Here are a few items for your delectation:
- Beware of machines!
Barbara McMahon, a reporter for the London Times, writes to ask my opinion of “a new app that encourages women to stop writing the words SORRY and JUST in their emails. “
Well. Where to begin?
First of all: it seems as if it’s not enough that, over many millennia, men have been telling women how (and especially how not to) talk, and so have women. Now there’s an app — which means that now MACHINES can tell women how to (and how not to) talk. Clearly this is progress.
There seems to me to be so much wrong with this whole idea that I hardly know where to begin. But for starters:
How come nobody has an app for telling men how to talk or not to talk? Because they wouldn’t be interested, that’s why. But you can always embarrass or guilt a woman, and this app is just the latest way to embarrass women about how they talk.
I know that the developers of the app would say, in all sincerity, that they were trying to help women by telling us how to talk, and since language is what makes us human, how to be more human or at least better humans — just as people, male and female, have always been wanting to improve women by telling us how (not) to dress, walk, smile, think, be sexy, be intelligent, and so on and so on…. But these helpful hints never make anyone a better speaker (or anything else): their effect is to make women less articulate (etc.) because they suppress our spontaneity and make us embarrassed about whatever we do. We are damned if we do (too weak) and damned if we don’t (too strong).
In short, telling women how to talk is about discouraging women from using their voices. That is about the last thing we need.
Moreover: It is folly to think that any word (including “sorry” and “just”) has one and only one meaning or function. That is the assumption made by those who would tell women never to use those words, or any words. Whether a word is rightly or wrongly used is a function of the context (linguistic, psychological, social) in which it is used. There are times when “just” or “sorry” is inappropriate; there are times when it is le mot juste (or just). Only the speaker in the discourse knows which it is in that discourse. One size fits all is not a sophisticated way to understand language.
And more moreover: Using words like these (pragmatic particles/discourse markers/ hedges) is very often the very best thing a speaker can do. These words (there are a great many) have, among their wide range of use, the ability to soften what a speaker is saying so as to make it easier for a hearer to hear, understand, and respond to — a way to make difficult utterances more comfortable and make everyone feel better and get along better. This is what members of a social species like ours most need to know how to do, and it is something women are more likely to do well than men. One way women do it well is to employ these words, denigrated as “weak” or “empty.” But they are not. They are the best things we’ve got, and the fact that so many people (and machines) are delighted to dump on them and their users illustrates the extent of misogyny and the damage it does.
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