a ‘apologetic’ culture where everyone says sorry before anything else. And that’s how we bring up our children – how many times do I say to my little ones ‘say sorry’ as opposed to working with them on how to be assertive? Food for thought.

    • Alison says:

      I agree! We do live in an apologetic culture, Ana. If you read ‘Watching the English’ by the social anthropologist, Kate Fox, she actually counts how many times we apologise. I can’t remember the figure exactly but it was inordinate! Don’t you think also that saying ‘excuse me’, instead of ‘sorry’ may be more assertive and just as polite? ‘Sorry’ can sound needlessly submissive!

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