Women, watch your language. That seems to be the message of a lot of articles on social media, lately. The penalty in polite society for a woman’s saying the right things in the wrong way is to be dismissed personally and professionally. (Polite society is where people don’t respond to a woman’s statements with threats of rape or murder. And any romp through social media proves that there are plenty of those threats to go around.) I’m here to advocate for a woman’s right to claim and use all of the words in the English language.
If we want to have an effective say, we women are expected to achieve that perfect balance between not sounding like a man and not sounding like a woman. And on that impossible day, our listeners will respond to our cogent arguments with legitimate debate and not “She sure is passionate about this subject.” Or, “Don’t be hysterical!” Or, “The senator sure needs to fix up her hair.”
And so there is this embarrassing proliferation of articles that purport to help us women in this quest for a balance as delicate and impossible as getting the light switch to that halfway point between on and off. While they purport to help us win friends and influence people, they really have no substance.
For example, here is the no-no du jour: Women shouldn’t say just.
I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.
No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words.
It’s not a huge deal, is it? But language shapes consciousness, and if women are the only ones softening their language or self sabotaging their own credibility—even inadvertently, only to be “nice”—it’s still reinforcing that it’s a woman trait to be nice.
What about strong language? Conventional wisdom holds that women aren’t supposed to curse, even in situations where it’s fine for men to do so. I mean, people haven’t even decided whether we should say just, let alone drop the f-bomb. Here’s an article in the Telegraph from November 2014:
Only months ago, the gloriously outspoken actress Helen Mirren caused a stir by having the temerity to celebrate her age (68) as being “f[ucking] awesome” at Glamour’s Women of the Year Awards. Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts was outraged at the Dame “blurt[ing] out filth like an uneducated trollop.”
Yet when Bill Nighy effed and blinded his way through the press circus for his 2013 film, About Time, Esquire magazine were so taken with it that they inserted his advice on how to curse into the opening paragraph of their interview.
Here’s another one, this one from CNN: “We always take notice of what’s unexpected and women are still not expected to curse, so when they do, it’s noticed more.”
What’s so great about using strong language? Well, lots of things, apparently. Enough that we women don’t need to go around being distracted by the word just. To begin with, this BBC article :
The f-word turns out to be one of the ingredients in the magic formula sought by scientists studying how to automatically rank the credibility of individual messages. At times of stressful events, such as a plane crash or natural disaster, swear words tend to suggest a message comes from someone in the middle of it all.
This makes sense. Historically, excited utterances have been given so much credence that courts have made them exceptions to the hearsay rule. A 2017 study forthcoming in Journal of Psychological and Personality Science supports the wisdom of that. “The consistent findings across the studies suggest that the positive relation between profanity and honesty is robust,” Gilad Feldman from the Department of Work and Psychology in Maastricht University.
And swearing literally makes us feel better. Back in 2009, Scientific American had an article about cursing and pain relief: “For the first time, psychologists have found that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain.” In response to the Scientific American article, the MythBusters did an experiment, and they, too, found that swearing increases pain tolerance.
Pained participants’ time trials showed that spewing expletives indeed increases suffering stamina by an average of 30 percent. But though the confirmed myth — and a catalog of curse words — might help people bear pain better, folks should take care not to offend anyone’s ears in the process.
Why am I talking about the f-bomb and the word just? Maybe you’re a woman who’s just written about how she was trapped in a cave-in at the Big Four Ice Caves. Maybe you wrote a blog post about how you and your fellow journalists were ejected from the North Carolina State Legislative Building. Maybe you’re marching in a demonstration and someone starts shooting. Do you tweet the f-bomb?
There is a lot of virtual ink dedicated to how we women should or shouldn’t talk, and what kind of language we can and can’t use. We can debate all day and all night if and when it’s okay to use strong language, but it’s clear that in specific situations, strong language confers credibility and authority. What’s more, it may increase our resistance to pain. So maybe the right to use strong language isn’t something to give up in the name of femininity.
No, I’m not saying that Supreme Court justices need to start slinging the f-bomb from the bench, but if a Supreme Court justice is in their chambers, and drops 600 F.3d on their foot, and they shout an expletive, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg should each elicit the same reaction. After all, people don’t recite sonnets when they hit their thumbs with a hammer.
On the other hand, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), dropped the f-bomb on the heels of the Comey Hearings on June 9, 2017:
“If we are not helping people, we should go the f[uck] home,” the Democrat declared in a speech to activists.
“And that should be our North Star,” she added. “That should be our framing principle of what we are doing in public service.”
The way we use language is a reflection of culture. So is the way we respond to it. Sometimes we decide to change culture, and we use language to change it. As women, we say what we want to say. As people, if we catch ourselves disapproving of the way someone talks or what they say just because the speaker or writer is a female, we catch ourselves. And we speak our minds. We just speak our minds.
 Ellen Petry Leanse, “Google and Apple alum says using this one word can damage your credibility,” Business Insider, June 25, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/former-google-exec-says-this-word-can-damage-your-credibility-2015-6
 Debbie Cameron, language: a feminist blog (blog), “Just Don’t Do It,” July 5, 2015. https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/just-dont-do-it/
 Tracy Moore, “Google Exec: Women, Stop Saying ‘Just’ So Much, You Sound Like Children,” Jezebel, July 2, 2015.
 Alice Vincent, “Why the f*** shouldn’t women swear?” The Telegraph, November 4, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11207309/Why-the-f-shouldnt-women-swear-Lena-Dunham-nails-it.html
 Emanuella Grinberg, “Women, swearing and the workplace,” CNN, September 12, 2011.
 Alfred Hermida, “What makes a tweet believable?” BBC News Magazine, July 7, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33365782
 The year of the article is not a typo. This blog post is current as of January 19, 2017. Tod Perry, “Research Shows That People Who Use Profanity Are More Honest Than Those Who Don’t.” The Daily Good, January 16, 2017.
 Frederik Joelving, “Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief,” Scientific American, July 12, 2009. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-swear/)
 “Swearing/Pain,” Discovery.com website, accessed July 7, 2015. [This link is no longer available.]
 Well, that’s not entirely true. This blog post was updated on January 19, 2017, so at the time of this writing Justice Scalia has been dead for almost a year. If he’s shouting anything from anywhere, then the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.