The one word that undermines women at work

"Just wondering." “Just checking in." "Can I just..." We all do it. And we should all just stop, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Can I just say something? If you could just give me two seconds of your time. I’ll just be really quick about it. We need to stop saying a particular word. We just need to stop saying “just”. “Just” makes us sound apologetic. It makes us sound uncertain of the other person’s attention. It makes us sound like a child. Sorry. I just wanted to get that out of my system. It just had to be mentioned. Oops. Just saying.

See what I mean? Using “just” is understandable and an everyday habit: in some ways it’s an expression of kindness, of softening the blow. But, says one reformed “just” user, it’s also the self-effacing poison that creeps into so much female language without us realising it, especially at work.

This four-letter word is holding women back, according to entrepreneur Ellen Leanse, who has worked as a tech strategist for Apple and Google. She first noticed it when she moved from Google to another company which had a high ratio of female to male employees. When she started to work with more women, she noticed how often she received requests and information peppered with the word “just”: “I just wanted to check in on...” “Just wondering if you’d decided...” “Just following up on...” 

Her male colleagues never bothered with “just”. They checked on things and they followed up on them but they did it assertively and confidently because, well, their job was to check on things and follow up on them, so why should they couch it with the sensitivity that “just” implies? Leanse argues that “just” is a subtle message of subordination: “It puts the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control.” 

We’re not deliberately being doormats. We’re “just” being nice. And God knows, we need room for a bit more nice in this world

Best-selling coach Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, an amazing bible about how to express yourself more confidently at work, has long been an enemy of “just”, especially in emails. “Drop the ‘just’,” she says, “‘I’m just wondering...’ ‘I just think...’ ‘I just want to add...’ ‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the justs.”

She also advises against using “actually” (a redundant word which “communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say”) and against putting apologetic time scales on your ideas: “I’d like to ask you to just take a minute...” “I’m just going to take a few minutes to tell you...” By asking for permission, you’re implying that you don’t expect to be listened to in the first place. You don’t need to ask for permission. Assume you have people’s attention.

Of course, every one of us says and does these things from a place of kindness and politeness. We’re not deliberately being doormats. We’re “just” being nice. And God knows, we need room for a bit more nice in this world. But there is a very fine line between helpfully upbeat and time-wastingly self-deprecating. 

All these verbal tics make us cross that line unintentionally into a territory where we’re always couching an idea with a caveat, assuming that no one will pay attention or thanking people in advance for even bothering to listen. Why would you do that? It immediately puts you on the back foot. Notice these stray words and try to stamp them out, says Leanse. Delete “actually” from your emails. But most of all, watch your J count. It just takes a few minutes every day. Oops, sorry. Just do it. D’oh. As you can see I’m only just figuring it out myself...

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women at work

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